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Two Events – Two Views of Innovation

By Scott Rechtschaffen posted 12-18-2014 09:09


Lately, I have been thinking a lot about innovation – I suspect most readers of this blog have too. But what is “innovation” in the legal industry?

I think of innovation as being dramatic and disruptive – processes that significantly change the way we deliver legal services. I then think in terms of technology: increased efficiency through legal process improvement, automation and online services. Perhaps my perspective is formed from being in San Francisco, surrounded by start-ups looking for the next industry to disrupt. If Uber can destabilize the public transportation industry (apparently, the market for taxi medallions is at historic lows across the country) and AirBnB can threaten to upend the hospitality industry (the CEO of AirBnB has boasted his company will add more rooms in two weeks than Marriott will add in an entire year), then surely the emerging legal technology start-ups will have the same impact on the legal industry. As Basha Rubin, CEO of Priori Legal, wrote recently in a post on TechCrunch:

Legal technology is booming, with companies attempting to disrupt the legal space at every level and from every angle. And with good reason. Some estimates value the market size at as much as $400 billion. While legal still hasn’t caught up with other industries — either in terms of funding or widespread adoption, the future is bright and coming at us fast.

Naturally, many legal industry knowledge management professionals, me included, see these developments, believe in the inevitability of disruption in the industry, and conclude that law firms must respond by increasing efficiency, implementing process improvement, and becoming more innovative through the use of technology.

But maybe there is more to being “innovative” than enterprise search, document automation, process maps, and client dashboards. Perhaps the real future stars of our profession, those that will boldly lead us into the future, have already been innovating in the trenches for years. Maybe there is more than one definition of innovation.

I thought about this question when I recently attended two events. Both events were dedicated to innovation in the legal industry. But the approaches to innovation they highlighted could not have been more different.

The first event was the semiannual Iron Tech Lawyer competition at Georgetown Law School.

I have previously posted about this remarkable event, the culmination of Professor Tanina Rostain’s Technology, Innovation and Law Practice Practicum. During this course, teams of students are paired with outside organizations and, using Neota Logic’s expert system software, spend the semester developing online legal applications. This semester’s course, billed as the Administrative Agency Edition, featured student teams paired with diverse agencies such as the New York Department of Consumer Affairs, the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education, and South Brooklyn Legal Services.

As I previously reported, hearing law students talk about user experience, design elements, and graphic interfaces was remarkable in itself. But, hearing law students discuss using technology to make legal solutions more accessible to middle and lower class clients desperately needing quality legal advice was truly – if I may use the word – innovative. Given the enormous need to provide access to justice, here in Professor Rostain’s class was a veritable Y Combinator of law students/budding legal entrepreneurs looking to develop online solutions for targeted users needing help. One student-developed app was designed to help users determine the availability of anti-SLAPP protections; another was designed to help parents navigate the complexities of determining whether their children qualify under educational programs for children with disabilities; yet another helped small businesses navigate the byzantine licensing requirements for operating under New York City law.

What is so remarkable about Professor Rostain’s class is seeing law students apply software solutions to routine legal issues, in effect enabling access to the law for those otherwise unable to afford legal assistance. This is the future of law: technology enabling access to the legal system for those previously unable to afford lawyers.

The second event was a dinner in New York hosted by the Financial Times recognizing the most innovative law firms and lawyers in North America in 2014. Our firm was one of dozens honored by the Financial Times for being innovative. But, something about the event made me wonder again about the meaning of the word “innovative.”

Most of the firms and lawyers recognized by the Financial Times as being the most innovative were not being recognized for adopting cutting-edge technology or implementing dramatic changes in their service delivery processes. Instead, they were being recognized for innovating how they litigated cases, managed matters, and served their clients. There was no triumphant technology or dramatic legal process improvement; these were just examples of really terrific and, yes, innovative lawyering. Take Roberta Kaplan of Paul Weiss who was recognized for her pro bono representation of Edith Windsor in the Supreme Court challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act. She did not disrupt the delivery of legal services or deploy cutting edge technology. Instead, she deployed clever legal strategies to achieve success that will affect the lives of millions of Americans. (Ms. Kaplan has successfully represented Airbnb so she is no stranger to disruptive technology.) Consider Tara Lee, global chair of DLA Piper’s cross border litigation practice, who has traveled through war zones to defend African countries struggling against global vulture funds.

So, what is the difference between these two views of innovation? We in knowledge management too often reach for the shiny toy on the shelf and, just as often, try to grab as many toys as we can. In our zeal and passion for technology and our belief that change must be significant, we fail to realize that many of the attorneys we work with are innovative in their own way. They have been trained to look at litigation and transactions in innovative ways to get the best results for their clients. By looking at new ways to apply the law or defend their clients, lawyers are innovators at their core.

Too often we define “innovation” as applying cutting-edge technology to the delivery of legal services. But, we fail to recognize that the attorneys with whom we work – the stalwarts of our profession – have been innovating for years. They have been developing creative and unique approaches to win cases and advance their clients’ interests. Just the other day, I learned about one of my colleagues who tried a case before a jury. The other side thought its case was a slam dunk and made significant settlement demands. My colleague developed a unique approach to the case, tried it, and the jury came back with a complete defense verdict after only three hours of deliberation. My colleague’s approach to litigating this case was nothing less than innovative.

What is the take-away? I believe that legal industry knowledge management professionals must stop insisting that attorneys make the leap to online services and technology solutions or face obsolescence (although we should certainly continue to advocate the advantages of these). Instead, we should recognize the innovative solutions to legal issues that they are developing as part of their regular practice. Recently, one of our attorneys identified a significant change in federal regulation that would dramatically affect a particular industry. He put together a comprehensive package of materials to help companies in this industry comply with these new regulations. We quickly helped him create an online portal to distribute these materials and generate some revenue from the online “product.” In this example, where exactly was the innovation? Was it in the comprehensive package of legal materials the attorney put together or the online portal we developed? The real innovation was in the work the attorney developed – identifying both a new challenge and a novel solution for his clients; the portal was mere technology. Without the attorney’s creative approach to this legal quandary, the portal would have been a hollow piece of technology.

As knowledge management professionals, we must always remember the source of true innovation: the creative endeavors of our attorney colleagues. The technology solutions we advocate and implement are mere conduits to bring their creative legal genius to market. While they benefit from our work, we would be nowhere without their expertise and knowledge.