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September 01, 2019


Innovation... for the Rest of Us

Thomas C. Grella

“Innovation” is a term that is being thrown around quite a bit in the legal profession. The College of Law Practice Management, an honorary organization where I serve on the board of trustees, annually awards its InnovAction Award to persons or organizations that deliver legal services through extraordinary innovative means. Innovation is certainly worthy of our praise. Frankly, however, the award is almost always given to a recipient who is doing something big, through something that is not only innovative for a specific organization but could also be classified as a unique invention. In most cases the award recipient is not a lawyer or law firm, and when it has been a law firm, it’s usually been a very large one.

Law Practice, and this column specifically, is published primarily to help practicing lawyers with the business of practicing law. A significant percentage of our readers are in small to midsized law firms. It’s my belief that innovation is not only for nonlawyer legal service providers and large law firms but for every lawyer in every law firm who desires to be a successful provider of legal services in the future. As the importance of innovation at my relatively small law firm has been contemplated, we have come up with an interesting way to promote innovation and invention.

Defining Innovation and Management Buy-In

The first step in our process of considering the importance of innovation was to define exactly what innovation is and the difference between that term and “invention.” We decided that innovation does not have to be universal but can be defined as specific to our firm, its market and the position it holds in those markets, while focusing on the specific needs of our firm members, our firm as a business organization and the communities and clients we serve. Therefore, innovation will normally include any meaningful improvement or change that helps us serve those specific needs.

As we better defined what we mean by innovation, we agreed that for most firms, including ours, innovation does not require that we invent some new delivery method or mechanism. Of course, it is possible that innovation might, on occasion, involve coming up with something totally new and inventive to the profession. In most cases, however, we realized that innovation for our firm would entail implementing meaningful improvements that are new to our firm and which, in fact, might be ideas we borrowed from others. Having determined meaning and intent, we next had to decide how to execute.

The Innovation Team

It took leadership of our firm about two minutes to realize that innovation was not going to work top-down. Though we do our best to ensure a diverse management team, all of its voting members are lawyers with mature legal practices. We realized that innovation would need to be a full-firm endeavor, led by a small, diverse and primarily (other than myself) younger team. Since the process would include management approval prior to implementation of ideas, we did not believe that the team needed to include management committee representation. The team would be organized as a committee but with a mission and method unlike any that our firm had ever experienced.

Our team membership includes lawyer owners, lawyer associates and members of nonlawyer staff. The team comes together monthly and sits as a collaborative think tank when meeting. Each member is asked to bring one idea of innovation for consideration by the full team. All of the ideas are considered and discussed. By the end of the meeting, no more than one or two are selected for further development. Our experience has been that all ideas have had merit, though a firm of our size can only undertake one or two new initiatives at a time. Therefore, innovative ideas not initially chosen by the committee for further research and possible implementation are retained on a list for future consideration.

Ideas selected for further research and development are assigned to two team members who are asked to work collaboratively. These two are asked to bring to the team a well-thought-out plan of action if, through the process of studying the idea, they recommend that the innovation be submitted to the management committee for approval. The plan as brought to the team must be prepared in a form ready for recommendation to the management committee, not only including specific details of action but also cost and timing. What has become clear as this collaborative, and frankly fun, process has evolved is that our management committee is hard-pressed to not approve ideas that have been so well-thought-out and developed by the team.

Organizational Involvement

Even though the team concept described above seemed to be a formula for positive change in our firm, management initially understood that innovation is not the exclusive domain of a small group of firm members. As our plan to foster innovation was developed, we realized that everyone in the firm has ideas to offer. The tasks of the team members, therefore, do not only include bringing their own ideas to meetings (and we realized that committee members might start finding it difficult to come up with new ideas of their own), but encouraging innovative thought throughout the firm.

Unfortunately, a committee made up of the whole firm would not have been workable. Instead, at the outset, management informed the whole firm of the existence of this new initiative and of the purpose and process of the team that had been asked to serve. The team was purposely representative of all of the firm practice groups, and each team member was asked to encourage innovative thought among the colleagues they regularly work with, both individually and in meetings. Finally, we have created a dedicated location on our organization intranet where firm members can submit ideas of innovation.

Experienced Results

I believe that when our firm leadership originally contemplated the notion of innovation, we mainly focused on what might be proposed in the area of technology. What we have found, however, is that though many of the ideas have been what would typically be considered technology, just as many are not. In the area of technology, proposals have included software and hardware to make our members more efficient, online delivery systems and social media strategies. Outside of technology, ideas have included facilities improvements, in-office client experience enhancements, proposals for more comprehensive professional development for all of our firm members and suggestions that will result in greater benefit and experience at our annual full-firm retreat.

Our initiative was created out of a belief that innovation is not just for large firms and alternative legal services providers, many of whom, in my opinion, are employing innovation with the purpose—stated or not—of replacing lawyers from many, if not most, parts of the process of legal services delivery. Innovation is a challenging strategy that every firm, of every size, needs to both understand and embrace. What I have outlined above is just one formula that can lead to experienced, positive innovative thought and action. We have found it beneficial in our firm, but it might not be the right formula for every firm. It is my belief, in any event, that law firms must figure out ways to encourage innovative thought, as well as the implementation of innovative ideas, if they desire a greater likelihood of success in what will continue in the future to most assuredly be a more and more competitive legal services delivery field.

Thomas C. Grella is a writer and speaker on practice management topics and a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. He practices law with McGuire, Wood & Bissette, PA in Asheville, North Carolina, and is a former managing partner, having served in that position for 12 years.