Innovation within a law firm is both essential and inherently challenging.
Our firm, Mannheimer Swartling in Stockholm, Sweden, has chosen to take on innovation as a core tenet of its business, capitalizing on the mindset of the attorneys, a willingness to experiment and a broader cultural acceptance of innovation as a way of life to help drive our efforts.
But even if your firm is not a close-knit Nordic one surrounded by a bustling tech culture, there are steps any firm can take to improve their culture of innovation.
Stay close to your lawyers & their clients
This is, obviously, not new advice. Knowing your lawyers and clients is vital regardless of the size and scale of the firm. But it must be more than just lip service to the idea.
Where many law firm innovation efforts fail is in trying to push one-size-fits-all answers for lawyers. This can be particularly true for large firms — the more you grow, the more standardization is required.
At its core, a standardized approach is really a failure to know your lawyers and clients on several levels. No two clients will have the same problem or be seeking the same solution. Even within the same practice, any two lawyers could have very different approaches to the same problem. The key to driving successful innovation is to understand the mindsets at work and the solutions needed, then tailoring innovation to fit these mindsets.
Find creative ways to access the ideas and talent you need to drive innovation, even if it means something other than a traditional hiring.
In a firm like ours, we have the luxury of proximity to our lawyers. We can have conversations frequently and really develop relationships with the lawyers to understand their individual mindsets, practices and clients. As the firm looks to innovate, these relationships form the basis of data points that help inform what will be effective, meaningful and realistic changes to make.
The importance of tailoring innovation to fit the lawyers’ mindset is key to successful collaboration, iteration and adoption.
Start the iteration process
Innovation requires iteration. If done correctly, each new iteration of an idea refines and improves upon its predecessor. This process of experimentation and iteration is not without difficulty. But as I tell the lawyers in our firm, we can’t have a version 2.0 without a version 1.0.
Through the relationships we have, our lawyers can be confident that if a particular approach isn’t working, we won’t continue with it. We’re not going to force them to do anything that isn’t helpful.
Building relationships based on communication and trust with your firm’s lawyers will help them to trust the process, and it will help ensure a better outcome guided by real-world learning.
I’ve mentioned mindsets already, but this really is key. Understanding and working with the unique mindsets of all the entities involved — the lawyers, clients and even broader cultural sentiment — can unlock success. If you know there is a particular openness to innovation, take advantage of that.
For my firm, being in the Nordics holds an advantage in terms of overall cultural mindset.
First, we are a civil law jurisdiction as opposed to common law. As a result, the agreements we draft can be much shorter — we’re not as document heavy so we can work more closely with our clients, and they can more easily access what we are doing for them.
It’s also advantageous that we have an incredibly robust tech industry. In a culture that is so driven by tech and innovation in daily life, there is an overall mindset that innovation of any sort is not impossible. And this extends even into the practice of law.
On the other hand, cultural factors may inhibit the drive to attempt to innovate. If you are aware of particular cultural resistance to innovation, either within your firm or from the broader environment, seek to understand that resistance and work to overcome it.
Create new avenues to expertise
It’s impossible to hire everyone you might ever need to create solutions for each problem your lawyers confront. But just because you can’t hire them doesn’t mean you can’t work with and learn from them. Find creative ways to access the ideas and talent you need to drive innovation, even if it means something other than a traditional hiring.
To further drive a culture of innovation within our firm, we operate a legal tech incubator to support legal tech entrepreneurs and innovators. It’s a wonderfully symbiotic relationship: We gain access to early insight and understanding of the legal tech community, and our partners can take advantage of a ready-made pool of potential customers in our broader client base.
More than that, working with these partners gives us access to people we couldn’t necessarily hire as part of the firm, but now we can leverage their expertise. It creates a feedback loop where we help them develop their tools with more immediate feedback and in turn, the product they produce is more useful for their customers and our clients.
Observe the innovation around you
The pace of innovation and its importance to the legal market will not abate, it will only grow. There are lessons in the market to follow if you know where to look. And as more firms begin the process, the lessons to be learned will grow as well.
However, that doesn’t mean your firm has to wait to see what others are doing to make your own moves. If your firm only adopts what others are already doing, you’re not really innovating, you’re just keeping up with the status quo.