Law Office Management

Innovation or continuous improvement? Yes.

February 11, 2016

The follow blog post is an excerpt from Nora’s upcoming book, 50 Lessons for Lawyers: Earn More – Stress Less – Be Awesome. This lesson focuses on the importance of both innovation and continuous improvement.

The best way to predict the future is to invent it.
– Alan Kay

The practice of law is not what it was 10 years ago, or five years ago, or even three years ago. Pressure from an ever-changing economy, the commoditization of legal services from companies like LegalZoom, the phenomenal pace of technology, and the never-ending search for more work-life balance and more profits compel radical changes in how law firms are structured and run. Law firms that want to do more than merely survive in the years ahead must reevaluate how they operate.

There is strong evidence that unprecedented changes in practice are producing a restructuring in the way legal services are delivered. These changes include widespread access to legal information, the routinization of many legal tasks, demands by clients for more control of legal service delivery, and the emergence of an increasingly competitive marketplace. This restructuring in the way legal services are delivered affects all law firms – regardless of size, geographic location, and substantive practice area – although it may impact different firms in different ways. Clients are seeking more efficient services, predictable fees, and increased responsiveness to their needs, and they are willing to replace their lawyers if they are not satisfied with the services they receive.

New York State Bar Association: Report of the Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession, February 2011

Despite the realities of the evolving legal landscape, most lawyers remain very resistant to change. YOU are not most lawyers. You know that the practice and business of law must change, and you must change with it. So the question becomes: How? Does the answer lie in the concept of continuous improvement – small steps over time, or in innovation – swift, dramatic, sweeping change? The truth is – the answer lies in a combination of both approaches. In order to thrive in the years ahead, the best lawyers and law firms will embrace both innovation AND continuous improvement.

The New York State bar Association Report underscores the need for innovation and continuous improvement in law. Neither concept is a panacea, nor can any law firm ignore either approach to change. Opportunities for innovation and continuous improvement are everywhere; you only need to take a look around your office to see them.

The Case for Innovation

Innovation is the ability to convert ideas into invoices.
– L. Duncan

Innovation is about big change – massive change. Completely rethinking how a service is provided or how clients pay for the services you provide are fertile grounds for innovation. And depending upon your practice area and the work you do, innovation [i.e., massive change] in these areas may be absolutely necessary.

In Gary Hamel’s book, What Matters Now: How to Win in a World of Relentless Change, Ferocious Competition, and Unstoppable Innovation, Hamel talks about the importance of innovation in a rapidly changing world. Hamel has long been a thought leader in the area of innovation, and his call to innovation should resonate with all lawyers. Innovation is about big change, and the legal profession could benefit from some big changes. Today’s law firm is built on a model created more than 100 years ago. How many businesses could exist today in a model that has barely changed in more than 100 years? The bottom line: Law firms that refuse to innovate – at least on some levels – will not be able to compete in the 21st century.

In recent years, left-brain types have had the upper hand while starry-eyed innovators have struggled to get a hearing. Nevertheless, before innovation slips any further down the list of corporate priorities, we need to remind ourselves that we owe everything to innovation.

– From What Matters Now: How to Win in a World of Relentless Change, Ferocious Competition, and Unstoppable Innovation, by Gary Hamel

Did you hear that, left-brainers? Law firms aren’t known for their willingness to embrace innovation. But ignore innovation at your peril. So, what exactly are we talking about when we use the word innovation? In a law firm, innovation can mean any number of things. Here are just a few areas that are ripe for innovation in most law firms:

  • Re-examining how you deliver your services
  • Considering value pricing or alternative fee agreements
  • Providing flex-time to employees, or allowing them to work virtually
  • Expanding your core competencies around business and leadership
  • Leveraging cloud-based case management or other services

This list may not sound earth-shattering, but there are far too many law firms that don’t embrace any of these ideas. They’ll say, “We don’t have the time.” “We tried it before, and it didn’t’ work.” “We don’t have the resources.” “Nobody else is doing that.” “We’re doing fine just as we are.” Do any of these comments sound familiar to you?

So why does innovation matter? Innovation matters because if you’re not innovating, you’re being commoditized. Innovation matters because law firms that don’t innovate will lose clients to the firms that do, or to online legal service providers (THINK: LegalZoom and RocketLawyer). Innovation matters because law firms that continue to innovate will distinguish themselves from companies that provide legal services online.

What are you doing to move your practice and your life in the direction you want to go? Have you stepped out of line recently? Have you challenged what you accept as true for you? Have you thought about just one innovation that could dramatically improve your law practice? If not, why not?

For every nine people who denounce innovation, only one will encourage it. . . . For every nine people who do things the way they have always been done, only one will ever wonder if there is a better way. For every nine people who stand in line in the front of a locked building, only one will ever come around and check the back door. Our progress as a species rests squarely on the shoulders of that tenth person. The nine are satisfied with the things they are told are valuable. Person 10 determines for himself what has value.

– From The Backdoor to Enlightenment, by Za Rinpoche and Ashley Nebeisieck

A Kaizen Mindset

Sustained success is largely a matter of focusing regularly on the right things and making a lot of uncelebrated little improvements every day.

– Theodore Levitt

Unlike the massive change that innovation brings, Kaizen, or continuous improvement, works on a distinctly different level. The word Kaizen is a Japanese word meaning “good change” or “change for the best.” Kaizen is about creating a culture of continuous improvement. A Kaizen culture of continuous improvement relies on small, incremental steps that, over time, produce big results.

Innovation and Kaizen together are a potent combination for creating lasting, positive change for your firm. Kaizen’s small steps can provide the perfect introduction to change within your firm. Kaizen’s culture of small step continuous improvement works very differently than innovative approaches. And in some situations, Kaizen can be even more effective. Think about your own life. Let’s talk about the “I’m going to get in shape and go to the gym every morning at 6 a.m.” innovation. Is there anyone who hasn’t tried implementing that innovation? If you’re one of the lucky ones, maybe it worked for you. But if you’re like millions of other people, you probably made it to the gym for a day or two and then found plenty of reasons why that innovation was just not going to work.

If you were to approach getting in shape with a Kaizen mindset, you’d ask yourself the question, “What is one small thing I could do every day that would help me become healthier?” Maybe the answer is to take a 10-minute walk – every day. That walk becomes part of your life, just like brushing your teeth in the morning. Over time, that one small step can improve your health dramatically.

The reason that Kaizen is so effective is that its small changes often don’t really feel like changes at all. They are slight, sometimes almost imperceptible. But like the effect of water dripping on a rock, they will change the landscape of your world over time.

Living the Lesson

  • Innovation: Identify one process or system in your office to innovate. Think big, dramatic change! What is one BIG change that you could make that would improve the service you provide to your clients? Identify it and do it.
  • Kaizen: Look for ways to make very small changes. Ask these questions of yourself and your team:
    • What is one thing I could do to save us a few dollars each day?
    • Is there something we could do that we’re not doing to improve our clients’ experiences?
    • Is there one thing we could do each day, that wouldn’t cost any money, but would reduce waste in the office?
  • Get in the habit of always asking the question: “Is there a better way?”


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