Bridging the gap between innovating & lawyering

Written by Jack Shepherd, Legal Practice Lead at iManage

There’s never been a better time to be part of the legal innovation community. The community is full of excitement to test hypotheses that could take legal services to the next level.

What if we ditched Microsoft Word and built contracts like coders? What if we moved the incentives for lawyers away from time and towards value they bring to clients?

These questions are tried and tested ways of getting legal innovation creative juices flowing. But you may get a slightly different response if you put these hypotheses to a lawyer focused on getting their head down billing hours.

“Getting rid of Word? What else am I going to use?”. “Incentivising me based on value? What does that even mean? Time is my value - don’t touch my billable hours. How else are you going to pay my bonus?”.

When I hear lawyers referring to innovators as “having their heads in the clouds”, I see a gap that needs to be bridged.

Understanding where people are

It can be tempting for innovators to put radical propositions to lawyers at the get-go, challenging long-held beliefs about their profession. But if you really want to drive change, it’s best to avoid making your audience think you have lost your marbles.

Many lawyers are perfectionists, risk averse and control-freaks. Many believe they can turn their hand to anything, and that there are no significant gaps in their knowledge and ability (except for Excel and mathematics...).

The most successful legal innovators understand these character traits. They don’t jump in with radical propositions to spook people. They establish a dialogue with lawyers from the get-go, and base everything in problems lawyers and their clients want solving.

On the other hand, the graveyard of unused legal innovation grows and grows if you are not locking horns with end-users from day one.

Don’t blame the lawyers

It might be tempting for legal innovators to blame a lack of change in the legal industry on lawyers being backwards and wedded to outdated beliefs. But blaming the people or the system only widens the gap between innovating and lawyering, at a time when the two should be converging.

If you are trying to drive change, you must understand who you are dealing with. You cannot change people’s mindsets immediately: that starting point is locked in.


But you can change mindsets if you establish dialogues, identify problems people actually care about, and deliver improvements. If somebody has an “outdated belief”, focus on why they have that belief and how you can take them on a journey from “there to here”. Most importantly, start where they are, not where you are.

Don’t be afraid of the basics

I have seen legal innovators turn their noses up at problems that seem too basic to solve. They focus instead on more interesting challenges involving blockchains and robots. At least, that’s what my first instinct was when I first started working in legal innovation...the boring things were “beneath” me.

But it is very challenging to fix problems end-users don’t care about. If you tackle the wrong problems, lawyers will see the gap between innovating and lawyering. They will lose faith in your ability to deliver any change.

Instead, fix problems people actually care about - no matter how basic they seem to be. Sell your solutions to lawyers in terms that resonate with them.

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As I have spent more time away from private practice and more time in legal change and innovation, there have been times when I have become too distant from the end-users of new processes and technologies. I have constantly needed to keep my own thoughts in check to make sure people don’t think I have my head in the clouds.

Those seeking to instil change in the legal world need to complement their vision with the realities of everyday life for lawyers. Do so, and you will be successful in delivering change. More importantly, you will gain trust and build an army of supporters. And who knows - innovating and lawyering might even become two sides of the same coin.

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