Legal Innovators – Shilpa Bhandarkar, Linklaters: ‘Be Brave And Try New Things’

It’s refreshing to hear Shilpa Bhandarkar speak. The Head of Innovation at Linklaters has a knack for seeing the light at the end of any tunnel that she comes across.

Take for example some of the challenges she faces in her role. She indicates that switching over to a digital technology approach can be a cultural issue at law firms. But, equally, there is a constructive way through.

‘How does one get people to change the way they have done things for years and try something new when there’s nothing broken in the way they are currently doing things in the first place? How do you get perfectionist lawyers to get comfortable with the concept of a minimum viable product? Or even more importantly, with failing – given the likelihood that every new idea being a success is low,’ she explains.

‘There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to change. You cannot change the culture of an institution via email or by memos, however well-drafted or argued!

‘It takes conversations and story-telling, which is made more challenging when you add the complexity of different practice groups and geographies into the mix. But, it is also in these conversations that you find new ideas – so the challenge becomes part of the solution,’ she says.

In short, there are challenges for sure, but there is also a way through.

What Is Innovation?

For Bhandarkar, innovation is about trying new things, that is, doing things in a ‘different’ way compared to the way they are currently being done.

‘For some, this will involve making changes that create efficiencies to our existing business model; for others it will involve imagining game-changing and potentially disruptive changes,’ she said.

‘In either case, it means being brave enough to try new things that challenge the status quo, getting comfortable with failing, because there will be failure, and then being resilient enough to try again.’

Asked what tech product or service at her firm she found to be really innovative, she names MatterExplorer, a tool that has changed the way they access historical deal data at the global law firm of over 5,000 people.

‘It digs out and classifies relevant documents, but with added data points such as parties, opposing counsel and governing law clauses,’ she explains.

It also enables lawyers to search through more than 750,000 legal documents to find relevant information within minutes.

“It means being brave enough to try new things that challenge the status quo.”

‘Once documents have been identified and classified, MatterExplorer can also provide deeper analysis into the evolution of those matters from negotiation to close, something that was previously not possible at all without speaking to the lawyers leading on those individual transactions,’ she explains.

Sustaining Innovation

It’s one thing to succeed with a specific innovation initiative, but how do you sustain innovation for the long term in an organisation?

She believes that sustained innovation is only possible ‘when the five limbs of an innovation strategy work in tandem,’ these are:

  1. visible leadership buy-in and support,
  2. a clear, cohesive strategy that is easy to communicate and widely understood,
  3. the right organisational structures to source and develop the best ideas,
  4. a mixed portfolio of quick wins and game-changing ideas, each with a measurable return on investment,
  5. and most importantly, people empowered to make the change they want to see happen.

‘At Linklaters, we’re constantly working on all five aspects of our innovation programme to ensure that innovation is ingrained in our day to day [work] rather than outsourced to a select few to take forward,’ she explains.

Our practice and office-based innovation teams are the real engine of change. These teams divide their time between generating new ideas, and implementing and embedding ideas that have already been developed.

‘Because they are based in individual practice groups and geographies, (we have over 30 teams across our global network), they are best-placed to understand their clients’ needs and market nuances, and adapt new ideas and products accordingly.’

What Is Driving Innovation?

Bhandarkar says there are several factors driving innovation in legal services.

These include clients expecting greater use of tech, as well as increasingly complex regulatory changes that have seen lawyers and their clients handle risks differently to the way they did before.

‘Technology is enabling us to leverage data analytics and capture insights into the transactional data we hold to provide more tailored legal advice, faster,’ she explains.

‘And finally, we have a new generation of lawyers bringing with them new ideas on the practise and business of law. A combination of these factors is driving innovation at a greater pace than we have previously seen,’ she concludes.

And this no doubt will mean more changes to come. But, whatever challenges this creates, it would seem that Bhandarkar is ready to face them and find a way through.

By Irene Madongo

Shilpa Bhandarkar, Linklater’s Head of Innovation, will be speaking at the Legal Innovators conference in London on 11 October 2019 along with many other great speakers.