How do you ‘innovate’ a law firm?

A man recently approached me during a break in a workshop I was running and said, “You ran innovation at a large global law firm, right?”  No matter how it’s worded, this is always a tricky question.  My title at the firm was Innovation Architect and I was tasked with finding innovative uses of technology to solve problems within the firm.  But I had no direct reports, no budget, and as a ‘non’ at a law firm, it’s hard to say I actually ran anything.  Still, I had some very successful innovation initiatives at the firm, so for the sake of brevity I replied, “Yep.”

His eyes lit up as he inched closer, “Good, you’re the man I need to talk to.”  He glanced from side to side, then speaking just above a whisper asked, “How do you innovate a law firm?”   I laughed, smiled broadly, and told him the truth. “You don’t.”  His eyes fell, and I immediately felt terrible, so I tried to buoy his spirits by asking him a few questions about himself.

He had been in legal for many years, but had recently become a Chief Innovation Officer and no one had told him what that meant, or what exactly he was supposed to do.  Frankly, I seriously doubt that the people who gave him the new title knew what they wanted him to do either.  Innovation has been the law firm buzzword of choice for the last few years and everyone wants to say they’re taking ‘innovation’ very seriously.  Consequently, there have been a glut of new Innovation Officers, Partners, and Architects throughout Big Law.

I’m reminded of the conversation I had with my former firm’s CIO, when he first offered me a knowledge management position.  He said, “What do you know about knowledge management?” I said, “What’s knowledge management?’ And he said, “You’ll be great!”

I soon realized that the firm had very little interest in managing knowledge. They wanted to have someone with a KM title, so they could credibly say they had knowledge management. I used that time to actually learn KM and to get involved in the very active and open law firm KM community. What could have been a dead-end, frustratingly impossible job, opened up my career to many new opportunities.

I believe many people with newly minted innovation titles are in much the same boat today that I was then. They don’t really have a mandate, they’re filling a role that someone on a committee decided the firm should have because other firms do, and they’re desperately looking for guidance about how to ‘innovate’.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a well-established literature about law firm innovation and the legal innovation communities that exist are likely serving the needs of the recruiters that run them more than the needs of the innovators themselves.

Which brings me back to my workshop friend, so desperate for a lifeline from someone who once ‘ran’ innovation at a large law firm. I stood by my original answer, but I clarified my position a bit. You can’t innovate a law firm. However, you can innovate within a law firm.  You can create pockets of innovation.  You can change the mindset of individuals who will begin to see opportunities to innovate.  In time, the culture of the firm may become innovative, but it will only happen if, like the proverbial eating of the elephant, you do it one bite at a time.  If you focus on the whole elephant (or firm), you’re not going to get very far.

Over the next few weeks and months I’m going to follow this with a series of posts dedicated to law firm innovators, about lessons from my past that I use all the time.  I am not so arrogant to claim that I can tell you how to innovate. Innovation isn’t about having the right answers or following a particular pattern.  It’s about asking questions, understanding context, and most importantly connecting ideas across-disciplines.  In my innovation role, I drew inspiration from lessons I learned throughout my career which began in music composition and theater, and included stints in investor relations, fashion merchandising, information technology, and knowledge management, along with a hundred other temp jobs.  I think my lessons are generally applicable, but beyond simply sharing my folksy wisdom, I hope this helps law firm innovators think outside of their experience in the legal industry to their experiences in other jobs, hobbies, relationships, and roles they’ve had.  If we try to innovate the legal industry using only what we’ve learned in legal, we will fail.

How do you innovate a law firm?   First, think outside the law.