How “innovation” has become a hindrance to progression

How “innovation” has become a hindrance to progression

The market is changing. You get that. Be more client-oriented. Deliver your services more efficiently, more cost-effectively and in a way the client wants them. This all seems to make sense, so what is standing in your way?

I detect a fairly large obstacle in the form of the words “innovator” and “entrepreneur” and the perceptions they create. These words conjure images of risk-hungry “dragons” or Silicon Valley whizz kids, not the measured trusted expert adviser tag that lawyers are far more comfortable with. They are words you use to describe other people. Most importantly, they represent implausibility and unattainability, as opposed to the potential to deliver any real world practical benefit.

In this way, the seemingly widespread perception that you have to be an innovator and entrepreneur to succeed in the modern market has become a hindrance to progression.

The essence of being a lawyer is problem-solving, not innovation. Finding a solution to a problem; then finding a slightly different solution to the problem; then finding a solution to a slightly different problem. And so on. A simple, progressive and iterative process. This results in innovation, but in a form much less grand or magical than the rhetoric of the self-proclaimed innovators might suggest.

A few diverse examples might help illustrate this.

It is easy for a group of lawyers to excuse themselves from trying anything different on the grounds that they are inherently conservative and that change is just not for them. It is a little harder to justify this stance when you look at Kent County Council Legal Services. Local authority lawyers are naturally seen as a conservative group within an even more conservative sector. So how has Kent become such a beacon of innovative success?  The answer is quite simple. Having recognised it had a quality product that met the council's specific needs in a particular way, it took the decision to deliver these services to other organisations with similar requirements, namely public bodies throughout the UK. (I must add that I use the word "simple" to refer to the concept. The achievement of successfully executing the plan was far from it, but this is a different question. I will come to execution in an example that follows).

A traditionally-structured Magic Circle law firm is another category of organisation that doesn’t immediately leap to your mind when you think of innovation. Allen & Overy offers a large range of online subscription services that I suspect in their own right would earn a place in or around the top 100 UK law firms by turnover. What business does a law firm have indulging in such seemingly extreme forms of innovation? Again, I suggest it is simpler than you might think.

Take their "Rulefinder Shareholding Disclosure" service. The firm was some time ago regularly being asked by institutional investor clients to advise on disclosure thresholds for investment in listed equities in various jurisdictions. In response they would do the necessary research and provide the advice sought. And then do it again for another client. And again. Having become rather good at it and knowing the process involved it was not such a huge leap to find a way to automate it using technology, improving the service to the clients, reducing the cost and freeing lawyers up for where their value can be better applied. In this context, it seems a simple and logical evolution of their services.

Finally, you may recall Stobart Barristers. It is no longer, much to the pleasure of many at the Bar who seemed to have taken an instant dislike to it since launch. (In fairness, its somewhat brash promotional communications probably played a role in this.) But its demise was not down to the concept, which was perfectly sound. As with the previous examples, it aimed to take a service that was being delivered effectively to a specific part of the market to a broader audience, aiming to capitalise on experience, knowledge and process effectiveness. This is an approach that merits serious consideration by the Bar if it is to take any serious steps towards its boldly-declared intention to make inroads into the wider "public access" market.

Ultimately, it was execution rather than design that led to Stobart’s demise. Instead of offering the service model to other logistics companies, then perhaps to different specialist industries and then broadening its market by gradual evolution, it hastily attempted a vast leap to diverse unconnected practice areas, such as contested divorces. In doing so it undermined the effectiveness of the original idea.

I have aimed to illustrate the relative simplicity involved in successfully evolving services, which too often is masked by the aura surrounding the ubiquitous "innovation" and "entrepreneur" badges. I wouldn’t go as far as calling them dirty words, but they can be misleading, unnecessary and illusory ones which, in their perception, can limit the potential for real progress that I believe is much nearer the grasp of many lawyers than they might think. If we can cast such perceptions aside, then the prospect of a wholesale improvement in effectiveness, customer satisfaction and profitability across the legal services market will move a significant step closer to becoming reality. This could lead to the innovation of an entire industry. In the true sense of the word.

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