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The Creation of Innovation: How to Build a Cohesive and Sustainable Innovation Team and Culture

By Caryn Sandler

With contributions from Anu Briggs, and Andrean Duffy

What’s Driving the Need for an Innovation Evolution in Law? Technological and competitive disruption in the business of law is difficult to overstate. In perhaps what is viewed as the most traditional, some might say - archaic - of professions, a major change is underway. These are far from traditional times for law firms. With the advent of new technologies, processes and ways of professional thinking, we are witnessing unprecedented levels of disruption in the business landscape and legal industry.

Law firms that do not move with the times – perhaps even ahead of the times – will slowly be eroded by entrepreneurial specialist entrants, the muscle of global consultancy firms adding their weight to the sector and the hemorrhage of outstanding talent to other firms and corporates.

Increasing demands on corporate legal consumers to “do more with less” have significantly raised clients’ expectations of even the most elite law firms. Leading corporate in-house legal departments need much more than top-tier legal expertise; they also require a new class of providers with scale, capital, and an ability to integrate legal, business, and technological expertise backed by a seamless infrastructure to tackle sophisticated, high-value business challenges.

In recognising that we had to evolve, or risk being squeezed within the market, senior leadership at Gilbert + Tobin (G+T) focused on revisioning the business model. Our offering had to be market-leading. The legal operations area of the firm would need to quickly shift from being considered support (over- head) to an essential and ‘expected’ part of high value legal services, with the potential to generate its own revenue stream. Innovation would no longer be an ancillary function or ‘nice-to-have’ but something vi- tal to the business and genuinely of equal importance to direct revenue-generating legal work.

In this article, I explore the journey that we have undertaken to cement and drive legal innovation within G+T. It is the journey of building and structuring a strong, multi-disciplinary team that embraces and nurtures diverse competencies and skills.

It is the journey of gaining the support of leadership, of ‘selling’ a concept to the firm’s partners and constructing business models to demonstrate innovation’s importance and how this could be commercialised. It is a journey of combining technology with training, of throwing the rulebook out around traditional legal careers. But most importantly, it is the journey of a cohesive drive to instill a culture of innovation, as opposed to a function of innovation. This would be our differentiator and key to success.

The Leadership Spark: A Catalyst for Change

G+T prides itself on being a forward-thinking organisation, something managing partner Danny Gilbert has instilled within the firm.

With an openness to doing things differently, it embraces its legacy as a disruptor. Over the years, G+T has identified new and emerging industries and practices as opportunities for traditional legal work. Building on its history as a progressive firm, now, more than ever, it was critical for the sustainability of G+T to have a strong legal service delivery team.

In my role as Chief Knowledge and Innovation Officer at G+T, I established the Legal Service Innovation team, bringing together existing teams and unifying people who had for years been focusing on process improvement, knowledge and technology within G+T. The Legal Service Innovation team’s mandate is to identify opportunities to optimise and innovate the firm’s legal services - whether through re-inventing or re-imagining legal process, developing in-house technologies, adapting and customising third-party software to automate a legal process, or creating new partnerships for legal services. This team has its eye firmly on embracing technological disruption – it’s this disruption that will have a significant and inevitable impact on traditional legal practice.

So why did I believe I could take on this challenge to create and lead this team? Many years in practice as both a corporate and a knowledge lawyer in top-tier law firms in Australia and abroad, afforded me an in-depth understand-ing of the law, legal processes, the intricacies of transactional work and insight into ways in which lawyers work. Coupled with this experience, I have a deep interest and innate under3standing of the benefits that embracing innovation and technology can bring to an organisation.

In leading this team, I’ve been able to marry my focus on innovation with my practical legal expertise. This started the step-change process for G+T, that would ultimately change its client service model and achieve its strategic objective to position itself in the market as a leading innovative law firm, willing to embrace disruption.

Even with the support of Danny Gilbert and the new Chief Operating Officer Sam Nickless (who brought a fast-thinking McKinsey consultancy sharpness to the firm, and relentless drive for innovation), a hurdle lay ahead to gain the support of the entire partnership. This would be both a challenge and a catalyst for change.

As a leader, it is important that you take your people on the journey of transformation with you. Asking them to change and support you is not enough. They must appreciate the value of the change, be immersed in an environment that enables change, and have an opportunity to develop new capabilities to support that change. I had to inspire partners and others towards the destination and model how to get there.

