As we enter a new decade – one in which the fourth industrial revolution will fundamentally change the way we create and use, store and value, exchange and interact with data – I wonder: is innovation in BigLaw firms redundant?

We often hear from legal legend commentators – such as Susskind, Cohen and others – that the last 5-10 years has seen unprecedented change across the profession; and that in the next 10 years it will change even more. I don’t disagree. The disaggregation of legal services will continue, fuelled by technological advances, new providers, and commercially savvy legal buyers becoming ever more sophisticated and adept at determining what constitutes legal ‘advice’ versus legal information or other services. The role a ‘black letter lawyer’ plays will undoubtedly diminish to the bare necessity as clients drive the changes the profession is failing to make on its own.

BigLaw evolution is required

Many of us understand BigLaw ‘needs’ to change, adapt and evolve to survive in this Darwinian environment. However, one wonders if – much like a rudderless tanker at sea – whether BigLaw has the power within to turn the ship around in time, to set a course to a safe and profitable new harbour rather than becoming irrelevant, redundant, or worse, extinct (sunk if you will)?

The race to press release on all things innovative, the ‘differentiating’ websites, the awards, the conference speeches have been numerous in the last few years, however, much of it exists in an echo chamber. As I reflect on a decade in BigLaw, I’m left asking myself: has there been any truly innovative breakthroughs?

Where’s the innovation?

While we’ve seen the increased use of automation, HotDocs will argue the origins of document assembly go back to the ’70s[1]; and others that technology assisted review (TAR) and analysis has been around for at least 10 years[2]; arguably both before “legal innovation” was the fatigued ‘BS Bingo’ buzzword it is today.

So what have we been doing for the last decade? And if we haven’t really innovated in BigLaw, is it in fact, redundant?

Have any of the multinational global law firms had the courage to drop the billable hour (not just hourly targets) across their offices in favour of solution- or value-based pricing? How many have restructured away from the outdated partnership model to reflect a more modern commercial business? And if not, why not?

The way we do things needs to change

The innovation required to survive is far more substantial to secure the sustainability and relevance of BigLaw institutions than automating some processes and documents – it would be a shame for the profession stalwarts to become extinct.

Arguably BigLaw has the will to change and is often supported by strong leadership, so why hasn’t innovation been globally embraced as simply ‘the way we do things’? Why are partners and lawyers not seeking different ways to drive client value?

Where are the incentives and remuneration structures rewarding the behaviours we seek, and perhaps more importantly, the consequences for not considering ways to deliver more efficient, collaborative business solutions faster, better and cheaper? Solutions that are co-created and delivered by a team of professionals that includes lawyers, technologists, strategists, change managers, marketeers, and solution architects? Now *that* would be innovative.

Legal innovation in the 2020s

Like you, I don’t have all the answers, however, I do have some unsolicited suggestions for consideration to help BigLaw evolve in the 2020s:

  1. Create a leadership team / Board comprising a 50:50 split of lawyers and business operations professionals (to be truly representative of BigLaw constituents)
  2. Kill the billable hour and bury it for good (and remunerate people for delivering value rather than meeting hourly widget targets)
  3. Dispense with the elitist partnership model
  4. Employ lawyers and professionals who will help you achieve your vision rather than hinder (or worse, actively block) it
  5. Collaborate with your clients and suppliers…. and your competitors, co-opetition will undoubtedly form part of your future survival kit
  6. Be brave, have the courage to take the leap and evolve before your competitors do

The ‘new normal’ and industrialisation of legal services is here to stay; ensuring innovation is not made redundant will help BigLaw better position themselves in readiness to respond to the unknown challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

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[1] Origins of Document Assembly, 2012, https://www.hotdocs.com/origins-document-assembly/

[2] A Brief History of Technology Assisted Review, 17 November 2015, https://www.lawtechnologytoday.org/2015/11/history-technology-assisted-review/


Alison Laird is currently the Inaugural Chair of the Chief Innovation Officers Forum and Director of innovation consultancy Laird Innovations – a management consultancy demystifying innovation and improving operational efficiency for law firms, in-house corporate counsel and professional services.

She always wanted to be an astronaut, but somehow ended up in the legal industry without being a lawyer. Fast forward 10 years and she specialises in helping the legal profession create a new ‘normal’ deliver faster, better, and more efficient services combining people, process and technology.

MBA qualified, she has worked in a range of legal strategy and change management roles in Dubai, London, Brisbane and Melbourne in global law firms and is currently a Teaching Fellow with Australia’s College of Law Master of Legal Business degree.