Too many lawyers with great ideas that could improve legal practice are discouraged from even trying to innovate. As lawyers, we assume that innovation must mean invention, technology, and programming. By accepting that assumption, we are accepting the belief that innovation is something that other people do. But that’s not true. Innovation can be any new process or new way of thinking — and that can be game changing. Innovating is for lawyers, and lawyers already have the skills to be innovators. No coding necessary.
Who could be better to find innovative ways to solve our client’s problems than us? Let’s put lawyers back in the mix of innovating for a better future of legal practice. We can do that by expanding our concept of what it means to innovate and who can be an innovator.
Innovation and Technology Aren’t the Same Thing
We believe that we’re incapable of solving our own problems because most of us aren’t programmers. But the legal profession is missing out on untold new ideas — and diversity — because we allow the assumption that the ability to program is a prerequisite for innovation to thrive. This assumption means we get caught up in technology and miss innovations and possibilities right in front of us. We don’t need to have high GPAs, be from Ivy League schools, have been programmers since 6th grade, or attend a coding boot camp to find creative solutions to problems. Lawyers have transferrable skills. We should use them to innovate.
What Is Innovation?
Innovation is creating new value from ideas, including applying new concepts to old processes or adapting existing concepts to meet new goals. It requires:
- Creative problem solving, which includes the ability to see detail, the big picture, and abstract pictures;
- Deep knowledge of the process, people, and challenge to be addressed; and
- Resilience to try, try, try again.
Notably absent: Coding.
Right now, we are rapidly proliferating technology solutions that are largely duplicative while many parts of legal practice remain ignored. It is unlikely that developers, accelerators, and venture capitalists will put funds into creating a solution that may be valuable yet not scalable or easily monetized. But if it’s valuable to you, it’s worth doing, and it can still be innovative. Stop wishing that someone else would solve the problems that you already see.
Can Lawyers Be Innovators?
It’s difficult to try something new when you don’t think that you can do it. But we can. Our legal training provides us with a skillset that readily translates to innovation. Rather than ignoring our well-honed skills — and chasing new ones — we should use them. Differently.
Through our legal training, lawyers already have the skills we need to innovate.
- We problem solve using analogy to read caselaw, draw parallels, and analogize it to support our particular case and set of facts.
- We hold and proceed with ambiguous or conflicting information when we plead in the alternative or create deal playbooks with multiple approaches. Each instance involves holding conflicting information in our minds, embracing ambiguity, and proceeding down multiple paths at once.
- We use levels of abstraction when we argue about the spirit of the law. We stop looking at the words and we let ourselves look at the purpose in the abstract.
- We determine minimum viable outcomes when we negotiate a business deal or a plea bargain. We inherently understand that a minimum acceptable outcome exists.
- We creatively respond to failure when we pivot from our original theory of the case and use our back up plan or when we are too aggressive in a deal and need to bring the parties back to the negotiating table. We don’t give up.
Each of these skills is part of every lawyer’s toolkit. Each is necessary for innovation. We have the skills. If we want more lawyers to innovate, we must use skills we already have and encourage the mindset that innovating is possible for us. If law firms want to harness and accelerate the innovative potential of their lawyers, then law firms must remove roadblocks to making change.
It’s standard for commentators to observe that progress in the legal profession is slow moving. We have blamed the lack of progress on many things like the billable hour structure, risk-aversion, that lawyers are luddites, etc. But maybe our lack of progress is because, rather than progressing ourselves, we’re waiting for someone else to do it? It’s time that we stop waiting. And it’s time that we start believing that we have the capacity to drive these changes ourselves.
Lawyers can be innovators, we just don’t know it yet. Even without the ideal background or the perfect environment, we can make a difference. There is no requirement that an innovation must be big or technical to be useful. It just has to make an impact.
Progress within the profession can gain momentum if most of us are participating in generating it. There’s room for us each to contribute if we expand our view of what it means to innovate. Use your skills, take charge of the future of the legal profession, and make your mark.
About the Author
Ivy B. Grey is the Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for WordRake. Prior to joining the team, she practiced bankruptcy law for ten years. In 2020, Ivy was recognized as an Influential Woman in Legal Tech by ILTA. She has also been recognized as a Fastcase 50 Honoree and included in the Women of Legal Tech list by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. Follow Ivy on Twitter @IvyBGrey or connect with her on LinkedIn.