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    February 25th, 2016

    ♫ I know that something has changed
    Never felt this way
    I know it for real
    This could be the start
    Of something new…♫

    Music and lyrics by: Matthew Gerrard, Robbie Nevil, recorded by Vanessa Hudgens.

    steve jobs

    (Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0)

    The American Bar Journal on April 1, 2015 posted an article on “100 Innovations in Law” by Jason Krause.  It is an interesting review (admittedly from an American perspective) of how law has changed over the last 100 years or so. It makes for an intriguing read, but with all due respect to the author, I would list most of the innovations as evolutionary innovation rather than disruptive innovation. I love Twitter, for example, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that it has proven to be highly disruptive on the legal profession. Even LegalZoom.com hasn’t really opened up new markets; it may have made more services affordable to more people but at least so far I don’t see it having a hugely disruptive effect on the profession.

    Why is innovation so hard in Law? Many factors can be cited here, such as law is a very conservative profession, that lawyers are not risk-takers, that lawyers have been taught to rely on precedent (old lawyer joke:  “The Managing Partner wants the firm to be innovative, to do things differently” to which the Management Committee asks: “Well, who else is doing it?”) and the like. But the true story is that innovation in most professions is difficult.  In fact it may be more difficult in law than other professions due to the structure of law firms.

    My friend Jordan Furlong put it this way in an article entitled “Why Lawyers Don’t Innovate“:

    So when managing partners ask me, “How can I get my lawyers to change?” I have to respond: You can’t make your lawyers do anything they don’t want to do. They’ll do something only if they decide they want to do it, and they’ll want to do it if encouraged by those they like, respect and trust. In a number of law firms, I’m sorry to report, building a culture of “like, respect and trust” among lawyers can be considerably more difficult than getting lawyers to adopt a new innovation. It requires a level of effort and openness and generosity that many lawyers these days feel they can’t afford. But I’m coming to think it’s the key to successful, long-term, sustainable law firm innovation. And it can be done.

    I think that really the Fundamental Attribution Error is at play here.  Wikipedia states:

    [T]he fundamental attribution error, also known as the correspondence bias or attribution effect, is the tendency for people to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics (personality) to explain someone else’s behavior in a given situation rather than considering the situation’s external factors.

    In other words, lawyers are reluctant to innovate since the system in which they operate (the modern law firm) does not create a situation of trust that fosters innovation. They behave as they do since that is a rational response to the culture inside law firms.

    I have had the great good fortune to be part of a small group tour of Google and Facebook’s campuses in Palo Alto California.  There is no question that innovation is almost palpable in the air at these locations.  They have crafted an environment where innovative thinking is expected and fostered.

    If we truly want lawyers and law firms to be innovative, we need to change the culture. We need to know that when we enter an innovative firm, we all know that something has changed, that this could be the start of something new…

    (cross-posted to tips.slaw.ca)

    This entry was posted on Thursday, February 25th, 2016 at 5:00 am and is filed under Adding Value, Business Development, Change Management, Firm Governance, Issues facing Law Firms, Law Firm Strategy, Leadership and Strategic Planning, Technology, Tips, Trends. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

    9 Responses to “Can Lawyers be Innovative?”
    1. Frank Schipani Says:

      Lawyers are trained to believe and operate in a world in which failure is punished. This may be a necessary evil in legal work. But it is impossible to innovate anything without a culture that can accept failure.

    2. Buzz Bruggeman Says:

      The practice of law is the only business that I know that manages itself by looking backward. Having pitched ActiveWords to hundreds of lawyers, I’m amazed at how many of them never learned to type. Very hard to use technology, particularly when the basic interface is the keyboard if you don’t know how to use it.

      Also, there is nothing about the billable hour business model that lends itself to innovation. Why would a lawyer seek to innovate if it’s going to ultimately reduce his/her income?

    3. David Bilinsky Says:

      Buzz: Your comments are well taken and I would submit, another example of how the structure of the system determines behaviour. If we want lawyers to adopt alternative billing systems for example, then we need to change the way that law firms compensate lawyers for their work. If we change the system, then we can expect that behaviour will change as a result. The question is, what will be the motivation to get lawyers off the hourly rate, for example? My belief would be that this either has to come from the client who states that they will not accept an hourly rate model -or- it has to come from the regulator (Bar association, courts or law society) who states that law firms must move forward and as a result it changes the system in which law firms operate. Thanks for the comment Buzz!

    4. Andrei Mincov Says:

      Dave, it’s the mandatory licensing and regulation of lawyers that is the reason this problem exists!

      Arbitrary, anti-free-market rules that benefit no one other than power-hungry regulators lobbied by large firms is why you don’t see a lot of innovation in the legal industry.

      I remember well my conversation with you when I asked you if I really needed to have a paper cheque to transfer money from my trust account to my general account when I could provide as much tracing by using online banking. You told me it had to be a paper cheque because such were the rules.

      So yes, the problem is caused by the “structure of the system” as you commented, but that structure of the system is created by the system that you are an integral part of.

      So yes, you are a part of the problem.

    5. Carolyn Elefant Says:

      Completely disagree that regulation stifles innovation. Uber and companies like Solar City could innovate in heavily regulated transportation and energy industries – they were clever enough to figure out how to do it. As for why we don’t innovate, I have not yet seen the tools that enable real innovation as opposed to making existing sysytems better faster and cheaper. Which isn’t such a bad thing

    6. David Bilinsky Says:

      Carolyn: With the greatest of respect I would have to say that Uber actually proves my point. They were able to go outside the regulation of the taxi companies to establish their business model. They did not try to innovate within the regulation of the taxi business. They circumvented it. I agree that part of innovation is gradual systemic improvement. That is the Edward Deming approach, and it has worked very well. But Edward Deming is not about disruptive innovation. My thesis is that for disruptive innovation to occur the structure of the system must change. Or someone must be prepared to go outside the system.

    7. LaVern Pritchard Says:

      Tangential to your main point about lawyers and innovation, but directly relevant to the Uber analogy, and more broadly, disruptive vs. sustaining innovation, see Clayton M. Christensen, Michael E. Raynor & Rory McDonald, What Is Disruptive Innovation?, Harvard Business Review (December 2015). Christensen thinks Uber is a sustaining innovation: “Uber is clearly transforming the taxi business in the U.S. But is it disrupting the taxi business? According to the theory, the answer is no.”

    8. Brisbane Solicitor Says:

      Like the topics so much. I really do appreciate with you. Yes, A lawyer can’t be innovative in present culture. But it is really important to make them innovative. You can’t expect the full performance of a lawyer without innovation.

    9. James Wegener Says:

      I agree with Frank – sorry, late to the game.

      Lawyers are risk adverse and there is a fear of failure but this ties in with the overall culture problem.

      As an articling student, soon to be a new lawyer, these pressures weigh heavily. I find young lawyers are interested in being innovative and trying new things, but they are concerned about the risks and about their reputation in the profession.

      I’m happy to see that there is a lot of discussion about change, even within various law societies, but the discussions haven’t lead to any significant changes yet. I think a lot of lawyers are waiting for change and in the meantime we are watching organizations like LegalZoom (or Uber, outside the law profession) push the limits and pave the way for greater innovation.

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