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Innovation from Within: Why law firms need to engage Millennials and other right-brained thinkers to thrive.



It’s clear. The mounting pressures facing the legal services sector are not part of a cycle – they are here to stay. Simple tweaks are no longer going to cut it. We need to face the facts. But, are we equipped to do so? Do we have the right mindset, perspective and training?  Law firms are struggling to adapt while remaining profitable.  Statistics show that the majority are simply increasing fees, increasing billable hour expectations and cutting staff.  These tactics are not only ultimately unsuccessful, they result in an atmosphere of fight, flight, and freeze – exactly the opposite of what has led the most successful companies to thrive in today’s economy.  However, recent conversations, articles, and books have shown me that a few of the more intrepid among us have dared to think outside the box and are beginning to reap the rewards.  How can firms set themselves up to innovate from the inside instead of being left by the wayside?

Some of you may have seen a transcript of a lecture delivered by Dana Robinson (Founding Partner of TechLaw LLC and adjunct professor at the University of San Diego) circulating on LinkedIn here. Dana congratulates the Millennials in his first year IP law class, for having the creativity and innovation that will attract today’s most attractive clients.  He states:

“Left-brained law firms doing work for left-brained businesses are on the way out.  As right-brained businesses take over, they require creative attorneys who think outside the box.  The law firms of the future are like the client they will serve: creative, flexible, fun.”

Creative. Flexible. Fun. When is the last time you heard those three words used to describe a traditional law firm?  However, based on what I have heard from in-house counsel around the world and based on the positive results I have seen enjoyed by some of the most creative and innovative in the profession, I think he has hit the nail on the head.

What does fun have to do with it?

Let’s tackle the “fun” part first.  Traditionally, lawyers have equated being professional with being formal and holding our clients at arm’s length.  Many of us are very cynical about expressing emotions, especially those that reveal any vulnerability.  In the extreme, this has led to attitudes of condescension and pretension, especially among the older generation of lawyers.  These are the two characteristics I have heard most in-house counsel reject outright when choosing a trusted advisor today.

Many of us have discovered that forming some type of personal connection with contacts and clients does seem to translate into winning work.  The reason for that is very simple, and yet so few in the legal profession seem curious about how to hone and leverage this as a professional skill and tool.  Human beings, no matter what we like to think, make decisions based on emotions.  We also remember and are drawn to people and ideas that have a positive emotion attached to them.  Furthermore, feelings of familiarity – when combined with positive emotions – foster feelings of trust.

Need any more reasons to work on your “soft” skills?  Given the abundance of choice, the ability to make a genuine personal connection with our clients and contacts is an essential professional skill for lawyers today.

When is the last time you had fun with your clients or potential clients?

Being creative in the service industry means co-creating.

We have all heard the elusive phrase “trusted advisor” when we talk about what clients want in a lawyer.  But what does that mean?  

As noted above, the “trust” element often comes through familiarity and shared positive emotions.  

Being an “advisor” implies an expertise in the area of interest.  Many lawyers make the mistake of thinking that they only need to be an expert in the law.  However, busy in-house counsel with tight budgets and a multitude of responsibilities want advice that is delivered in the context of their business reality.  This requires lawyers to have two woefully underutilized skills: active listening and deep curiosity.   Clients hold the key to our relevance these days.  Without acquiring the mindset and skills to respond to this reality, lawyers and their law firms will be left behind.  

When is the last time you truly felt you were co-creating with your client?

If you don’t bend, you might break (or at least be left behind).

In Mitch Kowalski’s attention-grabbing book, The Great Legal Reformation, (an absolute must read for anyone looking to stay ahead in the legal services industry) he begins by telling the story of four University of Toronto computer science students who were accepted into a collaboration with IBM to use its artificial intelligence (AI) program. Although none of them had a legal background, they created ROSS – one of the top breakthrough technologies in the legal profession to date.  We would all do well to consider the question Mr. Kowalski poses: “How was it that a small group of very young Millennials so quickly grasped the potential of AI in legal services and acted upon it, yet an industry filled with thousands of mature, well-educated lawyers, did not?”.

That antiquated formality and hierarchical condescension, favoured by so many lawyers in large law firms (and informing the business and compensation models used) dampens creativity and innovation within the firm.  Those Millennials that were so creative in law school, learn soon enough to abandon such an approach.  Billable targets keep them tied to their desks with little time for co-creating and innovating with their clients.  No one is happy.  

When was the last time your firm invested in a lawyer’s radical new idea firmly based on feedback from clients?

So what can you do to stay ahead of the game?

Leaving aside necessary changes to business models and compensation structures, below we offer a few ideas of what law firms can do to create an atmosphere where creativity and innovation thrive.  

  • Provide (non-technical) Professional Skills Training:  Our clients hold the key to our relevance.  We need to be able to connect with them in a meaningful way in order to respond creatively and innovatively to their needs. Unfortunately, these professional skills, and how to efficiently apply them, have not traditionally been part of our legal training.  We need to catch up with the rest of the marketplace.  Training and practice using professional skills such as curiosity, open-ended questions, and active listening will build emotional intelligence and right-brained thinking among lawyers.  Read about SC&C’s workshops here.
  • Provide Support to Your Team:  Many lawyers feel overwhelmed with the fact that it is no longer enough to be a technical expert. This discomfort makes them resistant to taking on new habits and new perspectives. Don’t leave your star technical players behind. Many firms are making one-on-one coaching available to individual lawyers to help them identify and pursue who they need to be and what they need do in order to meet today’s challenges.  Coaching also helps those that are already thinking creatively and innovatively to maximize their potential and follow through on new ideas.  Read about SC&C’s coaching here.
  • Engage Millennials:  Instead of bemoaning what this generation of lawyers is not bringing to the table, firms can benefit from tapping into what Millenials do offer.  Consider providing workshops and forums for Millennials in order to engage them and access their natural aptitudes for thinking outside the box. Contact us to hear about our Millennial Programs.  Read our case study here.
  • Foster Collaboration:  Working as part of a team and sharing ideas can accelerate creativity and innovation.  Consider bringing cohorts of lawyers together to brainstorm clients needs and gaps in the market.  A trained facilitator or group coach can create the right environment to spark participation and help turn ideas into calls to action.  
  • Create Leaders That Foster Innovation: In order for creativity and innovation to thrive, leaders of the firm must learn the skills to create the necessary environment for engagement.  Many CEOs and management teams in the corporate world are acquiring coaching skills that have been shown to help change the perspectives and habits of their entire team. Read about SC&C’s “Train the Trainers” courses here.


About SC&C: Our Team of coaches, facilitators, and trainers work with lawyers and firms to build their capacity to bring in bigger and better business, leading to a more profitable and satisfying practice. Based in Canada, with ties around the world, we can help you where you are to build the international clientele that you want. Contact us at info@sccignites.com.

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