In the face of stagnation within their industry, enterprising lawyers are making the case for innovation by looking for ideas outside their sector and working collaboratively within firms.
Furlong, of course, is not the first one to express frustration at such intransigence. The status-quo bias may be nowhere more strongly evident than in legal practices. But law firm managers increasingly feel pressure to innovate, both to exploit opportunities (ignored markets for legal services) and address problems (an economy that leads young stars to choose business and finance rather than law).
So how can smart firms change from within?
Ironically, one way is to look for solutions outside the legal sector. Exhibit A: medicine. In a recent post for TechCrunch, VC attorney Sarah Reed made an impassioned plea for innovation while outlining how lawyers could tap into a huge market of lower-income, underserved clients by setting up attorney-supervised clinics that provide “high-volume, low-margin” services (think: real-estate closings and small business loans) by the legal equivalent of licensed nurse-practitioners. It’s a strategy recently leveraged with success in the UK (and litigation has started in New York to overhaul state bar rules forbidding non-lawyers from having an ownership stake in firms.)
Collaboration, even in the face of stiff interoffice competition, is another way to achieve innovation. Consider the case of Greenberg Traurig, LLP: A couple years ago, the firm, like many, struggled with hiring young associates right out of law school. Traditionally, inexperienced first-year associates sat on client accounts, billing at exorbitant rates, while contributing next to nothing. Hit by the economic downswing, clients began to balk at the practice. “Some clients even wrote into their contract that they would not have a first-year on their account,” says Jennifer Bluestein, GT’s director of attorney professional development.
Collaboration, even in the face of stiff interoffice competition, is another way to achieve innovation.
The plan that emerged: Rather than hire inexperienced associates at sky-high salaries, GT hires “residents” at a more reasonable cost, and caps their billable hours at 1,900 for the year, a third of which must be devoted to no-cost-to-the-client training. After a year, the residents become associates, assume a non-shareholder position in the firm—or are let go.
Looking across industries, Bluestein and a team at GT worked together for two years to devise a new hiring program modeled off the medical field
The takeaway: Effective change is often produced through adaptive borrowing from other fields—and rarely produced without a process of collaboration and consensus.
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