How Does Legal Innovation Escape The Silo We Are In?

Yesterday, Artificial Lawyer’s Founder attended a special gathering of law professors, innovation people at law firms, and in-house lawyers with an interest in changing how their teams ran. And the key insight that emerged, at least as far as Artificial Lawyer could see, was: will innovation and substantive change always be held back by law’s siloed world? Can it ever escape the patterns of the past? 

Let’s explore this in detail in a moment. But, first the event itself.

The meeting, of around 30 invited guests, was held under Chatham House rules, so who attended and what was said can be reported,  but who said what cannot. It was organised by Dan Linna, Dan Rodriguez and Leslie Oster, all connected to Northwestern Law School in the US. The Law Society’s Stephen Denyer and Sophia Adams Bhatti helped organise and host also.

Aside from the Dans and Leslie, who explored the innovation challenges the legal world faces in the US and UK, and legal education opportunities, the other speakers were Lucy Dillon, Chief Knowledge Officer at Reed Smith, who talked about developing the skills among the young lawyers the firm needs and the several programmes they have in place to drive innovation, and Kion Ahadi, the new Director of Futures and Insight at the Law Society.

OK, introductions over.

There was a lot of great discussion and many good comments made, especially by the in-house legal community present around the long table. But, as noted, after coming away from the evening of discussion the one thought that resonated for Artificial Lawyer was: ‘Oh no,…..we are totally trapped and we’re never going to get out of our silo. Real change is going to take a lifetime, or more, if we stay like this.’

Now, that was probably a moment of despair, which will soon evaporate – and perhaps the soggy weather and dark skies on the way home contributed to this melancholy view, and will soon be replaced by Artificial Lawyer’s usual optimism – but there did seem to be something very wrong.

What Was Wrong? 

The fundamental problem is this: Law talks to itself. It buys and sells to and from itself. It trains itself. It even regulates itself. And it judges its own performance against itself.

Meanwhile the real buyers of commercial legal services (and AL made this point at the table) i.e. the C-suite and the shareholders, are divorced from the legal silo and it doesn’t seem that law minds very much. Law is like a church that the more earthly parts of the economy, i.e. everybody else, largely allows to do as it wants. And that’s not healthy for anyone.

In such a world real change is hard. Nearly everyone who spoke around the table, whether from a law firm, ALSP or inhouse legal group, had some positive change stories to share, e.g. schemes to help drive the development of new applications to solve client problems, efforts to train young lawyers inside of clients, efforts to seek greater efficiency inside legal teams…etc.

But, it all felt so fringe, so on the border of having a really powerful impact that changed across the board how things were done. No one said: ‘A group of company execs, driven on by vociferous shareholders, came by, they analysed legal spend and demanded a 50% cut in spending that will be gained by radical efficiency improvements – whether via people, process or tech change. And if we didn’t achieve it we would be out of our jobs.’

Yet, if this had been a meeting of the logistics team at Amazon, for example, this could well have been a real event. But, this was a group of people representing the commercial legal world. So…well….that didn’t happen.

The Cruise Ship

Another challenge that is very apparent is what Artificial Lawyer likes to call the cruise ship analogy. Imagine the legal market is a massive ship crossing the ocean. On each deck there are all manner of people conducting important tasks to keep everything running smoothly. And they do a great job – on their deck.

But, there is a problem. They are all focused on sorting out their deck. Almost no one has a real grasp on what is going on across the entire ship, nor where it’s going. Moreover, unlike a real cruise ship there is no captain here, there is not even a steering wheel. Each deck is reporting improvements and good work. But, really, in the big scheme of things the cruise ship just trundles on, much as it always has, going in circles on the high seas.

‘Help, we appear to have got ourselves locked in here…!’

Escape From The Silo 

So, to conclude, this is the fundamental challenge we have as an industry: how do we get out of this silo? How does law – if it really wants to innovate – engage with the wider world and then….well….really change?

Funnily enough the answer is simple, it’s just the doing that will be hard.

The answer is for the legal world to really sit down with the end users. So, law firms and GCs sit down with shareholder groups of large companies and the CFOs and ask: ‘OK, so you are driving radical cost savings and efficiency leaps in all other parts of the business and we want you to tell us what you really want – no holds barred, fire away. We will try and find a way to do it because now we have the tools to make it happen. This is not the 19th century. But you need to tell us what you want, because – as you have seen – left to our own devices change will be so incremental it will be a rounding adjustment on the balance sheet in terms of its overall impact to you, the owners of the businesses we serve.’

