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I like stories of innovation.  Unfortunately, half the story is often unheard.  When we hear about Steve Jobs we may hear how creative he was and how much of a passion he had for music (Bob Dylan to be precise) which lead to the iPod – or we may hear that he was a relentless

task master, a belligerent, borderline psychotic whose demand for perfection led to the highest quality from anyone who could survive his wrath.   Undoubtedly, we’ve all heard time and again that he was a genius.  But like a footnote in Steve’s story, we rarely hear that he took long sabbaticals all throughout his life to far reaching places to meditate and connect with mother earth.  If it is mentioned it’s almost in a way that suggests that it was an odd hobby for an otherwise normal guy.. “oh yeh.. Steve was a great innovator but he was a bit weird, walked around the office with no shoes on and chanted from time to time”.  Few make the connection that Steve’s ability to disconnect from the corporate structure led to the products that so many are passionate about today.

Henry Ford was the father of the techniques behind mass production and a pioneer of transportation technology that we still use to this day.  He took the concept of the assembly line and used it to mass produce motor vehicles, in the process he transformed labour laws to provide high wages for workers while keeping manufacturing costs low – if you read his Wikipedia page you’ll find no mention that Ford took long deliberate walks in the country for many hours at a time stepping out of the rigid mechanisms of his own industry in order to develop new ideas and innovations.  He believed that “next to work, it was a man’s duty to think” and there’s no denying that Ford’s ability to think led to tremendous innovation.

Law firms have one of the greatest opportunities for innovation in my view.  Law is an industry that affects almost everyone globally, an industry that defines how we act, how we do business together and what we stand for is ripe for disruption and innovation.

Perhaps meditation and long walks in the country aren’t for you – but one thing is for sure, these innovators weren’t looking at what their peers were doing in order to come up with the next new idea – instead, they found ways to transform their thinking in order to sidestep their competitors and they applied disciplines to implement those ideas.

Yet, when I speak with law firms I am often asked “James, what are the other law firms doing with technology?”

It’s important to see the difference between me-tooism and innovation.  Doing what the rest of the market is doing may provide some short term comfort but let’s be clear – it’s not innovation, it’s inward looking and it is likely only to lead to a degree of sameness between you and your competitors.

Perhaps a better question to ask is..  how can modern law firms innovate?

1. Step outside your comfort zone.. or just step outside..

In order to innovate you need a process for innovation.  Regrettably, very little innovation occurs when you’re surrounded by filing cabinets or basking under energy-sapping fluorescent lights.

If you’re bold enough to want to innovate, be bold enough to take the discussion outside or at least to a more open space.

While you’re there take with you no pre-existing concepts about how a law firm is run but rather how your law firm can be different.

2. Change your language, change your actions

The banking sector is reinventing itself and I experienced this recently while touring the Commonwealth Bank’s Innovation Lab in Sydney.  The key takeaway from this tour? Commbank defines itself as a technology company that provides products and services to the banking sector.

Huh? A bank that isn’t a bank?

This change in language is creating an attitude toward disruption to that organisation’s competitors.  By putting technology in front of their core business they have more of a chance at thinking like the disruptors and innovators affecting their sector and based on what I saw at the innovation lab – it’s working.

So is your law firm really a law firm or are you a technology company providing legal services?

3. Have a seat for your clients

Another modern innovator – Jeff Bezos from Amazon – insists that if there is to be a meeting about product improvements or new ideas that there is always a seat for the customer in the room.  Jeff goes as far as to ensure there was an empty chair in the room and told his executives that this was a seat for the customer.

Is there a seat for your client in your room?  Do they have a role in your technology strategy?  Do you consider that when your clients talk about and refer your firm that they may point out how easy it is to do business with you?  That you had systems in place to follow up with them about their matters? That your processes were digital and easy to use?

Having a seat for your client is not only likely to lead to more innovation than your legal peers, it’s likely to influence the most important beneficiaries – your clients.

4. Look outside law

Just as important as looking at your clients’ needs in order to develop new ways of serving them, it’s equally critical to look at other industries – IT and digital marketing being a couple that I would suggest.

While there are numerous legal conferences and webinars you can attend that provide great value to your sector, there are also scores of innovative events and literature that can expand your thinking outside the rigidity of legal business process.

You and your team could listen to Podcasts about startups, read articles and books about entrepreneurs or attend technology events that target a broader audience than just law.

Innovators look beyond themselves.

5.  Apply the disciplines

When I run innovation workshops for law firms I find that many of the ideas are already there amongst lawyers of all ages and backgrounds – the problem is that there are few – if any – disciplines in place to capture and act upon those ideas.  By creating a forum and an ongoing process for innovation you can ensure ideas don’t fizzle out.

While it may seem like the antithesis of innovation – discipline is in fact a critical ingredient to success.

As a CEO myself I know how exciting it is to spitball ideas, play with new pieces of technology and start (and sometimes not finish) new initiatives.. I also know that these things can be costly and distracting.

Innovation does in fact follow a set of disciplines and in Legal Innovation it looks like this:

  • Define a forum for innovation – this could be a monthly meeting or it could be a strategic workshop, if you’re small it might just be you or maybe you’ll engage someone outside to help
  • Develop a technology roadmap – you should have an annual budget and business plan, where is your annual strategic IT plan?
  • Measure the ROI – this turns spit balled ideas in to tangible outcomes for the firm but more importantly it keeps the organisation on track and ready for change

Henry Ford also once said “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goals”.  Remember that innovation in your law firm is a goal.  It doesn’t just happen, it requires thinking differently, changing your language and most importantly, not looking to your peers to find it.


To your success,



About the Author: James Vickery is the founder and CEO of I Know IT, a transformative IT services provider. James connects law leaders to their strategy through technology with a firm belief that lawyers must re-enter their profession as innovators, thinking and acting as technology companies do in order to survive, compete and prosper in a digital economy.

James enables this new way of thinking and executing through consulting, coaching and delivery of technology solutions to Australian and international organisations. .

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