Having recently attended a conference on law firm innovation, I came to the realization that Blockchain has lost its pre-eminent place in the legal BS stratosphere. This is a sad day. Blockchain had a good life and provided tons of opportunities for people to opine on how ‘everything’ will change because of it. I recall one especially insightful article on emerging crypto-toilet paper offerings. Too bad we will never know the warm comfort of crypto-paper making a pass around the seventh planet.

Moving right along – we now will enjoy six to nine months of “innovation” articles, seminars, conferences, white papers, case studies and booze-induced discussions.

Oh sweet pessimism.

Admittedly, I did hear some interesting stories about some firms’ efforts to innovate. There are innovation labs, innovation roles, innovation committees and innovation spin-offs. On one level, we should all praise the efforts to actually do something, versus talk about it (ala blockchain). However, IMHO most of these programs fall into the classic “solution in search of a problem” bucket. Truth be told, some of these projects do solve a problem, since they are back-office based. But my point here is that we are yet again flirting with the magic button so many of our lawyers yearn to push.

The lure of a magic button will pull lawyers away from the work that really needs to be done. To illustrate this, I will use a non-neutral, non-technology example. I still (just this week) have lawyers call me about the magic task codes and how they want to start using them so they can figure out how to build budgets for pricing, etc and to identify “inefficiencies.” I respond with my now ten-year old answer, that task codes were not designed for that and what they should really do is take the time to develop a scope-based budget template and then use that as a benchmark for building matter-specific budgets and to measure against to learn where they might be inefficient. Of course, that will take some (non-billable) time which tends to derail the discussion.

The main point of this example is you should start innovation with process, not technology. Too much of the innovation I hear about is far more focused on the technology. And even when process does come into the picture, the other missing thing is ‘The Problem.”

A telling aspect of the innovation conference was when during each session someone would ask the ‘Who Farted’ question: How is adoption of technology X across the entire firm coming along? This question usually was followed by a pause, or in some cases enthusiasm about how they expected lawyers to start using it once they saw how awesome it was. One presenter was brave enough to suggest behavioral science will do the trick. This nice article on his presentation (sadly behind a pay wall) goes on to note: a) “Innovative isn’t innovative if no one is using it,” and b) “Unfortunately for law firm leaders interested in driving change, Painter has concluded that not much can be done by a law firm to affect a lawyer’s motivation.” Regardless, I hope his efforts bear some fruit, but am skeptical based on my expereinces.

I have had some success with innovation, but not by parading around AI, blockchain, and other technologies. Instead, the effort starts with clearly identifying a specific client need, then moving forward with a simple solution (usually a process that leads to relatively simple technology) that the client finds compelling. Too often I have seen this second point ignored since “Of course clients will find smart contracts compelling.” Maybe some of them will. But you will be way better off confirming with them that an idea will meet their needs, be acceptable to them and is something they can sell internally before you move forward with it. And in the very best case, you will find more than one client that agrees.

This last point brings up an entirely new can of worms. My other observation from the conference was that all of these great innovation ideas were dependent on one big assumption: Lawyers Will Sell This. Quoting Doctor Evil – Riiiiight.

One final thought – I’m adding “Innovation” to my job title. This is one BS bus I can’t afford to miss.


  • Darryl Cross

    I appreciate the candor and a healthy dose of cynicism in this article, because it is right on the money. I have been working in law firm strategy and change management for 20 years, and it does seem like this is the “new” phrase to which we will all collectively rub our chins and proclaim it “interesting”. And, then we will do nothing about it.

    An old manager of mine once told me, the key to being an entrepreneur is to find something that sucks and fix it. Do not make it any more complicated than that. As you mention, clients do not care one bit about “smart contracts” (and neither do the lawyers). They want things not to take so damn long. They don’t care about AI. They want better predictions without hours of billable time to ensure it is airtight. In essence, as football coach Bill Parcells once famously and crassly said, “Don’t tell me about the pain. Show me the baby.”

    The problem with all of these BS du jour terms (AI, Blockchain, task codes, etc) is that they tend to follow a little less than one calendar year, are based on conference agendas, and consultant service packages. They talk about things 3-5 years in the not-so-distant future to make it seem possible, but not so urgent something has to be done today. This makes it easy to address a topic for 40-60 minutes, then check your email and grab another bagel before filing your CLE form. THAT is the mistake. These are all insanely important issues. It is how we treat them as passing fads that will sort themselves out before the next big thing pops up that is troubling.

    Stop talking about innovation (a noun). INNOVATE. That is a verb, and it implies doing something about it. Most firms have all the same ingredients in their cupboards: talent, work ethic, fancy client lists, complex matters, more tech than they will ever need, and so on. The question is how do you take all of the things you have (that everyone else also has) and make something unique out of it. Like the author says, it is probably a way/process, not a tech or magic button that will change the industry as we know it.

    Think of it as a legal industry Iron Chef competition: if I give four chefs 30 minutes to make something out of dark chocolate, celery, and acorn squash, I expect to see four radically different dishes. I also do not want to hear about how they won’t cook due to their comp, chef’s inherent risk aversion personalities, and other excuses. The clock is ticking…GO!

    That old boss I mentioned also used to say, “We going to stand here smiling and telling each other how smart we are, or are we actually going to do something about it?”

    Do something. Innovating means you are doing something today, not thinking about what might happen in some Blade Runner-esque future. If you go into a room to discuss innovation, no one should be allowed to leave until they actually innovate. You have all the items you need. Stop rubbing your chins and roll up your sleeves.