What Does Innovation Mean in the Legal Industry?
Posted on: September 5th, 2018 by

If you’ve kept an ear to the ground in the last few years, you’ve probably heard about legal innovation. For example, the Ontario Bar Association recently announced that it will have an Innovator in Residence position to direct adoption of legal innovation. Many law firms use innovation as a marketing tool to attract users of legal services. Sophisticated clients ask lawyers how they’re being innovative, or require legal innovation to be addressed in their RFPs.

This is great news for an industry/profession that could use some streamlining, but what specifically is top of mind when someone brings up the concept of legal innovation? Allow me to lay out my conceptual understanding then demonstrate why and how Advocates is powered by innovation.

“Having technology is not innovation.”

When demonstrating why they are innovative, people tend to point at the technology that they have. This is a mistake. Having cutting edge technology doesn’t always translate into being innovative. John Grant tells an unfortunate story on Building New Law Podcast about a law firm purchasing great software but not using it. Using technology isn’t necessarily innovative either if it merely maintains the status quo.

Another false demonstrator of legal innovation can be employing someone whose job is to “do innovation.” Innovation isn’t a department – it’s a mentality that permeates an organization. This phenomena of law firm culture was well documented in a 2017 study, and summarized in a newspaper article. The study pointed to poor incentive systems, organizational structure, and leadership as reasons for slow or non-existent adoption of innovation in large law firms. Not enough people were all-in on innovation.

If that’s what innovation is not, then what is innovation? Abstractly, the heart of innovation is in always trying new ways to do things better. In legal, the underlying motivation is to find client-preferred, low-cost solutions to legal problems. Innovation is often achieved by applying a client-first mentality to one’s work and adopting time-saving, drudgery-avoiding processes, methodologies, and tools.

“Innovation is a mentality that permeates an organization.”

At Advocates, being powered by innovation means committing to a “change is an opportunity” mentality. Carefully considering the distribution of employee roles to avoid redundancy encourages effective work at capacity across the board. Relying on each other to use the tools physically at our fingertips (and introduce new tools when beneficial), we reduce time spent handing over files, looking for information, familiarizing ourselves with cases, and instructing on tasks. As well, having unified processes and conventions allows for efficient, high-quality collaboration.

There is always an upfront cost to experimenting with process, but it has to be balanced with the significant long-term cost of not trying to improve. Frankly, it’s a good thing that society has re-invented the wheel over time – modern wheels are way better. This present/future cost-balancing is especially necessary in highly competitive industries. In construction, where much of Advocates’ litigation experience lies, contractors feel the squeeze of competitors’ pricing and have to keep improving to win bids. Advocates is subjected to the same “more-for-less” pressure and responds in kind.

“Re-invented wheels spin faster.”

Having a focus on a few areas of expertise where the problems are unique (depending on your perspective) aids in another element of innovation. Familiarity with a type of problem allows the solver to approach it from the most effective level of abstraction. In doing so, the solver can process the problem the same way as previously solved problems, but acknowledge the problem’s unique circumstances. With a client-first mentality, this leads to crafting a solution that the client wants instead of just the solution that worked last time.

Another application of expertise is in determining the scope of a planned solution. Dispute resolution is uncertain and uncertain problem solving is handled well by being agile, adaptable, and iterative. Combining experience with a culture of innovation leads to perceiving and pre-emptively addressing temporal and cost-based bottlenecks. This means more efficient solutions. A comfort with re-crafting solutions as situations change reduces overhead and increases the quality of the solutions.

Novel problems require unique solutions. Unique solutions require creative thinking. Creative thinking requires effective process and structure within which to be creative. This is where we thrive.

Innovation isn’t always more exciting than figuring out a better way to sort documents (which can actually be pretty exciting in my opinion) but legal innovation is evidenced by having sophisticated clients repeatedly return with challenging problems.

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