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Collaborate to Innovate: How Outside Perspectives Advance Legal Tech

T he term “legal innovation” is so overused that it’s in danger of becoming a meaningless buzzword. Successful initiatives, such as Microsoft's Legal Resources or the apps of legal consulting firm Elevate, show it's possible for both large and small companies to streamline law department workflows. Despite these examples, innovation is challenging to achieve, especially in the legal industry.

Undoubtedly, one of the main reasons is because of the complex nature and traditional, precedent-based culture of the legal industry itself. As Jae Um, founder and executive director at Six Parsecs, a research and insights company focused on the legal market, noted on Twitter:

“[T]he legal market is difficult for outsiders to navigate or understand. For those of us on the inside, we should remember that each of us brings to the table a labyrinthine set of customs and experiences that create significant divisions and critical barriers to cooperation.”

If we want to spark change, we have to be keenly aware of what we want to change. For the legal profession, that means recognizing our different experiences as lawyers, both in terms of how we practice law and in how we were taught to practice law.

How do we contend, then, with the gap between the pressing demands of a legal practice — to avoid risk and steer clients safely to shore — and the interest of many technology companies in enacting innovative, lasting change? One answer is to make the values and motivations of the legal market more transparent for outsiders to understand and to navigate, as Um pointed out. This is easier said than done.

[Related: From Now to Next in Legal Services: Innovation and Operations]

For too long lawyers have been taught to operate in silos. Whether it was within a legal department at a small business or large corporation, we have worked in isolated teams, even if we were not always aware of it, that functioned apart from the business and even from the values of the business we serve.

At this point, given the increasing influence of legal technology, alternative service providers, and the practice of law, we can no longer afford to work in silos. In other words, lawyers cannot afford to continue to shield themselves behind the behind the impenetrable wall of legal practice.

Lawyers need to be open to learn from one another and from other professions. Just because you do something one way does not mean that it is the best way to do it. This means collaborating — letting others in and learning what we can do to assist them in their jobs, from product development to service delivery, through marketing and customer contact. We should not wait for them to come to us with a problem. We should go to them.

In turn, we need to allow others, even those who are not lawyers, to share their perspective on what we do and incorporate their feedback into our daily practice. Obviously, the first group to turn to for this feedback is our clients. Whether they are internal or external clients, we need to learn from what they are expecting from us.

[Related: How to Team Up with Other Departments]

By listening to our peers and clients, we have streamlined our workflows and processes. For example, technologies like contract management systems, litigation analytics, and contract review systems like Kira Systems or LawGeex, are helping lawyers do their jobs better, be more productive, and yield better results.
Moreover, technology has helped make the legal industry more transparent. Companies like LegalZoom and Avvo have simplified legal resources, like basic forms, templates, lawyer reviews, and legal guidance, that would otherwise be difficult to access or understand.

These advancements have had a salient impact on the practice of law. However, innovation within the law requires more than buying a piece of technology and applying it to an existing process.

Innovation is truly about learning about existing work processes and asking if there is a better way. As Jason Barnwell, assistant general counsel-legal business, operations, and strategy at Microsoft Corporation says, "Measured experimentation is necessary because it pushes us to test hypotheses." This is what innovation is about: experimentation.

[Related: The Rise of the Legal "Special Ops" Team]

Experimentation is trying something new without knowing what will actually happen. Sounds great, except lawyers are paid to be risk-averse. Change, however, cannot happen without accepting risk.

To open up to change, turn to the outsiders. You need to understand their perspectives, views, and experiences. Start by talking with colleagues or industry peers or having meetings with your CEO or key stakeholders. Then delve into published surveys or conduct a survey of your key stakeholders. Be creative, be bold, and be fearless in your quest for information. It is only with these insights that you can then ask the higher-ups to support you as you seek to innovate.

So, let's push forward and keep experimenting and collaborating. But let us also acknowledge what the legal industry is and what it isn't. As with stakeholders, we need to meet the industry where it is and go from there.

About the Author

Colin S. LevyColin S. Levy is a corporate counsel at Previously, he was manager, contract negotiations for Pearson Education, a large global learning company where he negotiated and drafted high-stakes domestic and global agreements with customers. In his free time, he writes a blog featuring interviews with leaders in the legal technology and legal innovation space and has also been featured on the LAWsome podcast.

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