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Legal Technology

Practice Innovations: Archangels of Innovation within law firms

Anders Spile  Legal Tech & Innovation Consultant

Anders Spile  Legal Tech & Innovation Consultant

In the latest article in this month's "Practice Innovations", we look at Archangels of Innovation, those individuals within law firms who push (or try to) new ways of doing business

Every law firm has them. Ambitious, innovative and tech-savvy young people with lots of good ideas on how to optimize the legal business with new delivery models and inventive new tools.

These people are legal tech-evangelists, sending colleagues articles on legal innovation (like this one). They’ve also read a book or two about agile management, T-shaped people, and the shortcomings of waterfalls. Admittedly, they (or in this case, we) might be a little righteous, but they are on to something. The world is moving in their direction. I know, because I was one of them.

I call them the Archangels of Innovation.

They are a driving force behind the legal innovation movement and should be rewarded as such. However, they are are neither acknowledged or supported very much by their organizations at the moment.

That is a problem for the established legal industry. Because whenever these people wish to walk the walk and innovate their field, they tend to leave it. Today’s law firms are simply incapable of holding on to their archangels, and consequently, most of the innovation happens outside of law firms. Most legal tech companies are led by former archangels (ex-lawyers) who got exhausted by the Sisyphean uphill battle of driving innovation inside the firm. They broke out and now lead a rebellion from the outside.

That is a huge loss for law firms. Modern companies like Google or Microsoft have innovation programs. They nurture their intrapreneurs, give them resources to test their ideas and facilitate a room for experiment. As I’ve previously written, some innovative firms have established legal labs, but this is still a tiny minority. Within most law firms, innovation is not rewarded, and the archangels of innovation feel ghosted by their superiors.

It makes sense. The legal industry in the U.S. and in much of the world is heavy-regulated, and it has been protected by regulation forever. So, there is neither much room nor incentive for innovation. Furthermore, partner-driven companies (especially those that bill by the hour) are usually geared for optimizing short-term profit over long-term innovation investments. And last but not least, the legal industry is dominated by a conservative and risk-averse culture of precedent that doesn’t exactly promote new initiatives.

Many aspects of this structure are important — I’m not an anarchist. But I believe every law firm could benefit from keeping internal innovators within the firm and exploring innovative ideas. Here are several ideas about what law firms can do:

      1. Open up a separate innovation track — Firms should have some kind of lab or incubator where innovative lawyers can develop new ideas. By making it a separate space, firms can create a more imaginative atmosphere and foster a culture where it’s okay to launch minimum viable versions of products, test the waters, and fail fast. Innovative processes don’t thrive in the usual firm structure and culture, so firm leaders should consider how they can make room for a separate innovation track.
      2. Allocate resources — Lawyers are not able to be innovative when drowning in bureaucracy and billable hours. Firms need to give their archangels some space to develop and deliver. Also, firms should give them a real budget so innovators have a chance to make something great and aren’t expected to give an immediate return on investment. Firms also need to have some clear KPIs so they can track progress and won’t waste money; but remember, this is a long-term investment and making mistakes is part of any good innovation process.
      3. Acknowledge and reward —Firms need to acknowledge archangels of innovation for their enthusiasm and good ideas. These indivdiuals care a lot about the firm in which they work, and they want to protect it. So, firms should give them credit and the attention they deserve. Right now, archangels are not rewarded for their ideas. That’s why firms must be careful to provide their people with a clear incentive to innovate by offering them some ownership of their own ideas.
      4. Commit — I’ve seen it so many times before: The firm that comes out proud with its new, shiny innovation initiatives, via a press release and a few LinkedIn posts, and then never mentions it again. Too often, legal tech and innovation initiatives are just an occasion for PR. Real innovation is not about publicity; instead, firms need real, persistent commitment from their partners and everyone on the board. There is no skipping the easy way.

Many Archangels of Innovation have already left their law firms to pursue career opportunities elsewhere, and they are looking for ways to disrupt the traditional legal industry from the other side.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Law firms can gain a lot by keeping their most innovative professionals closer and utilizing their drive to optimize firms’ own way of doing business.

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