The innovation arms race

Head over to the College of Law Practice Management’s blog at your earliest opportunity and check out the rolling list of entrants for this year’s Innovaction Awards now being posted. As is the case every year, law firms around the world (and for the first time, an in-house law department) have submitted accounts of their innovations in client service, knowledge management, value billing, legal technology, pro bono, talent management and a host of other critical aspects of legal services crying out for improvement. The decision of the judging panel, of which I’m a member, will be announced soon.

There’s a longstanding belief that lawyers can’t or won’t innovate when it comes to how they manage their businesses, deliver their services, and relate to their clients. And it’s true that law firm culture has historically been inimical to innovation in legal services delivery. Law has been almost the only industry where a challenge to the standard operating procedure was considered bad for business, not just by rival firms, but also within your own organization. The status quo might leave your client dissatisfied and you unhappy, but the way we’ve always done things has kept us in business (and a lot of us in Mercedes), so don’t mess with it.

But what I’ve seen and heard in this profession the last few years has convinced me that this belief is wrong, on two points. First, lawyers themselves, given encouragement and room to experiment, can be really innovative in process, delivery and relationship. Innovation is, after all, the outcome of creativity and competitiveness — two of lawyers’ natural strengths — harnessed towards engineering a better process, accomplishing a more valuable result, and achieving the sheer thrill of being better at something than anyone else. As Bruce MacEwen reminds us, innovation is about never being satisfied with how we did it last time.

Secondly, the defensive circle around the status quo is weakening in law firms — badly, in some. The complacency that helps form the foundation of typical law firm culture, and works to block lawyers’ inclination to innovate, is being eroded by massive shifts in the legal marketplace. “Staying the course” just isn’t posting the kinds of gains it used to — it’s a thin portfolio with little to support it beyond successful results from a far less demanding era than this one. Today, it’s a foolish investment, and lawyers are finally starting to openly acknowledge that.

That’s really why I think we’re at a watershed time for innovation in the practice of law — it’s finally becoming a serious item on law firms’ agendas. If you doubt it, go read the Innovaction entries. They demonstrate that there’s a whole new arms race taking shape in the law — an innovation race — and that if you’re not at one of these innovative law firms, they’re already ahead of you.

Update 7/22: The winners have been announced! Congratulations to our three 2008 Innovaction Award recipients:

Mallesons Stephen Jaques
Sydney, Australia,
Innovation:  PeopleFinder

PeopleFinder is an internally developed web 2.0 application that introduces reliable, accurate and rich presence to the firm’s intranet directory and BlackBerries.  It has resulted each month in over 10,000 more calls into the firm being answered by a person rather than voice mail.

Novus Law LLC
Chicago, IL
Innovation:  Documenting the E-discovery process from collection to production

Novus Law created a system that documents the 864 step e-discovery process from collection to distribution.  Utilizing a globally recognized quality management method, the system captures and documents in order to measure and improve quality; manage and predict schedules and significantly reduce costs.

Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP
Washington, DC
Innovation:  ValueChain

ValueChain is a novel method of visually displaying clients’ objectives, capabilities, opportunities and risks, so that clients can better understand what impact outsourcing various critical business functions may have on the company as a whole and how best the outsourcing operations and agreements should be designed and structured.