Legal innovation needs to be embedded in firm culture and not distinct from it
When it comes to innovation, many law firms opt for a so-called “parallel strategy” – the idea that the core of the firm continues with ‘business as usual’ while innovation occurs in a separate arena. Such initiatives may take the form of external investments, or even an embedded innovation team within the firm, but either way they function as a means of hedging the core business, and cultivating an alternative source of revenue rather than driving fundamental improvements in the existing service delivery.
But firms need to find ways of engaging all staff in the innovation process, says Mills Oakley Special Counsel Nicole Tumiati, in order to ensure that the benefits of innovation flow through directly to clients.
“Parallel strategies have their place – particularly as the traditional ‘big law’ model continues to come under pressure,” says Tumiati. “It’s prudent for firms to explore alternative sources of revenue. But we also need to make sure that the innovations developed have tangible, day-to-day benefits for clients and that they’re not just occurring in isolation.”
Mills Oakley CEO John Nerurker points to Mills Oakley’s own approach: for the last two years a ‘home-grown’ innovation strategy has been in effect, which emphasises co-creation with staff and clients.
“Staff have the opportunity to pursue their own projects, develop new technology and take equity in any start-up business established as a result of the project,” explains Nerurker.
The process began with the firm’s Accelerator 2.0 project, geared at Mills Oakley staff and clients alike. Following an extensive firm-wide competition, six projects were shortlisted.
All six of these projects are currently in development, and protoypes expected by the end of 2020. They cover a diverse array of fields, including automation in the debt recovery and probate areas, an integrated legal research tool and tools to facilitate the management of due diligence, workplace awards and not-for-profit partnerships.
The innovation pipeline extends back several years at Mills Oakley. Examples of projects at a more advanced stage are On the Glass, an agency authority tool for real estate agents which is co-owned by Mills Oakley and partner John Turnbull and senior associate Isobel Feben. On the Glass is producing a revenue stream and experiencing exponential growth due to the current demand for contactless digital contract solutions – an example of home-grown innovation being taken from concept to commercialisation.
To facilitate the next generation of concepts, Mills Oakley is also conducting an Innovation Masterclass, a five-month instructional series on key innovation topics such as how to define a problem, design thinking, how to develop a value proposition and pitching and selling.
“Currently, more than 200 of our partners and staff are participating,” says Nerurker. “The series is also being used as an informal Accelerator process to connect with individuals interested in putting forward ideas for future co-development with the firm.”
Developing an innovation pipeline is critical, adds Tumiati, as solely opting for a parallel strategy reduces the potential for testing prospective innovations within a real-world environment. Staff and client engagement are central to the journey from parallel strategy to home-grown innovation, ensuring that new projects are overseen by the people who are best placed to understand and perfect them.
“Our partners and staff are closely involved with developing IP and providing a legal framework for these start-ups to operate within,” says Tumiati. “Perhaps most importantly, the firm’s clients are involved at every step of the process. They are ideally positioned to reap the benefits in real time.”