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May 01, 2021 May/June 2021

Future Proofing: Practical Insights Into Innovation Leadership

Dan Pinnington & Reid Trautz

Attorneys and law firms have a well-deserved reputation for being slow or even outright resistant to change. Firms that are successful at making changes and innovating usually have leaders who drive change. For insights on what makes an innovation leader successful, we asked Mark Beese, president of Leadership for Lawyers, LLC, to share what he has learned from many years of helping lawyers become more effective leaders. 

Law Practice: Mark, why should law firm leaders care about innovation? 

Mark Beese: For a long time, innovation in law firms and legal departments was seen as optional or something attorneys would do to differentiate themselves. Today, innovation is an imperative for success, driven by several factors:

1.   Changing client expectations. Chief legal operations profes­sionals and general counsel look to outside counsel for new ways to improve efficiency, reduce cost and collaborate with other outside counsel.

2.   Technology. Tools to use automation and artificial intelli­gence (AI) are game-changers in how legal work gets done.

3.   Competition. Alternative service providers and advisory firms, like Big Four accounting firms, are leveraging their expertise in project management, process improvement and consulting to redesign the legal process, making it less expen­sive and more accessible for clients. 

LP: What are the hallmark attributes of a law firm leader trying to lead their firm to innovate? 

Beese: Leaders—whether they are lawyers or professional staff— should have the “find new and better ways of doing things” task on their to-do list. Leaders who spark innovation are skilled at identifying pain points that get in the way of people doing their jobs, seeing opportunities for process improvement and under­standing emerging technologies that remove the pain.

Leaders also need to be skilled at leading change initiatives. Finding the right idea is just part of the innovation process. Leaders need to cast a compelling vision of what the future will be like after the innovation is implemented and nurture the change initiative through every step of the implementation process. This is often the most challenging part of innovation in law firms. Finally, leaders must prepare their firms to accept change as part of the innovation process.

LP: How are successful leaders convincing their partners to invest the time and money to innovate their business pro­cesses and service delivery? 

Beese: Leaders need to articulate what will happen if the firm chooses not to innovate. Successful leaders will use both the carrot and the stick method.

The carrot approach illustrates how other firms and organi­zations used innovation to serve clients, reduce cost or improve their reputation. They might show how firms like Wilson Sonsini launched to automate legal services or Davis Wright Tremaine’s De Novo project leverages design thinking to create more efficient legal processes for clients.

The stick approach instills a bit of fear into those partners. “Do you want to be the firm that chose the fax over email? Can we afford to not innovate?” The evidence that clients are looking for firms that will partner with them on innovation initiatives is clear and abundant. Organizations such as the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium and the Association of Corporate Counsel have published surveys underscoring this expectation. Indeed, many in-house legal departments are now teaching their lawyers about the design thinking process and developing structures to encourage innovation. 

LP: How do innovative leaders motivate their people to par­ticipate across the firm? 

Beese: I’ve found that people are very excited about being part of innovation initiatives. Last year, I facilitated a series of design thinking workshops for a large firm in the United Kingdom. They selected and formed five innovation teams, made up of a diverse group of attorneys and professional staff from differ­ent functions. Teams were given training in design thinking, innovation and change leadership. Following the training, each team had three months to develop a prototype and present it to the management committee, who would decide which initia­tives to fund and support. Participants were honored to be part of the program and very engaged in the process.

Younger professionals—those from the millennial and Gen Z generations—are often looking to participate in innovation initiatives because it offers opportunities for personal develop­ment, leadership, relationship building and status.

Leaders should reward participation in these projects through increased recognition and praise, financial support of the proj­ects and vocal support of the participants. 

LP: What are the most common obstacles to long-term inno­vation success, and how can those best be overcome? 

Beese: I’ve been doing research on the change style preferences of lawyers over the past 10 years. It is no surprise that lawyers are more conservative and slow to embrace change than the general population. Using the Change Style Inventory model developed by Chris Musselwhite, we’ve found that about 44 percent of lawyers score in the “Conserver” category, compared to about 25 percent of the general population. Conservers tend to accept the current structure and prefer change that is incre­mental. On the opposite side of the scale are Originators, who prefer to challenge the structure and prefer expansive change.

Change leaders in legal organizations who are cognizant of this dynamic should consider these tips:

When introducing change, try not to appear to challenge the accepted structure; focus on how the innovation will make incremental improvements strengthening the structure.

Focus on shared objectives and building a coalition of col­laborators. Build relationships one-on-one with stakeholders and help them understand that it is in their best interest to support (or at least not obstruct) the change.

Help them understand what things will look like during and after the innovation initiative. Conservers like predictability. Use schedules, budgets and Gantt charts.

Use stories of other firms or organizations that have gone through a similar transformation and how they benefited from the change initiative.

Emphasize what’s in it for them to support the initiative in terms of status and reputation.

Downplay the risks—but be realistic.

Try not to burn venerated traditions—unless you must. 

LP: For firms new to innovative thinking, do you recommend they begin with incremental changes to learn before moving to larger, more impactful innovations within the firm? 

Beese: There is an argument for starting small and creating a culture of innovation before moving on to larger projects. There is also an argument for starting with projects that have signifi­cant impact and urgency. Start by asking these questions:

1. What are the pain points that get in the way of serving clients effectively and efficiently?

2. What do our clients want that we are not providing now? Don’t assume you know this answer; ask them!

3. What internal process gives us the most grief and prevents us from doing more important and valuable work?

These group discussions can be heated and intense but will lead to insights into where to apply your innovation efforts. If you want to hit a home run, pick a project that is related to a widespread frustration that, when solved, will make your leader a hero and set the stage for future change. 

LP: What resources do you recommend to those leaders seeking help to lead their firms toward more innovation? 

Beese: Well, I’m a little biased, but I believe that having leaders who both understand their role as change-makers and are skilled in the design thinking process will be critical for firms that want to be client focused, growth oriented and resilient.

I particularly like how the design thinking process fits with a cli­ent-focused orientation for law firms. Design thinking, as a process and mindset, focuses on improving the user experience. This can be transformative for law firms that are looking to innovate to improve their client relationships as well as their lawyer/employee engagement. Law firms and legal departments should consider investing in design thinking or process improvement training.

Finally, leading innovation initiatives is a skill, and skills need practice to develop. Leaders should always be practicing this leadership skill, getting feedback and learning ways to improve leading innovation. 

LP: Thanks for your insights, Mark.

Very practical advice for those who want to be innovation leaders at their firms. Every firm that wants to future proof itself should have an innovation leader who acts as catalyst for change at the firm. 

Dan Pinnington

President & CEO

Dan Pinnington is the president and CEO of Lawyers’ Professional Indemnity Company and was the driving force behind the innovative practicePRO claim prevention initiative. He is past editor-in-chief of Law Practice and was chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2007. [email protected]

Reid Trautz


Reid Trautz is the director of the Practice and Professionalism Center of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. He is a long-standing member of the ABA Law Practice Division, serving as chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2012, and currently he serves as co-chair of the Futures Initiative. [email protected]

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