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INSIGHT: What’s ‘Innovative’ in BigLaw? It’s More Than the Latest Tech Tools

Dec. 11, 2019, 9:00 AM

There’s little doubt that advanced technologies have tremendous potential to help law firms, legal departments, and their clients make big gains in efficiency and cost savings. But amid the hype surrounding legal technology, it’s easy to forget that innovation and technology are not always synonymous.

Innovation is a creative approach to problem solving that involves deploying existing knowledge or resources in new ways. Developing innovative solutions is hard work. It requires a lot of listening to understand the problem, intensive analysis, the generation and validation of ideas (sometimes over and over), and detailed concept validation—all of which should happen before the “final” deliverable is ready.

Applying technology to a problem can be innovative, but technology is only one tool in the innovator’s toolbox, and it is rarely the first tool to reach for.

A Technology-First Obsession Can Lead Us in Wrong Direction

There can be several problems with a technology-first approach to law firm innovation. It can cause us to reflexively look for new tools before we understand the problem we are trying to solve. It can prevent both vendors and law firms from recognizing the diversity of their clients and the specificity of their requirements.

Designing solutions that work well for all stakeholders is notoriously difficult, and many tools introduced into organizations are never fully implemented or widely used.

Experience has taught us that firm-wide deployment of most technologies presents many challenges. Technology is evolving faster than many lawyers are able to adopt new tools and integrate them into their practice, yet software alone rarely provides law firms with the kind of innovation that clients are actually looking for.

Innovation Is Holistic, Requires Thinking and Listening

A technology-first approach also overlooks the importance of human behavior and organizational culture in developing truly innovative solutions. As representatives from a law firm and a legal technology company, respectively, we approach innovation from very different perspectives, but both of us recognize the preoccupation with new tools often gets in the way of other meaningful innovation.

An innovative law firm harnesses technology and ideas to solve problems for its clients, its business and its people. Innovation is a core element of Hogan Lovells’ firm culture. The firm has purposefully cultivated creative thinking about client pain points and internal inefficiencies.

It has learned to foster innovation holistically from a variety of angles—investing, for example, in a Client Listening program to better understand client priorities and a Legal Technology Working Group to support and promote the use of existing tools by the firm’s lawyers.

The firm actively promotes an innovative mindset in every aspect of its business. This extends into the culture and the identity of the firm, and includes client relationships, the firm’s approach to solving business problems, the way its people work, its approach to hiring and talent retention, and even the ways it engages with local communities.

Innovation is an ongoing process of thinking through difficult problems carefully and collectively with plenty of communication between stakeholders, and there is a firmwide commitment to that process at all levels of the organization.

Innovative legal technology vendors should seek to develop solutions that are virtually invisible to the user. Instead of prioritizing the deployment of new and unfamiliar applications to users and then (rather unsurprisingly) struggle to get their law firm clients’ to catalyze user adoption, they should first engage in intensive conversations with individual users to arrive at a detailed understanding of existing processes and bottlenecks.

Only after completing that process and thoroughly testing possible solutions do they begin to implement incremental changes that users barely notice. Those changes may involve the use of “advanced” technologies like artificial intelligence and proprietary algorithms, but ideally they will be built inside of the more conventional applications (like email) that law firms and their clients already use every day.

The future of legal technology is not about building new applications that require significant changes in user behavior. It is more effective—and ultimately more “innovative”—to start small by focusing on relatively mundane administrative tasks, minimize the initial technological footprint, and allow the underlying solution to do its work independently and incrementally over time.

This is the promise and beauty of AI technologies that analyze data and iteratively “learn” as they are exposed to more data and input from subject matter experts. The ideal outcome is not a shiny new tool that solves all of your problems at once, but rather organic behavioral change, where users make adjustments gradually and intuitively.

Top Innovation Factors for Success

While our two organizations, a law firm and a legal technology vendor, necessarily have somewhat different perspectives on innovation, and although we recognize that successful innovation looks quite different in other organizations, we agree on several basic principles:

  • The first step is always to observe and listen.This may seem obvious, but it is a step that organizations routinely skip or perform haphazardly. Conducting focused conversations with individuals is the only way firms and vendors can understand client problems and how clients expect those needs will be addressed. Firms should also consider programs to foster communication with their own attorneys and staff across practice areas about workflow and efficiency challenges.
  • True innovation is about rigorously defining a client problem and then addressing it through a combination of workflow process, technology, and people. The mix will vary considerably according by organization, industry, company culture and other factors, but a sustainable solution will always involve all three.
  • Leave aside the goal of wholesale transformation and focus instead on specific client use cases. Working closely with a major client and a technology vendor to address bottlenecks in a very large legal matter, Hogan Lovells saw an opportunity to develop a solution using natural language processing and machine learning that “tokenizes” written Korean and allows lawyers to search through millions of Korean-language documents in a very short period of time. While the solution has since been adapted for use in other cases on documents in other languages, the initial focus of innovation was quite narrow and involved intensive discussions with the client on a very specific problem.

Before revving the engines in the innovation process, the safety check comes first. Successful innovation requires a deliberate, holistic approach that takes into consideration people, process, and technology. Firms and vendors that listen and learn before implementing significant change will stand apart from competitors—and help ensure long-term success.

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

Author Information

Ryan Steadman is chief revenue officer at ZERØ and Mark W. Brennan is lead innovation partner and privacy and communications partner at Hogan Lovells in Washington, D.C.

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