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Six ways to boost legal innovation in a law firm … For real!

By Nadine Lilienthal and Laura Mörschburger.

Many partners in law firms feel by now that digitization is about more than buying the next hot legal tech tool. The legal market is awakening to the fact that real change requires a cultural shift in the law firm towards a collective innovative mindset. Here are six levers for a holistic approach to make a law firm a legal innovation star:

  1. Raise awareness for the need to evolve

  2. Build your Legal Innovation Team

  3. Clarify where you want to go

  4. Communicate like a pro

  5. Free the way by removing obstacles

  6. "Rome wasn't built in a day" - And why this tune sums it up

1. Raise awareness for the need to evolve

Show people why they are personally affected: For change to really happen, employees need a high level of motivation. In other words, they need to be aware of the need to evolve. To sustainably digitize a law firm, its management and employees must know why it is needed to "change what has always been done that way". This awareness may be triggered by external factors such as long-term clients and legal departments whose calls for progress are getting louder. It is essential that everyone in the law firm's workforce is informed about the bigger picture: Change is the cure to stay successful in the legal market.

Above and beyond, it is especially important to show employees why evolving is important for them and how they can personally benefit from it. What employees care for is the personal effect on their own job. To gain the support all employees concerning the idea of digital transformation the risk for each person individually needs to become clear. Meaning it needs to be tangible for every employee to understand what might happen to its own workplace and working environment, if no action is taken.

Roundtables & newsletters: In practice, at this stage a law firm can foster awareness through providing general information on the digital developments in the legal market, e.g. impact of new technologies, disruptive new business models and more. This information can for example be provided by having roundtables with presentations and discussions and addressing such topics in internal newsletters.

The disruption of the legal market - as it happened to various other industries in the last years - is on the verge of a breakthrough that might trigger fear in some employees, likely leading to the denial of any need for change. From a psychological perspective this is a rather normal human reaction. There is no point in arguing with this position, raising awareness for the need to evolve is an internal process which takes time. What you can do is address these reactions by asking questions such as: "What are your concerns?" The resulting collection of concerns can later on be used for the communication strategy (see below 4.

2. Build your Legal Innovation Team

Your voice in the hallways: A team of people with a high degree of social influence in support of the cause is key to succeed in digitizing the law firm and making it fit for the future. The team members can act as "Cultural Ambassadors" in the hallways and in day to day employee interactions. They can ensure that during internal discussions around legal innovation and change projects, the need for targeted action is constantly highlighted. Unlike companies, law firms have less employees and meanwhile many high-ranking ones. Thus, it is even more important to get everyone on board to successfully make the law firm excel in legal innovation.

Gather a group of interdisciplinary heavyweights and influencers: When building the team you can start with an analysis of highly influential employees and the most important stakeholders in the law firm. Highly influential employees may also include employees lower in hierarchy which are exceptionally well connected, express their opinions or have expert knowledge on legal innovation. It is recommendable to build an interdisciplinary team which could include e.g. an employee from IT/marketing/HR, secretarial staff as well as lawyers ranging from Associate to rainmaker and Senior Partner.

3. Clarify where you want to go

Vision - A law firm's North Star: A vision is more than the economic targets of the law firm in the upcoming year. By vision we mean a plan for the future in this context, creating a picture of where you want to go made up through the foresight of a multifaceted team, considering future trends. With a clear vision you can direct the course of the law firm. Employees receive guidance and orientation from a clear vision and it allows them to focus on what really matters to the law firm.

One sentence that helps you to find your vision: The Senior Management and the Innovation Team of a law firm must be part of creating the vision and ideally consult with groups of other stakeholders within the law firm as well. You may find your vision e.g. by filling in the following statement:

If the digital transformation of our law firm is successful, five years from now we will………………………………………………………… …………………….by…………………………………….………………………………………………………………

4. Communicate like a pro

Avoid silos and get everyone to move as one: Communication can align actions by making sure all employees move forward in one direction. If partners in a law firm do not communicate about (the status of) their digitization projects, silos occur. Over time this can create a massive loss in efficiency, if every practice area develops their own solutions. This can be avoided by communicating the common vision for the digitization of the law firm and thereby ensuring that all employees move forward as one.

