Why the 2010 InnovAction Awards matter

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When the College of Law Practice Management launched the InnovAction Awards in 2004, Western economies had just climbed out of a tough recession (and were busily laying the foundations for a much uglier one) and law firms were starting a run of several years of unprecedented growth and profit. It was a time when the profession’s desire not to rock its revenue boat was stronger than ever; but the College perceived (correctly) that innovation had also never been more important to the legal marketplace, and it wanted to recognize those firms that could demonstrate their commitment to doing things differently and better.

Today, in 2010, innovation in the provision of legal services is breaking out all over. I won’t even try to list all the innovations and inventions emerging from outside the profession — from LPOs to e-discovery software to online legal information to collaborative social networks — that have helped drive this change. But even within the profession, a quick review of reports just in the last month shows us that:

* AmLaw 20 firm WilmerHale announced plans to move its back-office functions to the Dayton, Ohio, area, employing nearly 190 people in tech and billing support, conflict checks, data entry, finance and human resources. Current WilmerHale employees in these sectors will have the “opportunity to relocate.” The firm wants to consolidate services, reduce costs and increase ease of access (and an incentive package didn’t hurt, either).

* Major firms like Dechert LLP and Duane Morris are embracing project management and all the benefits it can supply, including greater efficiency, more accurate pictures of profitability, and better communication with clients. Taking advantage of training programs and years of financial data on previously billed work, these firms intend to use project maangement to compete effectively for fixed-fee work.

* Global giant Clifford Chance is overhauling its associate bonus system, taking the once-unthinkable step of reducing the role of hours billed in that calculation. More important considerations for bonus payouts will now include overall achievement, effort, business and technical skills, client satisfaction, teamwork and community work.

* It’s not all big-firm news. A new small firm in Bristol, England, intends to practise law with no staff and no paper. Temple Bright LLP is using online providers for as many functions as possible and passing on the efficiency savings to its commercial clients. One of the founding partners puts it simply: “Our model for the modern legal firm is to strip out many of the overheads which make traditional practices expensive.”

* A lawyer and an ADR provider have jointly created what they’re calling a “litigation prenup” — a model contractual agreement that companies can use to limit litigation costs. It includes a mandatory prelitigation dispute resolution section (executives must negotiate directly with each other) and  limits on discovery, including interrogatories and requests for production of documents.

* And finally, Legal OnRamp, the leading online collaboration site for lawyers and in-house counsel, received an increased investment from founding investor Orrick, which itself is one of the most innovative large firms around. The announcement contained phrases, such as “collaborative resources,” “enhanced efficiency in the legal service model,” and “the transformation of the law firm-client relationship,” that will only become more common.

Keep in mind that none of these reports are about things that might happen, or that would be nice to see come about, or that constitute someday-blue-sky thinking: they’re happening right now, and they represent the serious commitment of a lot of time, money and resources by some smart, successful people in the legal profession. We’ve moved from talking about innovation to chronicling its actual on-the-ground implementation, and that’s a remarkable sea change to have taken place in just six years.

So as the 2010 InnovAction Awards launch, it’s my opinion, as the Awards’ chair, that they’ve never mattered more than they do this year. Call it a critical  mass, a tipping point or a watershed, the reality is that we’re at the threshold of a major and permanent shift in law firms’ approach to the legal services marketplace. The default setting, which has been “status quo” for a long time, is switching to one that welcomes opportunities, rewards efficiencies and rethinks traditional ways of going about our work. We need to pile into that default setting with enough weight and force to drive it over that threshold point. Before you know it, we’ll be in a legal services marketplace where even lawyers are glad to seize opportunities that can enhance their responsiveness and competitive position.

The details of the InnovAction Awards are laid out in this post at Slaw and in another one at LinkedIn’s Legal Innovations Group. The Awards, which have been given to small firms, global giants and non-firm entities in five countries on four continents, can cover everything from legal service delivery to legal marketing, from technological systems to client communication, and from law firm management to access to justice. The criteria are simple:

1. Absence of precedent (The innovation must have never been done, or done quite this way, before)
2. Evidence of action (An innovative idea was transformed into action, and not merely reflective of best intentions.)
3. Effectiveness of innovation (There is some measurable outcome that indicates the innovation is accomplishing what it was intended to do.)
4. Recent implementation (Action must have taken place within no more than three years prior to this entry)

Last year, the College instituted an Honourable Mention category for innovations that, while they might not be completely original, were executed or delivered in a unique way or to an unprecedented degree. So even if your innovation wasn’t the very first to appear, the way in which you did it might very well meet the Honourable Mention criteria. The entry fee for each submitted innovation is $US325. Complete details of the Awards, including the entry form, FAQs, the benefits of winning and a list of past winners, is available at the InnovAction home page.

Innovation in the law is an unqualified good thing, and if your firm or service provider has been encouraging and implementing it recently, now’s your chance to get the credit you deserve. If you have any questions or would like more information about the Awards, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line.

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