I had a great day at the back end of 2021, chairing the iManage FutureTech stage at Netlaw Media’s British Legal Technology Forum in London. There were nine various panel debates and guest speaker slots throughout the day covering a range of subjects all linked, of course, to the theme of innovation in the legal sector.
For me, one of the most revealing sessions focussed on the clients of law firms and their view on technology innovation within their legal providers. I use the word ‘revealing’ because the audience and I were challenged about our own conceptions of what good innovation looked like from the client perspective, and the expressed views of the clients present on the panel were somewhat critical of law firms focus on “internal productivity” as their main driver for innovation.
The topic discussed by the client panel queried whether a law firm’s focus on increasing billable time, reducing administrative overheads and other “internal” productivity initiatives were really what mattered most to a law firm’s commercial clients.
One comment from the panel raised eyebrows in the audience when the question was asked of the attendees, “When was the last time you visited or met with your clients to ask them about what innovation-led technology changes they were looking for?”
The blank looks in the room highlighted the point the panellists were making, and that point was simply that law firms tend to look inwards when it comes to their plans for innovation and do not spend enough time consulting and then collaborating with their clients on what innovation priorities matter to them.
Now, I had already polled the room to get an appreciation of who made up the audience, and for this session, a great many were senior lawyers and partners, business and practice heads in addition to the usual IT Heads and Directors, so the message here was driving home to a key stakeholder group.
The panellists, who were Global Heads of internal legal counsel divisions for FTSE 250 and JASDAQ companies suggested to the audience that one of the reasons law firms do not widely consult with clients on innovation priorities is nervousness about not having a firm agenda to discuss with them and an over reliance on thinking their clients will proactively come to them with all their innovation needs. The implication being made was that lawyers do not like to turn up without a fixed agenda and a clear idea to discuss, for fear that a client might be critical of a more open and loose discussion.
The panellists challenged the audience to think again on that, that it’s okay to have “discovery” chats with clients, to simply create time to talk about client requirements and thoughts on how the firm could innovate better to deliver client priorities. Nods of recognition and furious notetaking were taking place around the room, and what followed was a flurry of questions from the floor exploring how this might happen.
What struck me at the time, and on reflection since, was on how easy it is for law firms and leaders within those firms to become fixated on innovation as something that must deliver improved productivity or better managed risk. It is easily done – these are things that concern a law firm’s compliance and insurance premiums, reduce their overheads, and improve fee earner productivity and billing. All of that is important to a firm’s profitability and security, and I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t remain a priority, however, law firms serve their commercial or consumer clients and instead of expecting clients to proactively walk through the door with a shopping list of ideas or even simply be impressed by our internal productivity led innovation plans, perhaps it’s time to spend more time with our clients asking simple questions like, “what can we do differently for you?”, “what digital innovation matters most to you?”, “how can we serve you and your own clients more effectively?” and not be afraid to ask for a meeting without having all the answers.
As the old BT advert used to say, “it’s good to talk”.