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INSIGHT: Three Design-Led Methods for Inspiring Real Change in Your Law Firm

Feb. 10, 2020, 9:01 AM

Lawyers are trained to spot the flaw in any argument. This works well when two sides are pitted against each other across the deal table.

But when this power of analysis is turned inward upon themselves and the future of their law firm, it can lead straight to analysis paralysis. More often than not, the decision gets made to stick with the status quo and follow the law firm herd.

For the last decade or so, this approach has worked: Profits are strong. 2018 was a banner year for law firms, and 2019 will likely be better once all the results are in.

But when you scratch the surface, there are indications that winter will eventually arrive. Fewer associates (at least the best ones) want to become partners at big law firms. The Big Four accounting firms and legal tech startups are eating away at the margins. When the next recession arrives, clients will again push back on the astronomical fees that keep the law firm merry-go-round spinning.

This isn’t another article predicting the demise of the legal profession. I’m optimistic that law firms can change and thrive. But it will take innovative new ways of thinking and acting. Like the ant preparing for winter in that old Aesop fable, it’s time to start preparing for the next recession. Here are three design-led methods for inspiring real change in law firms.

Get Multidisciplinary

Law firms tend to be owned and operated by lawyers. In the United States, the rules generally mandate it. This structure creates a culture that divides the firm into lawyers and everyone else. The non-lawyers exist to support the lawyers and keep costs down.

Thanks to technology, plain vanilla legal advice is available for free (via a Google search) or near-free (via the plethora of legal tech startups). Clients will always need good lawyers, but they’ll need them to answer the hard problems exclusively, not the straightforward, commoditized stuff.

These complicated problems are increasingly one part legal, two parts business, and three parts technical. Clients don’t just want the right legal answer, they want to know how a legal decision fits into the business climate or what tech solution will keep them safe from liability while cutting data storage fees in half. The future of the legal profession is lawyers working equally alongside professionals with different training and expertise, like engineers, MBA’s, and graphic designers.

Law can no longer be practiced in firms full of lawyers who think the same way and are at the top of the organization just because they’re lawyers. The future of the law firm is less lawyers and more multi-disciplinary. Hire the engineers and designers quickly before the legal tech startups get all the good ones!

The Power of Divergence

Designers talk about moments of divergence and convergence during the creative process. When diverging, we cast the net wide and get inspired by all sorts of possibilities. Later, we go into convergence mode, synthesizing the most important nuggets and transforming them into prototypes that can be tested with customers

Lawyers, by contrast, have been trained to be linear thinkers, and use logic and precedent to identify their solution and move quickly into execution mode (file the brief, raise associate salaries, etc.). This linear approach generally serves clients well: At $700 an hour, I sure as heck don’t want my lawyer doing a lot of divergent thinking!

Unfortunately, this linear problem-solving approach is not well-suited for innovation. When it comes to change, the default mindset for management at most law firms is to toss some money at the problem, identify a solution, then execute on it. Later when this solution isn’t achieving the desired transformational impact, a new initiative is identified. Or, just as often, the firm returns to the old way of doing things.

This approach reminds me of a robot vacuum cleaner when it gets stuck in the corner, banging again and again into the wall until its battery goes dead.

The trick is to embrace moments of divergence in the innovation process within law firms.

For example, once Hogan Lovells converged on a design for its new associate review system a few years ago, they didn’t rush the firm-wide rollout. Instead, they created a piloting plan to test the new approach. Participants tried the new feedback system for three months, but it was made clear that the design wasn’t final and their ideas for improvement were valued.

At the end of this period of divergence, feedback was collected and used to tweak the next version of the system, before converging once more toward the firm-wide rollout. By building this intentional moment of divergence into the innovation process, the solution was improved and ultimately more sustainable for Hogan Lovells.

Stories Rule

During a legal innovation project, a team of designers spent several weeks inside a law firm interviewing employees up and down the organization. When presenting their results to the management committee, the team was prepared to share hard truths about what needed to change going forward.

They had a rational argument to support their recommendation, but it wasn’t buttressed by case law or quantitative data. Instead, each of the recommendations was backed by human stories that the team had heard.

After the presentation, there was silence. Then one of the lawyers on the management committee cleared her throat, leaned forward, and asked, “Can you tell us more about what you heard from the associate. It’s so fascinating. The story about ... .”

Yes, lawyers are fiercely logical creatures. But they accept stories as evidence. In fact, it was the power of human storytelling that helped this firm understand their implicit values and how they needed to evolve going forward.

Law firms and other high-IQ organizational cultures over-index on the analytical side of the equation and expect that a rational argument will invariably win over employees. The power of human storytelling is an under-developed muscle in most law firms. And the good news is that law firms are filled with oodles of compelling stories. Start harvesting them today.

Change is coming. Whether it’s in the next month, next year, or next decade, one of the regular recessions that disrupt the legal profession will once again be upon us. But thanks to these three simple innovation approaches, you’ll be ready for winter, just like our friend the ant in Aesop’s fable. Don’t be the grasshopper!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Sean Hewens is a design director at IDEO, where he leads projects and programs focused on systems design, legal innovation, and organizational transformation. He also co-leads IDEO’s legal innovation practice, where he’s using human-centered design to shepherd the legal profession kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.

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