The Journey of Legal Innovation: Building Your Innovation Strategy
Innovation is a buzzword in the legal industry, and for a good reason. There is fierce competition for legal work around the world, which translates to constant pressure to provide legal services more quickly and cost-effectively without sacrificing quality. This leads to “a preference for technology-powered legal alternatives [that are] perceived to be more efficient and affordable”—in other words, innovation. But how do firms become innovative?
From the outside, it can appear as if law firm innovation is a magical process that unfolds like a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly: one day, the firm is miraculously transformed into an efficient, effective, tech-powered competitor. But the reality is that innovation is a journey with multiple steps, some of which may produce disruptive leaps while others generate smaller incremental improvements. Wherever your firm may be in its own journey, there are concrete actions you can take to move closer to your eventual goal.
Although I have outlined the journey linearly, elements from each stage can be happening concurrently. For example, I recommend bringing your clients along for the journey as early as possible, though highlighted in stage three.
Here are the three key stages of the innovation journey.
Stage 1: Build Internal Capability
The stage one firm hasn’t purposefully integrated technology or sought innovative solutions. Its first step is one of assessment. How does the firm currently do its work? Break this assessment down to consider each distinct task the firm’s attorneys and support staff need to complete, including:
- Communications: Does the firm have a basic tech stack that allows team members to communicate and collaborate, whether over e-mail or through an app like Teams?
- Document management: How does the firm create, review, edit, store, and manage documents? Does it have a dedicated document management system?
- Legal research and knowledge management: How does the firm conduct research? How does it maintain and manage its knowledge resources?
- Assignments and tasks: How are client instructions received, monitored, and tracked?
- Invoicing and billing: How does the firm manage invoices and bill clients?
Once you have an idea where you are, give some thought to your end goal. What are you innovating toward? You may start with a broad goal like “deliver better results more efficiently,” but it is helpful also to establish metrics that you can track. With your destination in mind, you can map your journey from where you are today to a meaningful—and measurable—end result.
Create a strategic plan that will guide you along the path you have plotted out. Your ultimate aim isn’t to produce flashy innovation for its own sake; it’s to “develop a successful and repeatable innovation strategy that enables steady growth.”
Stage 2: Optimize Service Delivery
When you have established a basic technology stack and have the internal capability to get work done, it’s time to make that work better, faster, and more affordable. Depending on your current work product, your goal in stage two may be to work more efficiently, to deliver work product with fewer errors, to optimize your staff’s time, or something else. In this stage, you should closely examine the technology that you are using and the processes and workflows you have created around that technology. For example, suppose you’ve been using Microsoft Word’s compare function to check for changes in contracts. In that case, it might be time to implement software that’s specifically designed for the complexity of legal documents. Stage two is all about making systematic changes by upgrading your technology as well as your organisational structures and processes.
Note that your strategy and tactics can, and should, adapt as your goals change. You may have started out thinking that you needed to upgrade to high-capacity printers so that you could manage larger transactions more quickly and easily. Now, though, you may realise that you would be better off switching to a digital transaction management solution. In that case, it would be unwise to continue to investigate, or invest in, paper-based options. This type of tactical change doesn’t mean your strategy was a waste of time; instead, it points out the need to keep your individual goals, such as efficient management of transactions, front and center.
You are likely to find that you will need to balance the risk and reward of various options. Some solutions may pose a higher risk, perhaps because they are more expensive to implement or because they will require a significant internal change to adopt. These solutions may well be worth it if they promise an equally large reward. Conversely, those easier, lower-risk changes are likely to have a lower payoff.
Stage 3: Collaborate With Clients
While your journey to this point has been focused on either your internal operations, in stage one, or your deliverables to clients, in stage two, this final stage involves two-way communication and collaboration with your clients. How can you give your clients a better view of the work you are producing for them? This may include updates to your service delivery model or your client management system. You may decide to add a cloud-based client portal where clients can access their documents and ask questions at any time. Or you may adopt a transaction management tool that provides real-time insight and transparency into each deal as it develops.
You may also find that you are able to collaborate with clients by merely having focused and intentional conversations. Solicit feedback from your clients about what you are doing well and where you could improve. While innovation often involves technology, it doesn’t have to. Instead of immediately slapping technology on a problem, your firm should “understand the business issue first and then seek to apply technology judiciously,” if necessary.
Whether your firm is just building out its basic tech stack, optimizing its work for clients, or actively collaborating with clients to improve service delivery, it is always a good time to start being more innovative.