By Scott A. Westfahl
One of the great privileges of leading Executive Education at Harvard Law School is circulating and listening to the law firm leaders and general counsel who come from all over the world to attend our leadership programs. We notice trends quickly and pay particular attention to the business terms that our participants use with increasing urgency. In the past two years, those key business terms have been: collaboration, data, cybersecurity and, most interestingly, innovation.
Innovation is interesting because we sense a real interest this time, likely because the markets for clients and talent in which law firms compete are changing at an accelerating pace. For years, law firm leaders’ vision for innovation often sounded like this: “We need something innovative — what are our peer firms doing?” The more forward-thinking leaders would sometimes look to other professional services firms like McKinsey or Deloitte to compare notes. Progress therefore has been topically focused and made in slow increments, rather than the result of investment, systems and deliberate efforts to create the infrastructure and culture necessary to make real leaps forward.
Yet more recently, we observe that law firms are appointing partners in charge of innovation and related committees ― a very positive first step, though nothing akin yet to a corporate R&D function with corresponding levels of fixed investment and leadership attention.
Factors that drive innovation in an organization:
This past year, I presented to a roundtable of law firm executive directors and COOs on how design-thinking firms are transforming service delivery across many kinds of industries. I partnered with the General Counsel of the design-thinking firm IDEO, who outlined IDEO’s perspective on what cultural factors drive innovation in an organization. Here are IDEO’s “Creative Difference” factors and thoughts about how legal marketing leaders can leverage these factors more effectively.
Purpose: An innovative organization needs to have a clear, energizing and well-understood purpose that forms the basis of key decisions.
Opportunities for legal marketing leaders: Law firm practices and sectors need help generating internal excitement about their clients and why the firm’s work for them matters. Interview partners and clients and help them communicate:
- how the firm’s work impacts clients and their industry
- how your business units plan to grow
- how your work is distinguished from that of other firms serving a particular sector
- what partners in a group are most proud of
Remember that partners are task-driven people focused on their work. They can sometimes forget to market it internally and are often traditionalists who do not believe in celebrating success, which is something innovative organizations do very, very well.
Looking Out: How well does your firm look outside to gain deeper understanding of clients, new technologies, or culture and market shifts? Innovative companies organize themselves to collect and share such information thoroughly and rapidly (e.g., McKinsey regularly staffs full consultant teams to knowledge projects and treats them as if they were client-facing, billed projects).
Opportunities for legal marketing leaders: Find and leverage data direct research efforts together with attorneys “seconded” into their knowledge teams. Invite outside speakers, host innovation competitions, and use collaborative technology to share information. Most importantly, leverage the energy and highly developed web search abilities of your firm’s millennials. Prepare associates leaving for client secondments to observe, ask questions and learn the client’s business, and build a process to debrief with them when they return to the firm.
Experimentation: Innovative organizations explore new ideas quickly and inexpensively by removing bureaucratic hurdles, sharing and maintaining a healthy attitude about “controlled failure.”
Opportunities for legal marketing leaders: More than anything, help senior management to understand the need to pilot ideas, fail and improve. Suggest that business units create “incubator funds,” and help them create communication and sharing forums to quickly churn and learn from pilot programs. Build excitement through your internal communications team, and make sure to create excitement of lessons learned from failure.
Collaboration: Critical to generating new thoughts, ideas and approaches is the ability to work across disciplines and differences and leverage others’ strengths. Innovative organizations break down silos constantly in order to generate more creative, interdisciplinary thinking.
Opportunities for legal marketing leaders: Collectively, your team understands the firm’s individual business units better than anyone. Be at the center of bringing together partners and associates from different practices, offices and sectors. Find common motivation and create innovation or knowledge projects that will benefit from multiple perspectives (sector leadership is a prime example). Support leadership development and training and drive communications that celebrate interdisciplinary collaboration.
Empowerment: Do people feel able to create change? Do they have some autonomy to try?
Opportunities for legal marketing leaders: First, create team processes that are inclusive and ensure that all voices are heard (e.g., if you debrief after a pitch, does every partner contribute to the discussion or does the rainmaker dominate?). Second, push the firm to create small leadership opportunities for younger lawyers and staff leaders, as well as opportunities to participate in rather than merely listen in on pitches. This is critical: Law firms are losing the battle for top talent because they infantilize associates and fail to empower them to create change. As seasoned marketing leaders, you should object and insist otherwise.
Refinement: Innovative companies learn how to refine new ideas and to avoid the “feature creep” that causes new ideas to collapse under their own weight.
Opportunities for legal marketing leaders: As your firm starts to generate new ideas and approaches, monitor scope creep and offer the market-facing advice that simplicity matters. Help the firm to recognize and reward elegant, practical solutions. Design quick pulse surveys and use technology to generate the data that allows for rapid refinement.
These are but some of the ways that legal marketing leaders can add tremendous value and help foster a culture of innovation at their firms. Conducting your own, informal culture audit and starting related discussions with firm leaders would be a great way to start.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Strategies magazine, the flagship publication of the Legal Marketing Association (LMA). LMA members receive Strategies as part of their membership. If you are not a member of LMA, join today to gain access to this exclusive resource.
Scott Westfahl is the faculty director of Harvard Law School (HLS) Executive Education and teaches courses on problem solving, teams, networks and innovation within the law school’s J.D. curriculum. As the faculty director of the Executive Education program, he leads the HLS effort to support and develop lawyers across the arc of their careers, particularly as they advance to new levels of leadership and responsibility. He oversees and teaches in Executive Education’s core, global leadership programs for law firm managing partners, emerging law firm leaders and General Counsel.