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The neglect of value in legal innovation

Is Big Law innovating? Has it been, but is now stopping? Can it stop (if, indeed, it has started)? If it had been innovating, but has now stopped, would it admit it? If it has started, will its clients now let it stop and take a breather?

All good questions, posed, and answered recently, by Artificial Lawyer/Richard Tromans in “What If…Big Law Pulled The Plug On Legal Innovation?” and, in a reply to that post, by The Time Blawg/Brian Inkster in “What if… Lawyers aren’t Innovating?”

Richard’s post was prompted by some recent moves and organisational changes in the innovation areas of some Big Law firms, that could be interpreted as a loosening of their commitment to innovation.

Brian’s point was that most of what passes for innovation in Big Law doesn’t look new to many in law, and certainly not to nearly everybody outside it.

But one point, surely, is that it doesn’t much matter that it’s not new to those of us now working in the legal sector, who have come from outside (many of us carrying the still-stigmatic label of “non-lawyer”). If it’s new to the firms and their clients, and if it’s an improvement in service that delivers value, then it’s innovation.

It’s value that is most neglected in the discussions about innovation in law, and its hipster cousin, legal tech. Innovation is not about doing something new, it’s about delivering new value through a change or improvement. Without value, that’s all it is – change.

Innovation is a social and economic activity, not a technological one. That’s not to say that technology can’t be a, possibly the, key component of an innovation initiative. But legal tech, like innovation itself, is merely a means to an end – which is new value for the customer, and greater customer satisfaction. (“Customer” chosen deliberately, and possibly provocatively, here.)

Most importantly, value is defined by that customer. Considering value as a yardstick for the comparative measurement of initiatives starts to force law firms to think outside in (from the customer into the firm), rather than in the traditional inside-out way (from the firm to its customers, where the customers often turn out to be something of an afterthought).

The Time Blawg is right in his judgement about Richard’s list of the areas in which lawyers should be innovating – they are not particularly new areas. Indeed, the list, and Brian’s comment on it, reminded me that it is some 40 years ago that I did my first document automation project, for the Deeds Administration department of a mortgage company. The technology probably looks primitive now to young eyes (IDMSX database, COBOL programming language, a Wang word-processor…) but the project delivered the same sort of benefits we are still looking for today from our modern document automation suites – greater consistency through standard clauses, paragraphs and documents; reduced human effort to compose the apparently-bespoke output based on standard inputs; and faster throughput  – in short, greater quality at a lower cost.

The search for value is endless, because its achievement secures, at least temporarily, the future.  Not all innovation is disruptive, but all disruptive innovation is about changing the value equations, and expectations, of an industry or sector. I disagree slightly with Brian when he says that firms “simply have to improve” on what they are already doing rather than worry about innovating as such  – I think they have to focus on innovation as I have defined it above, and be continually seeking to improve so that they deliver better value and satisfaction to their customers. It doesn’t have to be major ground-breaking innovation – not, that is, until someone else does it. A steady stream of real value-delivering small improvements will go a long way with customers, even in these over-heated times, and will surely be worthy of the label of innovation.

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Photo credits: documents icon by Richard Copley

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