People-centred legal innovation

This content has been archived. It may no longer be relevant

With so much buzz about legaltech and innovation, it’s important to reflect, for a moment, on two essential truths:

  1. That innovation is, at its core, change and people usually struggle with change – the bigger the change, the bigger the struggle.
  2. People innovate; organisations do not.

The result: legal innovation won’t advance without people. Seems way too simplistic, right? Let’s do a very quick ‘people-centred innovation’ eight question checklist to see how your firm stacks up on that front:

  1. Does your talent management strategy (who you employ, when, where, how and why) align with your business strategy?
    There’s no point in planning to deliver a service or product now or in the future if you don’t have access to the right skilled workforce to make it happen. Your business plan is inextricably connected to your talent strategy.
  2. Does your recruitment process align with the talent you need to employ?
    Every law firm will become a client-centred, digitally fuelled business, so using the recruitment process to shortlist employees with these skills seems to make good sense. Law firms have started to embrace this by asking candidates to provide video CVs, conducting interviews via videoconferencing (because lawyers communicate with clients in the same way) and/or using apps or platforms that promote diversity (by eliminating information that could trigger reviewer/interviewer unconscious bias and/or providing a more comprehensive context of an applicant’s achievements.1)
  3. Does your onboarding process set up your new employee for success or failure?
    If you don’t pay any attention to onboarding, then you have definitely moved the needle towards failure. Time taken to settle in a new employee saves the additional time and expense that flows from ongoing, rapid turnover of staff. Onboarding has changed from ‘just in case’ to ‘just in time’2 – providing enough information to start with and the opportunity to access advice and guidance as required, often via an on-demand online learning portal that has captured the know-how of experienced lawyers. One thing is for sure, your best people will not stick around if they don’t know what to do, and are not given the opportunity to shine – these people will always have somewhere else to go! And, when these people leave, it will damage your employer brand (yes, that’s a thing) in the marketplace so next time it will be more difficult to attract great talent.
  4. Is learning at your firm about CPD points or is it about collaboration, experimentation and continuous improvement?
    If you don’t have a learning program, support one, or outsource this by paying for you and your staff to enhance your capabilities, how can you stay relevant? Much can be achieved through regular ‘lunch and learns’ where everyone gets a chance to present or share experience ranging from new developments in law, through key takeaways from a recently completed matter/project, to the latest firm initiatives to combat cyberattacks. Learning doesn’t have to be complex or expensive, but it does have to happen and it needs to be relevant. There’s no point spending all your time upskilling your clients at industry or client events, only for them to find when they contact your firm that you haven’t first provided that same knowledge or experience to your own people!
  5. Are you proactively managing mobility?
    The current legal workforce is more mobile and wants flexibility. That’s hard to accommodate if your talent management strategy is predicated on most staff being full-time and permanent, the number of hours someone spends in the office, and being reluctant to re-employ anyone who voluntarily leaves the firm. And that strategy is also outdated. The gig economy is alive and well – lawyer platforms like Lawyers on Demand (LOD)3 and Free Range Lawyers4 would not
    exist otherwise – people want work to be a part of their life, not vice versa. They also want to work differently in different places. At a time when creativity, adaptability and difference is important for law firms, experience in diverse places and encouraging that to come back to the firm through re-employment of alumni, seems to make a lot of sense.
  6. Is your feedback process about coaching and mentoring ‘just in time’ or is it the once a year, dreaded, I hope we get to it, kind of thing?
    The pace of practice and client expectations today demand that employer/employee communications are frequent, collegial and consequently support rapid course corrections as required. If an employee is not doing what the client/you need them to do, they need to know it immediately and get things back on track with their supervisor’s support. And, this must be a two-way process. There are many opportunities in these conversations, if encouraged by supervisors, for employees to provide feedback on that supervisor’s
    project management and communication skills. Law firms that have embraced reverse mentoring (employee-to-employer feedback),
    especially around the use of legaltech tools and apps5 or to enhance diversity initiatives,6 are benefiting not just in mutual skill enhancement, but also in developing a new type of collaboration built less on hierarchy and authority and more on engagement, mutual respect and beneficial outcomes.
  7. Do you reward and promote what you need more of or what you needed ‘back in the day’?
    As the means by which we value and price legal services and products continues to shift to outputs and away from billable hours, so too must the way we reward and promote our people. If your law firm currently pays bonuses and promotes people on the basis of hours billed against predetermined minimum revenue targets or exceeding them, or revenue generated from repetition, what happens when you move to fixed fees and/or value pricing? How can you reward things like curiosity, creativity, experimentation, mentoring and coaching, increased profitability from increased efficiency, client relationship building, high levels of engagement and a commitment to building a legacy…by the hour? In short, how can you reward and promote your intrapreneurs – the people with great ideas who want to stay with you and develop them versus the entrepreneurs who will leave to become your competitors? Good business is all about making a profit, but that can be achieved by means other than measuring your value and selling your expertise by the hour.
  8. Is there a career path for everyone, not just your lawyers?
    Legal services and products have never been delivered exclusively by lawyers. Don’t agree? Ask all the other professionals in your firm to take the day off and see how things roll! With the emphasis on increased efficiencies, legaltech to support it, and the consequent changes to processes and systems, a skills gap has emerged in the lawyer population with the consequent need to prioritise capabilities outside their traditional education. Leaders and managers now need business qualifications/training and don’t need a law degree to do that
    job in a law firm. Data scientists, data analysts, software developers, and process and system specialists (to name a few), have joined the more traditional roles in law firms of marketing/business development, HR, finance and IT (although these roles have changed too).

