It’s the InnovAction Awards, Charlie Brown

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This is an article I wrote for the February 2009 edition of the ABA’s Law Practice Today e-zine about innovation in the practice of law and the College of Law Practice Management’s InnovAction Awards, which I’m very happy to be chairing this year. The awards are now open and are accepting applications starting next week. Thanks to the ABA for promoting the Awards and for providing permission to reproduce this article.

In early December, I happened to catch a CBC Radio program about the making of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the holiday special first broadcast in 1965 and now considered a classic of the season. It struck me that the origins of the special, also touched upon in its Wikipedia entry, have something important to say to lawyers nearly 45 years later.

Charles Schulz and Bill Melendez had been looking to do an animated Peanuts program for TV, but couldn’t find a willing sponsor. Finally, Coca-Cola stepped forward to bankroll a Christmas special, but gave Melendez less money and less time to do it than they needed to get it right. Working rapidly under tight financial conditions, they put together A Charlie Brown Christmas in a matter of months and brought it to CBS executives. The execs were, in a word, horrified.

It wasn’t just the choppy nature of some scenes and obvious glitches (the first version featured Linus apparently flying through the air) that left the executives aghast, though. It was the fact that the special broke almost every rule in the TV book:

  • Almost all the characters were voiced by child actors rather than professionals, as was the standard practice at the time (Schulz and Melendez simply couldn’t afford grown-ups).
  • The jazz soundtrack supplied by Vince Guaraldi was unheard of – everyone knew that Christmas TV specials required sugary jingles and pop versions of classic carols.
  • “Did that kid just quote from the Bible?” Even in 1965, network suits were nervous about Bible readings on air.
  • But worst of all – by far – the special had no laugh track.  Audiences needed to be told when to laugh, and that was that.  (A laugh track version was created, but never aired and no longer exists).

The executives rejected A Charlie Brown Christmas.  Melendez, undeterred, sought out the president of the network, only to be told he had just left Los Angeles on a flight to New York. Melendez booked himself on the very next flight, flew across the country, tracked the president down and literally pleaded with him to run the special. Eventually, the network president gave in, but muttered that he was going to have to pre-empt an episode of The Munsters to put the special on the air.

You probably know the rest. A Charlie Brown Christmas aired on December 9, 1965, and was watched by almost half of the households in the United States.  The response from both the public and TV critics was universally, overwhelmingly positive. What’s most remarkable is that all the things the network executives hated about the special – the child actors, the jazz soundtrack, the Bible reading, the absence of a laugh track – were exactly the things viewers loved the most.

This is a classic, almost archetypal story about innovation.

  • It starts with a vision to do something different – not just to be different or novel, but to do it really well, better than it’s been done before.
  • The visioneers are short on resources, both time and money, and the finished product isn’t exactly what its creators hoped or planned it would be.
  • Nonetheless, the finished product still meets fierce resistance – not for its quality per se, but because it shatters the accepted rules by which these sorts of things have always been done.
  • Rejection is immediate, but the quest doesn’t end there: the innovators are persistent, relentless even, in pursuit of their vision, and they keep at it till it pays off.

I find it hard to believe that the legal profession in 2009 could be any more conservative, risk-averse or fearful of change than was the television industry in 1965. If a timeless success story like A Charlie Brown Christmas can emerge from that era and that context, lawyers should have every confidence that they can create similar innovations within the practice of law today.

We’re seeing examples of this everywhere: law firms that boast their rejection of the billable hour, evaluate and compensate their lawyers with sophisticated performance metrics, automate or outsource the most basic legal services and pass the savings on to clients, package their services into online programs their clients can access 24/7, gain employees, clients and publicity through social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Legal OnRamp, and so much more. Few people realize it, but we’re at the forefront of a golden age of innovation in the legal profession.

Some lawyers will shy away from innovation because of the recession. They’ll say this is no time for grand schemes or big ideas; better to burrow in, hunker down and keep doing what we’ve always been doing, only less of it. In fact, that’s a recipe for irrelevance and, in times like these, potential disaster: business as usual is part of what got us into this mess in the first place. Innovation takes courage, especially in tough times, but it pays off.

The rewards of innovation are well-known: first-mover advantage, increased market share and awareness, an enhanced reputation for creativity, and the ability to attract other like-minded innovators to your camp. But there are other rewards too: the recognition of your peers, publicity throughout the profession as a leading light with courage to spare. That’s where the College of Law Practice Management comes in.

The College is revving up for the 2009 InnovAction Awards. These awards, bestowed by an international panel of judges drawn from the ranks of the College’s renowned Fellows, pay tribute to law firms and legal departments that have implemented innovations in law practice, client service, law firm management and a host of other areas. These innovations create something that’s never been done before, or never been done quite this well before. And they help advance the law down the road towards becoming a truly innovative profession.

Past winners of an InnovAction Award range from giant firms like DLA Piper and Pillsbury Winthrop to smaller firms like Raskin Peter Rubin & Simon and the Law Chambers of Nicholas Critelli to worldwide firms like Wragge & Co. and Malleson Stephen Jacques. Your firm or department could be next.

Visit the InnovAction Award home page and download an entry form – you can nominate your own firm or someone else’s.  Tell us about your firm’s contribution to the wave of innovation sweeping the law.  Step up now, and get the recognition you deserve for being one of the legal profession’s premier innovators.

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