Progress and Pragmatism: Reflections on the Law Firm Innovation Summit

Chris Ryan | November 26, 2019

HBR was recently privileged to co-sponsor ARK’s second annual Law Firm Innovation Summit. The event welcomed 120 attendees, spanning a range of job titles including formal innovation titles, KM, IT, client value and development, COOs, marketing, pricing and legal project management, talent, educators, data analytics, sales and, of course, attorneys. This broad range of expertise provided a rich array of perspectives, making for fascinating presentations and conversations. 

Reflecting on those interactions, I wanted to share a few of my and my colleagues’ takeaways:

Ownership and Governance

Ownership and governance of innovation at law firms has evolved from grass roots efforts to conscious formation of teams of professional with formal charters. Many firms report having a C-suite or director-level leader at the helm, reporting to the managing partner or COO, along with an advisory committee including select stakeholders. We observed a notable shift from Innovation-related teams emerging from technology functions to more closely aligning to the practice of law. While it is encouraging to learn that there are abundant ideas for modernizing legal practice and services, determining which opportunities to invest in appears to be a less evolved process. Devising and applying a structured decision framework to surface and evaluate the opportunities aligned to a firm’s strategic objectives and priorities may be a headline of next year’s summit.

Clear Learnings and Increased Pragmatism

Along with more structured ownership, the mix of theory to practice has evolved since “innovation” became a focus within the industry. For many years, innovation discourse and activity focused more on theory than real-world experience. In fact, there was perhaps more than a fair amount of puffery circulating around some innovation efforts within the industry. Fortunately, that is beginning to change. There have been more learnings, more thoughtful investments, and more honesty in the industry recently, with the ARK Law Firm Innovation Summit being a good representation of that trend. The presentations, discussions and perspectives were sincere and refreshingly grounded in pragmatism, supporting our positive outlook on the future of law firm innovation efforts. Law firms of all sizes are beginning to understand that creating meaningful change is difficult and rarely happens on the first attempt, and that their innovation investments’ impact generally seems to be increasing in magnitude.

Client-Facing Innovation

Speaking of pragmatic, the Summit illustrated that law firms are increasingly recognizing that, to unearth the right opportunities for change in this dynamic legal and business landscape, they need to engage and collaborate more proactively with clients. Across the speakers and fireside chats, we heard consensus that law firm that are now exploring client-serving innovation, not just innovations in their own efficiency and profitability (also important, of course). Solutions developed in collaboration with clients can strengthen relationships, as well as demonstrate value. We heard how product development and “concept testing” can involve clients, making them more invested in the resulting solutions. We also heard from corporate law department executives who believe the innovation coming from their law firms could be an opportunity to work differently together – more efficiently or more creatively. And client RFPs are increasingly asking law firms about client-facing innovation. Our advice is that law firms should be open and collaborative with their clients about innovation, or risk losing out to competitive firms or alternative providers.  

The legal industry is clearly maturing in the innovation space and it is exciting to be a part of that evolution. Our recent whitepaper, “More Than a Buzzword: How Law Firms and Law Departments Can Harness Innovation,” includes more of our thoughts on innovation.

If you would like to discuss how HBR can help your firm firm can begin or continue its innovation journey, please contact me or another member of our Legal Transformation and Innovation team.