    And, in some firms, these other professionals have become integral to the new or additional legal industry services/products being added to the firm’s list of business capabilities like e-discovery, digital forensics, case management, contract management, cybersecurity advisories and legaltech advisories – they are revenue earners, sometimes earning more revenue on projects than the lawyers and/or referring more work to their lawyers than previously possible.

    For these firms, a singular focus on lawyer careers to the exclusion of all others translates to a significant, career-limiting move for any other professional joining them. The war for talent, once focused exclusively on lawyers, will seem like a drop in the ocean compared
    with the increasing demand and limited supply of these other legal professionals.

    Some law firms have seen the light. Recent action taken by firms to employ graduates into these emerging roles from high school,7 and others to encourage law graduates to join firms not as lawyers but instead into these roles,8 signals the beginning of career paths for these talented professionals, acknowledges their change in status and confirms the increasingly integral role they now play in the delivery of legal services and products.

New practice, new workforce – where do I start?

At first glance, some of the questions above may seem overwhelming or not relevant but they do, or will, apply no matter what the size of your firm. Why? Because they are the markers for the changing legal workforce forming and shaping around the future of legal work. So, if you are wondering how to align your people with your practice, here are some quick tips:

  • review your client satisfaction surveys
  • review your current business plan (you should be doing more of what your clients want and less of what they don’t)
  • reflect on what you can do better
  • undertake an audit of workforce skills to ensure they align with what you need today and what you will need to future proof your practice for what’s coming down the pipeline. Hint: you’ll probably need to employ some people that are not the same as you – cloning is not future-proofing!

Let’s talk about succession planning

If the predictions are correct, by 2025, gen X, millennials and gen Y will comprise 87 per cent of the workforce9 and, therefore, the majority of employers, employees and clients. Couple this with research that also suggests the baby boomers hold a significant number of the major clients’ relationships in law firms and, consequently, remain the major revenue generators,10 and we can safely predict that the legal industry is not only on the cusp of a major changing of the guard, but it will also lose a significant portion of institutional knowledge and experience too as baby boomers retire. It may seem a little strange to be emphasising this impending loss – a historical loss – in a discussion about innovation but it actually makes a lot of sense.

In times of disruption, there’s a lot of change. There’s also a need to understand history, to compare, contrast, make good choices and keep the rudder on the ship steady. Experienced lawyers can provide this history, not to impede progress or place obstacles in the way, but to provide bridges, close gaps, mentor and coach where this is needed. And, of course, these need to be the right experienced lawyers – so not those who are coasting to retirement or otherwise not performing; they should have been managed out long ago and would not be in the cohort of experienced lawyers referred to here. All of this combines to underscore how important it is right now, in the face of unprecedented innovation and change in the legal industry, that law firms prioritise and proactively manage succession so they evolve and adapt to the changing legal marketplace as smoothly as possible.

The innovation part of people

The law firms of the future will be doing different things differently, not the same things the same way or even the same things differently. As an industry, we won’t make that change if we don’t engage with different people with different skills while also retaining those skills most critical to the work lawyers do, like critical thinking, creativity, complex problem solving11 and our humanity. And we won’t find all of those skills in one person – our future lies in fully integrating our multidisciplinary, multi-generational, multi-cultural and multi-talented human workforce with our
digital workforce. It would seem the future of legal practice will evolve from drawing out and working with the innovation part of people as much as it will in fostering diversity in the people part of innovation.

1 See for example Allen Linklaters adoption of the Rare Contextual Recruitment System (CRS) for its graduate recruitment process “to further increase diversity in its workforce”: (15 June 2016).
2 Richard Susskind, The End of Lawyers?: Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services(Oxford University Press, 2008.
3 See LOD website at:
4 See Free Range Lawyers website at:
5 Jerome Doraisamy, “Reverse mentoring will be ‘invaluable’ for BigLaw firms,” Lawyers Weekly, 25 June 2019 at
6 See for example Reed Smith’s reverse mentoring program:
7 See for example Clifford Chance’s partnership with “apprenticeships specialists WhiteHat to train school-leavers in a range of project management skills and tools” in Thomas Connelly, Legal Cheek, “Clifford
Chance launches first legal project management apprenticeship,” 25 June 2019 at
8 See for example Minter Ellison’s Revolution program
for law grads interested in legal operations: https://
9 McCrindle:
10 Debra Cassens Weiss, “As Baby Boomer partners retire, law firms face increasing costs and client issues,” ABA Journal – Law Practice Management (30 August 2016) at: rms_face_increasing_costs_and
11 These three skills have been identified and discussed as the top skills for 2030 by McKinsey Global Institute, Skill Shift Automation and Future of the Workforce (May 2018) at

Terri Mottershead is the Executive Director of the Centre for Legal Innovation (CLI) at The College of Law – a global think tank that translates the trends in legal disruption and innovation into practical solutions for practitioners ( Terri is also a Member of the QLS Innovation Committee.

This story was originally published in Proctor September 2019.

Share this article

Search by keyword