“Innovation” is a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot these days, right up there with “disruption.” It sounds like something that’s foreign in the legal industry, but it shouldn’t be. Believe it or not, we, too, can be innovative.
We’ve all gotten excited because the pandemic has made us believe that we can now be innovative – firms that were previously stuck were forced to become fully remote in a matter of days or weeks. Most court systems are now paperless. We’re e-signing documents and discussing hybrid working. What else is on the horizon?!?
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During our virtual conference last week, one of my lawyers said to me that his fear is that as soon as things open back up, the pressure will be on to return to the way things were. Partners and management will all *say* that we are embracing this new, hybrid way of working and that we embrace innovation, but when younger partners and associates see their bosses in the office five days a week for long hours, they’ll feel pressured to do the same. After all, “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
The depressing part about this is that I can see that happening too – but last year, when we were forced to work from home in the midst of a pandemic when stress was also at an all-time high, law firms saw some of their most successful years ever. Lawyers weren’t in the office, and yet they were billing more than ever. Just a coincidence? I don’t believe so. More like evidence that it’s past time to innovate.
I’ve previously mentioned here Eric Ries’ book, The Lean Startup, a book that focuses on how “today’s entrepreneurs use continuous innovation to create radically successful businesses.” And while you may argue that law firms aren’t startups and lawyers aren’t entrepreneurs, what if you acted like them? What if the last year in the pandemic taught you that you’re more like entrepreneurs than you thought?
A pandemic is a terrible thing – we can all agree on that. At the bare minimum, it creates low-grade anxiety that is with you constantly, and at its worst, it creates unimaginable loss. But since we have to find ways to bear it, we might as well find the silver linings that it has to offer. And there are lessons to learn from the last 15-18 months that we’ve been forced to be more creative, more innovative – yes, it’s not ideal to try to work from home in a pandemic. But what if you could choose to work remotely some of the time? What if you could find other ways to strategically innovate within your firm?
Ries’ book addresses three truths about innovating for radical success that at this point in the pandemic, we should really take to heart as opportunities.
Truth One: We have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Ries focuses a lot on the idea of taking a product or service, at the barest minimum needed to test in the market and sending it out there. That sounds TERRIFYING for an industry that is typically extremely conservative. But his reasoning for doing so is sound – before you invest the time, capital, energy, etc. in developing a fully functioning, fleshed-out product that you’re not sure the market will purchase, why not send it out there and see what the market will actually do? Then measure the results, see what people are saying and asking for, and continue refining and re-releasing.
The idea of doing this may make some of you very itchy. I get that, completely. I’m a perfectionist myself. I want something beautiful and perfect to be packaged up beautifully and ready for market before I consider letting anyone know what I’m doing. But in a world of innovation, what if this isn’t the answer?
We don’t have to do this for everything. But in your pockets of innovation within the firm, try testing this out. Are you trying a new technology solution with clients? Don’t wait until it’s perfect to start working with some of them. Launch it (without all the huge fanfare and press releases) and get their feedback. See what features they want and need, what bugs need to be worked out, and work with your technology partners to adapt. Test it again, and continue to refine it. This helps you to learn what your clients actually want. Try this with other types of innovations too – it doesn’t have to be only technology. Think outside the box when it comes to being innovative.
It can seem tempting to want to conduct tons of market research to ask your clients what they want, or to ask your lawyers what they want. But as Ries points out regularly, many clients don’t actually know. Often, it’s their actions that tell us what works and what doesn’t, what they want or don’t want. We can *think* we know what’s best for them, but their actions will dictate what the market will bear.
So we have to get comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable and start testing things before they’re perfect and letting our clients, our lawyers, our staff help us to get them to that perfect stage. THAT’S what will make us truly innovative.
This may sound scary, but the truth is – you’ve already done this. You took your ENTIRE firm and went virtual last year. In many cases, you also helped your clients do the same. You figured out how to go paperless, how to upgrade members of your firm who didn’t have the technology into their homes, and get them comfortable logging in remotely. You maintained your firm cultures and you onboarded new associates or partners or staff. You hosted happy hours and webinars and figured out how to close deals, in some cases with clients you’d never met in person. Some of you deposed witnesses online, trained associates, managed entire firms.
You ALREADY know how to innovate while being uncomfortable, because you’ve already done it. The question now is – what’s next? How ELSE can you serve your clients in new and incredible ways, while keeping up the level of service that you’ve always had? We don’t have to go back to the way things were – not that we don’t want and need to go back to in-person work, because there is value and utility in that – but we have the opportunity to find a NEW way to work that will drive value for everyone.
Truth Two: We don’t have to change everything, but we have to change something.
In a marketplace where there’s pressure to be “innovative,” we can feel like we have to make huge sweeping changes to keep up. And if we’re not prepared to make those changes, then we decide that we’re not going to innovate at all – there’s no middle ground.
You don’t have to change EVERYTHING (and in fact, you shouldn’t). But you should change SOMETHING. It may feel like because of the pandemic, you have already changed everything – but have you really? Yes, work has gone remote. But is it really going to stay that way? No. And many lawyers were already working some remote days pre-pandemic. We just have more confidence now that the lawyers that worked hard can work hard from anywhere (and people who find ways to slack off will always slack off – this is an HR problem, not a remote-work problem, always has been).
Yes, we have been through a period of EXTREME upheaval, so we may need some time to adjust – scratch that, we WILL need some time to adjust. But there will be those in your firm who are really excited by all of these changes and the ability to innovate and move forward. It will be a bit rare in legal, so you might have to search for them. Empower them to follow that spirit. Allow them to conduct market tests in the vein above in small areas (you may remember we’ve talked about this before). Be prepared for some things to fail – that’s where being comfortable with being uncomfortable comes in handy. Failure is great because that’s how you learn. Of course, there are better kinds of failure than others, because you want to be planning and innovating strategically, so that when and if you fail, you’re learning and adapting based on that failure.
Ries talks about the difference between the “Just Do It”/Nike philosophy of entrepreneurship and his more thoughtful “Lean Startup” philosophy. Adopting the latter allows for more strategic decisions, planning, adapting, and pivots, and that’s where radical success can and will happen.
Truth Three: Have faith in the end goal
Innovation is hard, scary, and it can be overwhelming. I would venture to say that it may be even more so for the legal industry because it’s filled with people who are naturally risk-averse, who want predicted outcomes, and sure results.
But innovation is also necessary.
So to get through those uncertain moments, we need to have faith in a vision, in the end goal of what we’re trying to achieve. The idea here is not to innovate for innovation’s sake. Innovation is necessary, yes, but you’re not making changes to your firm because it sounds cool. The goals will be individual, but likely along the lines of driving efficiency, saving money, creating client value, showcasing a brand advantage, etc. Identify at the outset what your goal is for the project that you’re working on, and what you believe the outcome will be – flexibility is required, because the measurement and learning will often surprise you, but your overall hypothesis should remain. For example, if you believe that you can deliver your services in a more efficient, streamlined way, you may be surprised by exactly HOW you accomplish that, but THAT you can accomplish that will remain true. When you hold that vision in mind, it will keep you strong during the uncertain moments, when you’re not sure that you’re doing the right thing, asking the right questions, making the right moves.
We may not be natural innovators, as an industry. But looking directly at some of the ideas and barriers that are holding us back from change, and leaning into being uncomfortable can lead to truly great things. And given that even in a terrible pandemic, when we were forced to change and innovate in a short period of time, the legal industry was able to be so incredibly successful, that should give us the confidence to know that innovation isn’t the scary boogeyman many of us have previously feared, but something to get excited about and pursue as we move forward.