Broadcast diversely, meaning in a way that people with varying needs will understand you: We recommend to divide the communication strategy in two parts: A "General Communication Strategy" to provide transparency and communicate the vision. The aim is to inform everyone in the firm about the current status of the digitization process and the way into the future. The second part is "Key Stakeholder Talks" for partners or influential stakeholders in the law firm who have not been part of the vision process.

Ideally the General Communication Strategy starts with an unforgettable kick off event to raise awareness and in a best case scenario makes people want to participate in the upcoming change process. Following this event the employees should ideally be constantly informed about the digitization process. Psychologically, transparency gives people a feeling of control which is important for a smooth transitioning into new processes and ways of working.

The Key Stakeholder Talks are one-on-one meetings with rainmakers, potential opponents of change and other influencers with the desired outcome of getting these stakeholders on board for the digital transformation journey. From a psychological perspective a good way to address the concerns of varying personality types is the Big Five model by Robert McCrae and Paul Costa. It measures personality traits such as openness, conscientiousness, extraversion - introversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Here are three examples of what this model can help you with:

a - Low and high openness: Someone who is low on openness will very likely feel overwhelmed by the pending digital transformation. Here it helps to communicate with these individuals to outline what will stay the same and that only certain, limited areas are going to be affected by the change. Contrarily, if you speak with a stakeholder who is high on openness, her acceptance can be increased by asking this person to contribute ideas.

b - High and low conscientiousness: People who are highly conscientious need explicit instructions. They are great at following directions, whereas people who are low in conscientiousness will get frustrated by too many details. They prefer to figure out their own ideas and solutions.

c - Extraverts and Introverts: Extraverts are great communicators so you may collaborate for making the vision and ongoing process known in the law firm. Introverts on the other side are more likely to contribute to the digitization project, if they have the opportunity to work in a small team and have time to process the information before they are asked to contribute ideas.

5. Free the way by removing obstacles

The braking effect of old processes and structures: If you pay no attention to removing obstacles, it is possible that the change intent fizzles out. Obstacles may result from internal processes and ways "things have always been done" which create a suction effect for the employees to continue acting that way. This is particularly relevant, if your law firm lacks managerial encouragement and visible support for the change.

A set of questions to identify obstacles and ideas on how to tackle them: You can start by raising the question: “What is most likely to get in the way of succeeding with our law firm advancing in digitization / legal innovation?” By asking this question you can identify obstacles who are likely to occur. Two examples of typical obstacles likely to occur and how you can proceed from there:

  • What keeps employees from fostering digitization / legal innovation in the law firm? One possible obstacle could be a billable hour system which prevents employees from investing time in supporting the law firm in legal innovation projects, this may even stop them from learning how to use a legal tech tool. These problems should be solved to avoid progress constraints. Creative, workable solutions that are most suitable for the situation in your law firm could include a brainstorming workshop carried out by the Innovation Team.

  • Do the employees have the necessary skills or do they need further education? A lack of skills can be a huge obstacle and may effectively hinder any progress. Thus, this lack needs to be addressed e.g. by additional IT support and/or training.

6. ”Rome wasn't built in a day" - And why this tune sums it up

Please note, that from a psychological perspective it is normal that creating a cultural shift takes time and employees may fall back into old patterns and behaviours in the first months. To limit this effect, it is important to make old behaviours less attractive and new behaviours easy to adopt. This may include appreciation for the employees who adapt quickly to the change. It is also essential to have a culture where it is ok to fall back (and restart), this makes it easier for people to change their patterns.

All in all, during a cultural shift it is a good time to train the nearly forgotten virtue of patience. You may do that by humming the tune "Rome, wasn't built in a day”.


About the Authors:

Dr. Nadine Lilienthal (l) and Laura Mörschburger (r) are the founders of Legaleap. Legaleap is a German company providing training and coaching for law firms on strategic reflection at the intersection of legal innovation and client needs, supporting lawyers to adapt to rapid changes. For more information please visit Legaleap's website:

They host the podcast “Zukunft Rechtsmarkt” on business models and skills needed in tomorrow’s legal market.

Dr. Nadine Lilienthal is a lawyer, former General Counsel of a medium sized enterprise and with her team responsible for 15 international entities, previously an attorney of a magic circle law firm.

Laura Mörschburger is a psychologist, experienced DBVC certified coach and trainer for multinational corporations and university lecturer on Personnel and Organizational Development.

1 Comment

Alexendar hales
Alexendar hales
Apr 11, 2021

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