The Word of Gold: innovation is nothing new, but it’s never been more important

“I can’t understand why people are frightened by new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” (American composer John Cage)

“The cure for Apple is not cost-cutting; the cure for Apple is to innovate its way out of its current predicament.” So said Steve Jobs, when he returned to Apple after a 12-year absence, when it was close to bankruptcy. Jobs launched one innovation after another, revolutionising computers, entertainment, music, retail, mobile, and telecommunications.

At the Law Society of Scotland’s annual conference on 26 October, there was much discussion of innovation. How are we dealing with the coming of AI? How should we change culture and working practices to make sure the profession stays attractive to millennials? What is exciting in new tech? Do we need to change radically our approach to the way lawyers collaborate with each other within firms, as Dr Heidi Gardner, a Harvard academic and one of the keynote speakers insisted we must?

These are daunting issues. Innovation not only requires creativity, it involves risk. As Daniel Kahneman says in his great book, Thinking Fast and Slow, humans are hard-wired to value avoiding losses more highly than making gains. Lawyers feel this with particular intensity. Yet the time has gone when this mindset will do. Clients demand new approaches, better service and lower costs. Whatever the risks of innovating, the risks of stasis are higher. 

Embrace diversity

Law firms are hierarchical, and their leaders tend to recruit people who are like themselves. This is not a recipe for original thinking. Non-lawyer professionals play a vital role. They bring a range of backgrounds, experiences and expertise to the party. Yet too often they are given little or no role in major decisions. Similarly, junior members of the team are little consulted about what needs to change in the business, but often they have the brightest suggestions. They have been brought up to look at the world differently to their bosses, and are frequently at the sharp end of the kind of legacy practices and systems which most need to change.

Creating a culture which encourages new thinking means giving everyone in the business the opportunity to contribute ideas and play their part in implementing them. Consider forming “innovation groups”, each comprising a cross-section of junior and senior staff, lawyers and non-lawyers. Charge them with looking at particular areas of the business and give them a timetable to report progress. Ensure there is easy communication between these groups and the leadership, and that good ideas can be swiftly implemented. Nothing is more disheartening than to see one’s brilliant suggestion vanish into a bureaucratic black hole.

Encourage new skills

Must all lawyers’ training and education be about the law? Gilbert + Tobin, a major Australian firm, has answered that question by not only teaching its lawyers about technological advances, but making them part of those changes. The firm created a development programme with 60 of its lawyers learning the basics of computer coding.

One of the best things you can do is look at how other sectors have addressed the issues you face. Set up discussions with clients, to get the benefit of their knowledge and experience. What you learn may be gold dust, and discussions like these are great relationship builders. Your clients will be flattered to be asked, and most of the time delighted to talk at length about their businesses.

Small can be beautiful – and so can analogue

Innovation need not always involve great epiphanies and be massively disruptive. On the contrary, many of the best innovations involve changes that may be quite modest but have a significant impact. Nor is innovation always synonymous with technology. Primarily, it is about process, and answering the question “How can we change the way we do things to make ourselves more productive, give clients a better experience, and the firm a competitive edge?”

Recent surveys of the profession by PWC, RBS/NatWest and the Society highlight that firms are struggling with productivity. Technology may make great contributions to improving it, but unless you first consider thoughtfully the processes by which major work areas are done, break them down and ask, for example, whether all the current steps are necessary, are they performed in the most efficient way, in the right order and by the right level of staff, you may end up spending large sums on fancy new technology which will not do the job. Equally, taking a new and better approach to pricing, or client care, or recruitment, or people development, all of which may affect the firm’s performance profoundly, has much more to do with psychology than technology.

“Innovation,” said Steve Jobs, “distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” It’s time to choose a side.

The Author
Stephen Gold was the founder and senior partner of Golds, a multi-award-winning law firm which grew from a sole practice to become a UK leader in its sectors. He is now a consultant, non-exec and trusted adviser to leading firms nationwide and internationally. e:; t: 0044 7968 484232; w:; twitter: @thewordofgold
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