“Innovate or Die…”

A good portion of my time to date this year has been devoted to planning and launching Innovation Month at my firm, including our kick-off event called the “Osler Big Law Hackathon”, an event hosted in partnership with Ryerson’s Legal Innovation Zone to examine how big law could be done differently.

As part of the organizing committee, I got a better understanding of how my firm is approaching innovation (it’s a well-developed and experienced initiative, as it turns out). I also took it as an opportunity to see what all the fuss is about. Innovation is the trending topic du jour around the industry; having worked in law firms for 10 years, I’ve grown more than a little cynical about a few things, innovation in law among them. Hardly a week goes by without an announcement of an innovation-themed awards program or coverage of another law firm jumping on the innovation bandwagon. It was a great opportunity for me to weed out the talk from the action, and to take the pulse of clients and partners on innovation in legal services. What does innovation look like for clients? What does it sound like to partners?

One of my jobs on the committee involved identifying and inviting clients to participate in the hackathon, a half-day session complete with design thinking methodology as the framework to break down the problem and prototype solutions. I’ll admit that I expected client reaction to the invitation to be mixed (at best). My expectations were quickly surpassed: the vast majority of clients invited to the hackathon responded to the invitation favourably and immediately. I was particularly impressed by those clients who did not hesitate to accept the invitation, knowing that it would require travel by plane to Toronto and double their time commitment. Clients were clearly interested in the subject and the opportunity for dialogue. Any remaining skepticism on my part was extinguished the day before the event, when we received only one client cancellation. (For those who may be wondering, the hackathon was not eligible for professional CPD credits in advance of the event.)

The hackathon was a success in every respect. Clients and partners left the session remarking on how much they got out of the experience. All of us were amazed to hear and see the six prototypes involving one aspect of doing big law differently, all of which were feasible and spoke to the heart delivering legal services in a different way.

The title of this article was the first part of some feedback that we received from a partner who attended the hackathon – he wrote “’Innovate or die’ ought to be the mantra of every major law firm.” There is no more clear call to action than this, but, of course, it’s easier said than done. Below are some of my own observations about the hackathon experience and outcome, and legal innovation in general.


  1. Clients of all stripes are interested in this subject; if you aren’t talking to your clients about innovation in a substantive way, your competitors likely already are. Done properly, innovation offers significant competitive advantage in a market expected to remain flat for the foreseeable future.
  1. If you are going ‘all in’ on innovation, know at the outset that it takes guts and stamina. You can’t sort of be innovative – having the trendy software or announcing alignments with tech hubs (or hosting a hackathon) isn’t going to cut it in the long run. Clients can easily spot shallow initiatives, hollow offers and marketing speak (after all, they started out as lawyers in private practice and know exactly how law firms work). To innovate, you have to walk the talk. It means engaging in something that will be uncomfortable, trying something new, being prepared to fail, and incorporating your learning into the next iteration. In a law firm setting, innovating is really about a dialogue with your most important clients about customized client service.
  1. It’s not us versus them (though it can sometimes feel that way). Casey Flaherty, creator of the Service Delivery Review (f/k/a Legal Technology Audit), recently reminded an Osler group that the need for sophisticated legal expertise will persist – clients need firms as much as firms need clients. It changes the conversation when we realize that we are in this together, and that affecting change is best achieved through dialogue and mutual understanding. At times it may be uncomfortable but it need not be adversarial. If I learned anything from this experience it’s that clients want us to succeed, they are loyal to their external counsel, and will reward firms with their continued loyalty if we take the first step and engage with them on how we might do things differently.
  1. Persevere. If you are an innovation champion within your firm, accept that not everybody gets it. It’s hard to get busy lawyers and professional staff to lift their heads, pause and examine how they might do things differently. It’s even harder to implement any innovation gains that you might achieve. Celebrate the small wins, which may take months or occur in the course of a single meeting.

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