1. “The first thing we should do is establish a committee”
Lawyers love process and consultation, which aren’t necessarily bad things in themselves. However, slow cumbersome processes with too many checks and approvals will kill innovation before it starts. Your innovation team needs to be small, largely autonomous and able to move quickly to trial new ideas. Remember, while firms should have a certain level of partner engagement and coverage, committees are the death of innovation.
2. “What could anyone tell us about our business that we don’t already know?”
Partners are, by nature, confident and sure of themselves – it’s a necessary personality trait for giving advice to clients. They also tend to be cynical, especially of external consultants and dismissive of their knowledge, skills and experience. Consequently, rather than seeking expert external assistance, too many law firms rely on their own people (and most often only partners) to design and deliver on an innovation strategy. Additionally, an important part of an innovation strategy is engaging with your stakeholders, which critically should include the firm’s clients.
The thing about innovation is that the best ideas and insights often arise out of what you learn about your business when a new idea fails: to expect that every new idea will immediately be successful sets an unrealistic standard and suppresses innovation.
3. “We tried that before and it didn’t work”
The thing about innovation is that the best ideas and insights often arise out of what you learn about your business when a new idea fails: to expect that every new idea will immediately be successful sets an unrealistic standard and suppresses innovation. Firms need to understand that the ability to “fail fast”, evaluate and then adapt are key aspects of an innovation strategy.
4. “All this design thinking stuff is rubbish”
Did I mention that partners are arrogant and cynical? These traits can close them off to new ideas and approaches, such as ‘design thinking’ and other similar new approaches to innovation. In recent years, there have been fantastic advances in the way that we approach problem solving (such as the Stanford University created “design thinking” process which is a “methodology for innovation that combines creative and analytical approaches, and requires collaboration across disciplines”) and a good innovation strategy will draw on these types of new approaches.
5. “If we do this, it will reduce the time for which we can charge clients”
As the owners of the business, partners are understandably focussed on the bottom line. As businesses that still generally sell their knowledge on the basis of time spent, firms look suspiciously at any change that has the short term effect of reducing the time it takes to complete it (and therefore the fees generated). A good innovation strategy is underpinned by an understanding of the competitive forces impacting the sector (and therefore the need to change), but also looks at different costing models for legal services so that efficiencies don’t negatively impact the bottom line.
In fact, if you are not failing, then you aren’t innovating hard enough.
6. “I’m not prepared to try this unless you can guarantee it will work”
In a firm, power and influence is often closely associated with success – the partners with the largest fee bases, most valuable client relationships and proven success in everything that they touch are rewarded with management and other influential roles. Consequently, partners are loath to try anything that won’t be a stellar success and that might negatively impact their reputations. Of course, this completely miscomprehends the nature of a successful innovation strategy that embraces the notion that new ideas will often fail. In fact, if you are not failing, then you aren’t innovating hard enough.
7. “Who else has tried this?”
Closely tied to the non-acceptance of failure, is a desire to support ideas that have been proven elsewhere and often by a law firm’s closest competitors. In effect, this approach uses competitive behaviour as a form of peer review to increase the chances that new ideas will be successful. I hope it goes without saying that merely adopting the proven ideas of and approaches of your competitors is a not a market leading strategy, but one that is market following.
Perhaps the biggest problem with creating a strong innovation strategy and developing an innovation culture is that many partners still aren’t convinced that the current model is broken
8. “I think we need an App”
Too often partners of law firms confuse innovation with new technology. While technology can form an important part of innovation (along with people and processes), you don’t always need technology to create value, reduce waste or increase efficiency.
9. “But this is how we’ve always done it”
Law firms are apprentice-based systems, where older, more experienced lawyers pass down their knowledge and experience to more junior lawyers. In addition, the common law itself is precedent-based, with the past significantly influencing outcomes in the present. These two influences have a tendency to suppress new ideas and approaches and are another reason why outside contributions can significantly improve and inform an innovation strategy.
10. “We are still making good money, so why bother?”
Perhaps the biggest problem with creating a strong innovation strategy and developing an innovation culture is that many partners still aren’t convinced that the current model is broken. And to be fair, partner profitability in the larger commercial law firms has (on the whole) remained high in Australia over the past 5 years. However, this has been achieved through short term measures, such as cutting costs, reducing partner numbers and demanding more of staff. Unfortunately for law firms, these “traditional” approaches to law firm management (as well as increasing hourly rates) are blunt tools to respond to the changing competitive environment.