Legal Innovation: Who are the normal ones?



As if 2018 has not been busy enough for law firms in Australasia already?

What with law firms completing yet more of the seemingly dozens of legal industry surveys that come across an MP's desk*, February and March have seen, and will see, a plethora of excellent legal events and conferences.
I know I will miss mentioning many but these include the Chilli IQ Managing Partners Forum, ALTA demo days, Centre For Legal Innovation Digital Legal Practice & Innovation Masterclass & CLI's Legalpreneurs Roundtables, InPlace Solutions "Taking IT to the Cloud 2018" events, Law Fest-Innovation & Technology in Law, La Trobe University New Law:New Lawyers Symposium, ALPMA Pricing Masterclasses.
And these are all in addition to both the 100's of technical sessions and events all available to lawyers prior to CPD season finishing end of March and in between reading thought provoking articles from legal commentators and observers all over the world! (HINT: if you want an easy way of catching up on some of the best legal industry articles subscribe to Richard Smith's Weekly Digest)

I have been fortunate to be part of a couple of these events to date and will be involved in a couple more. For a veteran recovering lawyer like me it is- all at the same timeencouraging, exciting, scary, mindblowing, complex, and threatening to see both the array of innovative technology offerings out there and what some individuals and firms are doing not only with the use of technology but with adopting different mindsets and business models to the Oldlaw model (leveraging people x time x hourly rate).
I was particularly fortunate at the recent CLI Digital Legal Practice & Innovation Masterclass referred to above to co present and hear some great personal stories and presentations by wonderfully courageous and innovative professionals such as Melissa Lyon from Hive Legal, and Jannelle Kerrisk and Sarah Roach from Helix Legal, among several others at that Masterclass.

As I mentioned at the Masterclass they, and an increasing number of other legal providers who have shunned the Oldlaw business model, might feel-and be made to feel-like they are the outliers, the abnormal, the crazy ones when it comes to the legal profession. In reality they are the ones that are normal and behave more like business owners and entrepreneurs do in "the real world". They are the ones much more aligned with their clients ways of thinking and operating.
They are the ones for instance that genuinely have embedded a culture of :
understanding the importance of not trying to be all things to all people, utilizing technology where appropriate for the benefit of their customers, when you don't care who wins, how genuine collaboration benefits professionals and their customers lowering their costs to serve without compromising quality, understanding its their customers perception of value that matters, having value conversations with each customer before they commence any work, agreeing on scope of work, offering options, and then agreeing price(s) and terms of payment up front with their clients using the right people for the right tasks, and project manage both the matter and the customer relationship.

It is, regrettably, many professionals in Oldlaw that are abnormal and have over the last decades distanced themselves from the real world of business economics, acumen and customer focus.
Similar to the CLI Masterclass- and from the great reports of the ALTA demos-there were some really amazing products and offerings being showcased at the InPlace Solutions event (all Cloud based of course).
I was privileged to be asked to do a short key note welcome at the InPlace Solutions event and be part of their "innovation" panel where some great discussion ensured.
For someone who- as Patrick Ng will be the first to attest- has not had access to a help desk for over a decade now and who is technologically challenged (even though my wife says I spend much more time with my Apple family than my real family)- I found the products, the offerings, the conversations and in particular the stories of firms journeys into the Cloud with all their challenges and opportunities, fascinating. A credit to both the vendors and firms for what they have developed and implemented.

I could not help by reflect that if there are still IT Directors today in law firms (and those roles have not been outsourced or if the IT Director is not teenager on work experience) the role of technology in any self respecting law firm has changed profoundly.
It has very much transformed from a support function, morphed to an enabling function and in many firms has now developed into a lead function. Indeed advances in technology & the expectations of technology-real or imagined-has meant that in an increasing number of progressive firms, the technologists-the geeks-now hold “C” Suite positions.

Blasphemous I know to many lawyers but I suspect sooner than we think (and in some firms it is happening already) such geeks will be valued and remunerated more highly than many of the lawyers!!
Now and increasingly in the future in the most progressive and innovative firms technologists are expected to be real “fee earners”. Imagine- a world where "fee earners" don’t take days off sick, don’t have bad hair days, are on call 24/7 and don’t have to fudge their timesheets? I do.
I read firms websites and PR all the time and it is difficult to find a firm any more that is not “innovative”, “tech savvy”, "client focussed" and “different from our competitors”. But just because I can purchase technology from a vendor the same as my competitors can, does this makes me innovative or materially different from my competitors? I suspect not. After all if everyone is "innovative" no one is.
Unlike when I ran law firms many years ago perhaps the adoption of any sort of technology may have given us a slight competitive edge, and without in any way derogating what is on offer and what some firms have accomplished with technology, These days the adoption of technology per se is merely a table stake-it gives law firms an opportunity to continue to play in the game-but is no guarantee whatsoever of ongoing sustainable success.
What might be a guarantee of ongoing sustainable success?
One short answer to this maybe the way that you think about technology-a tech business model, mindset & culture if you like- not something just tacked onto Oldlaw. The way you implement certain technologies can, and are, giving some firms a real edge over their competitors-even those competitors that don’t look like you.

But if firms are just adopting technology for technology sake or just because your competition is, then at best you are missing out on enormous opportunities and at worst you run the risk of being exposed for what you still are. Applying lipstick to a pig…………….?
There seems to be some healthy- and unhealthy- scepticism out there about the real benefits of many law firms innovative technology and the recent report in the AFR of Beaton Consulting’s most recent client survey where it was reported that only 15% of 154 clients of law firms surveyed believed their external law firms were innovative. This engendered plenty of discussion at the InPlace event as I am sure it does elsewhere.
Are law firms innovating and not telling their clients? ( I doubt it, most firms are good at shouting from the rooftops their innovation).
Are firms doing what they think is innovative in the technology space and their clients don’t think it is innovative?
Or are the benefits of innovation not being passed onto their clients?
It’s not as though clients don’t want innovation according to the same Beaton Consulting Report- they are crying out for it just not enough are getting enough of it from the firms they are using it seems.

As the late Peter Drucker said;
"Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two--and only two--basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs.” (Sorry Oldlaw lawyers seems you are actually a cost centre not a profit centre)
Law firms ought find out pretty quickly whether they truly are innovating and/or whether they are spending resources on innovating the wrong things and/or whether such innovation is in the best interests of their clients.
After all if innovation is not benefitting your clients why bother period?
I am continually told by firms that technology makes them more efficient. It may well, especially given that the business model of most Oldlaw firms have enormous inbuilt inefficiencies. But I doubt most clients of law firms care whether their firms are efficient or not-they primarily care whether their firm is effective in solving whatever it is they came to the firm for. Perhaps that is the same for technology? Perhaps some clients don't want much in the way of innovative technology from their firm-perhaps all they want is better service (apropos the wonderful work Carl White is doing in this area), better access, or just the best lawyer or better value or.......? For some clients those changes will seem innovative enough.
The lesson here is all clients are not the same, don't expect the same & so don't want to be treated the same.The better firms don't assume.
Having said that, the most innovative professionals I have met are often the most curious. Curiosity leads to creativity. Creativity will usually lead you to genuine innovation that benefits all.
Curiosity will not kill the cat- but lack of it might.

* Personally staggering to me that many firms seem to have absolutely no problem in sharing their financial data, their hourly rack rates, realised & utilization rates, their budgeting, the salaries of their employees, etc with their competitors and yet most don't share that info with their own teams? I am assuming this with the goal so they won't look any different to their competitors?