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5 Strategies for Successful Innovation Projects in Law Firms

It is always difficult to implement new solutions in law firms as there are various friction levels in working with different stakeholders. Below are 5 strategies to keep your innovation initiative on track:

1.  Law Firms as Archipelagos - Start with the Friendly Islands


One of the most important things to note before starting any implementation of an innovation initiative in a law firm is that law firms do not operate with the hierarchical management structures that are often present in corporations and even corporate law departments.  Legal technologist John Alber made a great analogy that most law firms operate as archipelagos where each island or island group is centered on a particular partner's or team's practice and has its own unique values, interests and way of working. 

This makes effecting firm wide change in a top down manner very difficult.  Instead it often works best to build consensus and momentum by starting your initiative with the "friendly islands" - the allies that have high trust in you and an aligned vision.  They will be much more tolerant of bumps along the way and take pride in being an early adopter.

Once you have some success with these groups, you can move out to the next group of less friendly or neutral "islands" by including some of the team members from the first group to help move along any opponents.

Last work on converting the opponents who have low trust and are adverse to change.  If you started with this group or forced the initiative on them as a top down type change, they could have the ability to stop the whole project.  At this point they are likely the minority and they may either just come along because it is easiest or they may never be convinced, however they won't have the momentum to kill the movement at this point.   Peter Block's Stakeholder Analysis is helpful when thinking about this approach.

2.  Limit Implementation Tasks and Barriers to Getting the Project Started

Lawyers and most legal teams are very busy and their schedule is often dictated solely by client deadlines, which often pop up on almost no notice and cannot be controlled by the lawyers.  Even the best innovation project can end up on the back burner for weeks or months and even years.  As a result, especially during the implementation stage, it is very important to ask as little as possible from the legal team as it could delay the project until resources free up.

 If possible, deliver a minimum viable product with almost no heavy lifting from the legal team.  This should be balanced however with making sure you deliver a solution that works and is completely free of technological issues or mistakes, as one glitch at the wrong time may turn even the most enthusiastic stakeholder into an opponent of the project. 

Legal teams are often under great pressure to deliver perfect work product in unreasonably tight time frames. If the solution results in a mistake that makes the lawyer look bad in front of a client trust will be lost quickly.

3.  Train During Billable Work Whenever Possible

As much training as possible should be done while performing actual tasks the legal team needs to complete.  For example, if you are training a user on how to use a transaction management platform, train the team on how to enter a deal and generate documents on a real matter.  Then they can bill the time and get their work done while learning the new way of working.

This helps to keep the legal team's focus as they do not feel they are spending time on training that they could be using to work on billable matters.  More often than not, if you hold a training session, most lawyers will be doing something else like responding to emails or drafting a document and you may not have their full focus.

4.  Build Trust by Always Being Available to Help and Add Value

Lawyers and legal teams are expected to work around the clock and be available at all times, so you should expect to be available as well.  It is helpful to make sure you are aware of deadlines that may rely on your solution. 

If a user has a problem and you are not available to help them quickly, they will revert to the old familiar way of working.  On the other hand, if you help them meet a deadline by making their task easier, they will be more likely to recommend the initiative to other groups of users and trust that the change will not cause them an unexpected problem.

Once you have earned their trust you will be on your way to forming a coalition of users that will help to convert others that are more change averse.  Here is a link to an awesome article that discussions why it is important to build coalitions whenever implementing a project.  

5.  Stay Positive

Maybe the most important aspect of driving any innovation project forward is keeping a positive approach to all stakeholders. Even if a project appears to be stalled, there could be a number of reasons for the delay, ranging from the legal team being buried with billable work or a key stakeholder being out on vacation during the summer.  Always keep pushing forward with patience and a positive outlook and enjoy the journey and the process. 

When you run into opposition, think about ways to engage and persuade stakeholders.  This is an awesome article that does a great job explaining how motivating lawyers to leverage legal technology should be less about ROI and more about the two things that law firms care about most in todays market - keeping clients happy and retaining talent.