And, they continue: ‘We have been stuck in this silo for centuries and we’ve all become a bit institutionalised to its patterns, from billable hours to the leverage model. Help us to break out of it.’

Of course, the irony is that, such pleas have to come from the legal world and who will want to do this..? Some will. AL is sure of that. But many won’t. Why rock the boat when it’s all going so swimmingly?

One other thing the law can do is spend more time with other sectors and invite people from other sectors to be part of the discussion around change and innovation. And that doesn’t mean getting lawyers to talk to accountants or other professionals. Let’s get lawyers talking to truck companies to learn about efficiency, or builders and architects, or manufacturing consultants, or jet engine designers, or shipping companies.

Let’s go out and talk to those people in the wider economy that have proven they understand process change, logistics, changing how things are done and made, are super-responsive to technology and designing new business approaches to meet a rapidly evolving world.

Because, if we stay inside our silo, despite all the fantastic ideas and efforts on show from really impressive people across the market, the level of change will remain glacial. That’s the challenge.

Any road, always glad to hear your views. Are we stuck in a silo? And if so, how do we get out of it?

7 Comments

  1. I so agree. The number one problem preventing lawyers from doing their services better is the culture and mindset. We need to go out and talk to the unhappy customers and see what they actually want! Time for the cruise ship to come into port and settle in with the locals.

  2. I see a spectrum where Bezos, at one end, optimises and mines the deepest stores of efficiency to turn the logistical nightmare of the ‘store of everything’ into the slickest, purest expression of the user-centred business machine on the planet. Down other end of the spectrum we have law firms run by lawyers, owned by lawyers, staffed by lawyers, trained by lawyers – everything by and for lawyers. Users are not the primary focus and this is the issue. Bezos’ guiding principle is “what is best for the user…” . But for law firms the goal is not to empathise and innovate and build the best solutions for users. It’s to change as little as we have to as we increase revenue. Lawyers as a group, compared to other service providers, lack empathy (how many have any idea what an empathy map is or how it’s used?), they see themselves as different, apart, they lack the humility needed to say, “let me see what I can leant about logistics/efficiency from trucking firms”. Lawyers need to see themselves as business people driven to provide the best possible solutions for their users. It’s a question of identity and who you want to be and whether you have the courage to build something better for the user. The first step is sitting down for a big serving of humble pie. Then we have learn from others, like the article say. All the knowledge is out there. We just have to be motivated to reach out and grab it.

  3. Well, there’s one thing you cannot escape from: law is and always will be concerned with the question: is something legal or illegal?

    You cannot abolish that distinction, or it would not be law anymore. And as long as it is not beforehand clear whether something is legal or illegal, you need legal advice – so, as long as you don’t get rid of the need for legal advice, I guess you will not be able to leave the legal silo. But a world without law (i.ey without justice) would probably not be a great world (right?), as it would also be a world without the rule of law, and we had that before and it was not great. So, onwards, I guess people will probably rather perfect the legal silo and not leave it.

  4. Great article as ever by artificial lawyer – but get the impression you may be unwittingly inhabiting your silo? It’s a small planet thanks in no small part to the digital evolution we are all lucky enough to be experiencing. I work for a regional government legal entity in Australia, we face cuts to funding every three years on average – it makes us REALLY agile and very very attuned to what our public wants – without stats showing we are relevent and delivering what the public demand the budget cuts just get deeper. Please remember not all digital innovation happens north of the equator😊

  5. Whatever people may think, this is a conversation that _very_ much needs to be held, and held regularly. I don’t think it’s at all difficult to break out but it will only happen if lawyers want to (driven either from within or, much more likely, from without by their clients). Well done, Richard.

  6. The silo discussion really resonates with me. I teach in a law school in Asia and, in my small corner, am trying to change things by running a new course which allows – nay, requires – my law students to speak with industry experts from diverse sectors (what the article above calls the ‘end users’) and to work on real-world problems in commerce. My wish list? That law school curricula could do more of this wherever possible, recognizing that meaningful change does take time, a change of mindset and habits!
    Locknie Hsu

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