How law firms are becoming innovators

The busy legal conference season for 2017 closed with LegalWeek Connect, one of the most ambitious and high-profile new events of the year.  Nine Feet Tall were there and our recently joined Legal Strategy Lead, Chris Bull, was there to question Clifford Chance’s Global Head of Innovation and Business Change, Bas Boris Visser, on stage. Their session really got beyond the headlines to look at how large law firms are managing to introduce innovation and new legal technology into what are usually seen as slow to change organisations.  We have summarised some of the highlights of their exchange here:

Do the right things for the right reasons

Law firms have a long tradition of campaigning, standing up for the rule of law and offering pro bono support. But, they are also regularly accused of putting the pursuit of both Partner profits and maximum time recorded on client matters above all else. Bas Boris was very clear that today’s world demands that firms put clients’ needs first.  Changes and innovation introduced must always be judged from that perspective – is this the ‘right thing’ for the client?

You will need new people with new skills

Like any organisation embarking on an ambitious innovation programme, Clifford Chance have asked people from across their senior ranks to take a leading role; Bas Boris Visser himself was previously Managing Partner of the firm’s Amsterdam office. But, they have also invested in new skills that they believe are critical to the new model of legal business. The Continuous Improvement team includes Resource Managers, Analysts, Data Scientists, Coders and, exactly as we would expect, experienced Project Managers.  Looking forward, the firm is investing in new programmes to develop some of these skills across the broader population and expects the number of hybrid roles, where legal and technical/project skills are combined, to increase rapidly.

Stimulate small, local improvements alongside big firm-wide programmes

Chris and Bas Boris were in overwhelming agreement about the need for a mix of different initiatives.  In order to embed a true culture of innovation, especially in places where change and new thinking hasn’t always been a priority, the firm needs to support and encourage multiple small-scale, local, incremental improvements, alongside the Big Ideas and change programmes.  At Clifford Chance their Best Delivery strategy encourages teams across all departments and geographies to find better, more efficient ways of serving their clients.

Engaging with new technologies is now imperative

No law firms have unlimited budgets for technology investment, and smaller firms have to prioritise and stretch their expenditure with great care.  But the message from not just this session, but the entire conference, was that it is no longer possible for firms to hold back and ‘wait and see’ how technologies such as analytics, document automation, Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain will develop.  Clients are expecting firms to have a good understanding of the new tools out there in the market, and partnering with key clients on new tech pilots and trials is a good way of engaging.

Empower and connect your people

Any firm with multiple teams and locations faces the challenge of engaging all parts of the organisation in change. At Clifford Chance this is a global challenge and they are developing an online Global Ideas Exchange which will help teams from different areas collaborate on improvements and innovations.  The firm is making a clear commitment to encouraging and supporting new ideas and putting a premium on sharing best practice and collaborating, rather than internal competition.  It is also determined to avoid the perception that change is being “imposed from the London mothership”.

Finally, be open

Perhaps the most refreshing message of all from this session was the emphasis on the firm being transparent with its people and clients.  Clifford Chance recognise that nobody knows exactly where the developments in legal tech are taking the legal industry, and that there will be mistakes along the way.  The firm should communicate regularly and openly about its innovation journey and the distance still to go.  Most of the speakers at the LegalWeek event observed that some features of the legal market and traditional law firm partnership model were obstacles to delivering the highly efficient and value for money services clients will expect. Bas Boris Visser believes that firm leaders need to acknowledge that there is still some way to go and not create expectations that culture can be changed overnight.

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