Being popular or populist? Innovation in law firms.

April 23, 2009

popular_populistDeploying innovative processes and technology solutions in law firms can be a punishing experience. Directors and managers who raised the ire of partners will tell you: it’s no fun. In fact, it can be downright brutal. So it’s not surprising that some choose populism as their path; If  lawyers ask for it, they’ll do it. Other than that, they simply keep the lights on.

A couple of weeks ago I sat with the CAO (the equivalent of a COO) and CIO of a large firm, reviewing the firm’s major capital projects for the year. We were musing over one of the more innovative initiatives and its value to the firm’s lawyers. The CAO asked: “What would Steve Jobs do?”.  A startling question. In a year when everyone is cutting back, no project is considered unless immediate value is proven, considering a framework for innovation was almost surreal coming from a results oriented CAO.

Steve Jobs did not build Apple or Pixar into the innovation hubs they are based only on focus group feedback. Even now, decisions made by folks at Pixar are challenged. In reality however, few of us have Jobs’ genius for recognizing what consumers want, especially when they don’t yet know it themselves. Trying the same in your firm is suicidal. Yet some of the most exciting innovations were not at all obvious back when. Voice mail, email, blackberries and even document management systems, were far from mainstream when they were first introduced to law firms.

I know managers, directors and even ‘C’ level executives in law firms who are perfectly content (and have success) simply maintaining the status quo.  That’s O.K.  But for those who have different aspirations, would like to leave their mark, and most importantly, see their firms make (small or large) strategic strides forward, the alternative is to figure out how to be popular, not merely a populist.

Remember voice mail?
What an unpopular decision this was 25 years ago. Lawyers hated it! I suspect that the initial introduction of email was also fraught with uncertainty. And what about BlackBerry’s?

Choose your timing carefully
For some, the current atmosphere presents a challenge. Time to batten down the hatches. For others its an opportunity. Firms are fearful, edgy, and therefore open to ideas that could help them change client perception. Outsourcing, alternative billing methods, improved matter management practices, client billing extranets could be considered strategic projects that a year ago would have been D.O.A. during the budget process. It helps if the firm has a strategic focus.

Choose your battles and build strong alliances
In 2001 one of my clients, a senior partner, had a vision for a unique KM solution.  He teamed up with another ‘heavy’ in his firm to introduce a solution that required ‘warm bodies’ and change to lawyer behavior. As you can imagine, that was a bold move and a hard sell.  It worked.  Nine years later, the system, processes and resources required to maintain it, are still around, waiting to be moved into their new technology framework.

Horde enough good-will capital.
Make sure you have enough good-will ‘capital’ to spend. Enough wins with ‘run of the mill’ initiatives that give you ‘chips’ to spend on more innovative solutions. If you have a big idea around unified HR services in the firm, you’ll need to battle existing fiefdoms. You’ll need a strong vision, motivation, and good-will with the firm’s heavy hitters, to pull it off.  The good news about being bold is the rewards, for yourself and your firm, could be substantial.

Be a marketer and a sales person
What makes all this possible is knowing, promoting and selling your ideas to your target market. Like any market, it’s segmented and should therefore be addressed differently.  Sr. partners, from managing partner.  Fellow directors, from assistants and paralegals.  You need to speak the language of the listener.

If you don’t have a big idea, don’t fake it
Sometimes it’s the right thing to let excellent execution of mainstream projects be your focus. At the same time, keep your eyes open for new trends, your finger on your firm’s pulse, stay close to its management and their vision and the BIG IDEA may reveal itself.  Perhaps invention is seeing the obvious that nobody else sees.  Which is proof; it’s not what you’re looking at that matters, as much as what you see.

Believe in your solution. Believe in yourself.
Confidence and gut level belief in oneself is the fuel that feeds the creative fire. Fear of failure can cloud your trust in yourself, in your ideas, and the value they bring your firm. I know of a CIO who rolled out a unified messaging system, an unpopular decision with the senior partners in the firm. He knew however, at a deeper level, that this was the right step, and is therefore seeing it through, converting skeptics to believers one partner at the time.  Because as Steve Jobs said: “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”

Additional reading:

In her blog WorkingKnowledge, Andrea Mayer wrote an excellent post on the topic of innovation. I also found the New Yorker’s James Surowiecki’s “Hanging Tough” to be an illuminating historical lessons on innovation during tough economic times


7 Responses to “Being popular or populist? Innovation in law firms.”

  1. Shy:

    Great post on innovation – especially your point about hoarding good will capital.

    As you suggest, I find that there is an incredible gravitational pull towards maintaining the status quo within law firms. In one of my recent blog posts (Is Innovation In BigLaw An Oxymoron?), I posited whether law firms are really capable of being truly innovative. I see that you are certainly working to push the envelope on the knowledge management side. Well done


    • Shy Alter Says:

      Thanks for your comment Patrick. Innovation is also a response to threats. Biglaw is now facing substantial challenges. Is it different than previous false alarms? Time will tell.

  2. Great article. These are pressing issues. It was sad for me to watch as half a dozen attorneys and more than a dozen staff were laid off at my firm this last month. Why? There isn’t enough business, and the firm wasn’t willing to look forward to newer innovations in social media. Your article articulates the dilemma very well.

    I make some similar points about being about innovation and a new way to sell in a piece I am writing called Rainmaker Alert, you can get it on my site

    • Shy Alter Says:

      Thank you Adrian. Downturn is a good opportunity, for firms who can afford it and their capable change agents (if any exist), to innovate. Firms are a little less busy, and could therefore leverage some of that lawyer (and especially now, associates) down time to introduce new, worthwhile processes. But usually, humans will be overly optimistic in ‘good times’, and the opposite during challenging times. So many simply hunker down.

      • During a downturn, lawyers will be reluctant to get involved in “special” projects. The perception is that this makes them a target as “not busy enough”. Even though they may bill the same number of low hours as their peers, involvement in projects good for the institution(e.g., KM) creates a sense that “I am a target for a lay off”. I saw this at a law firm after the dot-com crash. Associates could get billable hours working on a KM project. Even though they had plenty of time, none chose to do the KM work for fear it would make them a target.

        I am not justifying this – only reporting what I’ve seen.

  3. From someone who has lived in the legal tech innovation trenches, I can confirm this is all great advice.

    The challenge that legal tech change agents face is that the market rarely punishes law firms for being late adopters. So management generally thinks – with some justification unfortunately – that it’s safer to let other firms pioneer. That’s because clients are not demanding in this market.

    With the current economic crisis, I hope that both firm and client behavior changes in ways that make innovating more acceptable.

    • Shy Alter Says:

      Thanks for a great comment Ron. Most law firms are ‘followers’ at best. Mostly ‘late adopters’. Not only clients do not demand innovation, many are as conservative as the firms they hire.

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