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When I was a young man, I hated practicing the piano.  Beethoven. Haydn. Schumann. Boring. And truth be told, I was never a very good pianist, but I loved playing the piano.  I would sit and play for hours, not any written music mind you, I was just exploring the keyboard, trying different combinations, listening to the various harmonies and dissonances that I could create.  My mother tells horror stories of hours of the same 4 chords played with slight variation, over and over and over again and again and again until she would scream, “Don’t you have some MUSIC to practice?”

My piano teacher knew I was never going to be a great pianist, but in the fifth grade she made a deal with me.  For every great masterwork I learned, I could create my own.  From that moment on, I always played two pieces at each recital.  One boring piece some dead white European guy (DWEG) wrote, and one brilliant original McClead composition.

My teacher tried to use the DWEG pieces to teach me some basic theory behind the music, but I always bristled at that. I remember being afraid that knowing the underlying theory would make me write music that sounded like it was written by a DWEG.  I wanted to be creative and original. I didn’t want to be or sound like a DWEG, therefore, I wasn’t going to bother learning the DWEG way of doing things. This thinking resulted in hours of the same 4 chords played with slight variation, over and over and over again. It was fundamental exploration and experimentation that had to be done; a sacrifice that I, my mother, and anyone in earshot had to make if I was ever to be a great composer.

When I got to high school, I took my first actual music theory course and my mind was blown.  These stupid DWEGs had discovered all of the same things I had, many years before I did (along with a couple of other things I’d never thought to explore).  They’d written them all down, given them names, put them in books, and now nice people could teach me everything the DWEGs knew in a couple of years of study.

A funny thing happened.  My music got better.  Orders of magnitude better.  And I still didn’t write music that sounded like a DWEG, but I benefitted from their hard work, their experimentation, their failure, and their success.

So, lesson from a former life #1.  Don’t reinvent the wheel.  You are not the first person to attempt to innovate in a legal environment.  People have been doing it for decades, whether they called it innovation or not.  There may not be a full-blown theory of legal innovation, with books and courses, but there are plenty of nice people in this industry who have innovated the practice of law with and without technology. The last thing you want to do is spend a year on a major innovation project, only to have it fail horribly and then find out others have tried much the same thing and had the same results.

But “Wait”, you say, “I can’t tell anyone about this super-secret innovation project I’m working on right now. They might steal it.”

Two industry-wide truths that no one wants to admit:

  1. First, you’re all working on the same stuff. In my role as a vendor, I can count on two fingers the number of times that I’ve ever heard an original idea from a law firm or corporate legal department, and I don’t think either of those worked.  Typically, the conversation goes like this:

Client: We’re under NDA, right?

Me: Yep.

Client: Okay, so keep this under your hat, I don’t want this getting out.

Me: Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a…

Client:  Okay, okay.  Good.  (Takes a deep breath.  Clears throat.)

Me: You wanna build a GDPR solution.

Client: How did you…?

  1. Secondly, every organization has a completely different vision, structure, culture, and aptitude. So, if you laid out your super-secret project in excruciatingly fine detail so that absolutely anyone could pick up your report and replicate your results exactly, no one could replicate your project at all. I promise. It’s not possible. You are safe.

So, with that in mind, cut the cloak & dagger innovation crap. If you have ‘innovation’ in your title, do yourself and your firm/company a favor and speak as openly as you can about what you’re working on to as many other innovative people as you can.  I’m not saying you should break confidentiality or give away firm secrets, but the more open innovators are the more successful innovators.  They spend less time replicating the mistakes that other people have already made.

Photo of Ryan McClead Ryan McClead

Ryan is Principal at Sente Advisors, a legal technology consultancy specializing in innovation strategy and cross-platform solutions and support.  He has been an evangelist, advocate, consultant, and creative thinker in Legal Technology for more than 15 years. In 2015, he was named a FastCase 50 recipient, and in 2018, he was elected a Fellow in the College of Law Practice Management. In past lives, he was an Innovation Architect, Knowledge Manager, a Systems Analyst, a Fashion Merchandiser, and Theater Composer, among other things.