The entire firm needed to demonstrate innovative behaviours in the way that they would think, approach and deliver on work. Collaboration had to sit at heart of the culture, and everyone had to embrace innovation.

I, alongside our Chief Operating Officer, had to get the partners to believe in the vision for legal innovation and understand the potential impact of growing the team. Why should they invest in building a team? Why should they invest in me? We needed to sell our vision for innovation and a belief that we could drive the cultural change required and deliver on what was an evolution of our existing business model. The partnership rightly needed to be confident that the investment in the team and associated technology would result in a suitable ROI from both realising efficiencies and generating incremental revenue.

We argued that all partners have been and will continue to be impacted in some way by the adapting legal landscape and highlighted the questions they all continued to battle with: How do I differentiate G+T from competitors? How should I manage matters more efficiently to reduce margin pressure? How can technology make a matter more efficient and speed up the due diligence process? Clients had also started to request assistance from G+T to enhance the productivity of their

internal legal functions.

We are truly fortunate at G+T to have a partnership that is so open-minded and embracing of change – this is one of our greatest strengths. Their unwavering support for our vision for a dedicated Legal Service Innovation team, and their willingness to embrace innovative practices in our legal service delivery has been nothing short of incredible and has made the journey so much easier.

A vision and mindset certainly helped garner support, but it was ultimately the establishment of a culture that has kept their support.

G+T has gifted me this leadership position

and allowed me to run unhindered. The greatest endorsement of this was being promoted to equity partner. In an environment which has historically been characterised by ‘billable hours’ and ‘hierarchy’, I was a non-practicing lawyer and my promotion had disrupted the traditional legal model and challenged the assumption that value is only derived from direct legal revenue.

Legal Service Innovation: The Evolution of the Team

I am often challenged with the question of, ‘how do I take a pool of graduate lawyers, accomplished partners and a group of ‘non-lawyers’ with eclectic digital technology skills, and create a culture of collaboration, integration, and inclusion to deliver legal innovation?’ Surely this is an impossible task considering lawyer skills and attributes often oppose those found in innovative cultures and the starting point for each group of lawyers is considerably different?

We achieved this through starting with a clear vision and purpose.

Our purpose was, and continues to be, for our lawyers to be ahead of the curve. We set our vision as an ambitious goal to develop lawyers who could adapt to future changes in the business of law. Capability development had to focus on embedding skills – not just for today’s needs – but to stay two steps ahead of the market.

To stay ahead of the curve, we would have to transform the mindset and the capabilities of our lawyers to use new processes and data that would further enhance the quality and efficiency of their decision-making and service delivery. We had to take a multi-faceted approach to innovation.

Future-proofing the firm would mean that we had to build capability development across the board. It would require investment in capability, improved process and technology. We would have to develop underlying lawyer competencies and tools that would enable G+T to pre-emptively pivot as the market evolves.

One example of putting this strategy into action was to ensure that our senior lawyer co-hort would be accredited in project manage-ment. We audaciously designed a first-to-market course that achieved accreditation.

G+T was the first Australian law firm to pro-vide senior lawyers with independent certification by the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM). We were also the first law firm to offer AIPM-endorsed training in Legal Project Management (LPM) for our clients.

Building upon most of the firm’s existing values (challenge, collaboration, drive and ambition, excellence, integrity, commitment to innovation), many of our lawyers now offer di-verse thinking and a creative problem-solving advisory mindset. They are increasingly well-rounded and understand the market, and have empathy for their clients’ challenges in the broader societal, regulatory and political con-text.

Developing LPM competencies, tools and behaviours to create structure around the planning, delivery and reporting of legal matters was critical, but the crucial and pivotal factor would be developing a transformation-al mindset. This mindset would need to apply to all, regardless of experience or discipline.

It is the Legal Service Innovation team that supports and cultivates the development of a transformational mindset within G+T.

Since 2016, our Legal Service Innovation team has grown to over 50 people to support the firm’s innovation journey. Specialty areas include Knowledge and Practice Innovation, LPM, Transformation and Legal Informatics. They are supported by data scientists, management consultants, lawyers, lean and design thinking specialists. What makes this approach work? What is the magic ingredient that drives the success of this team? Having a commonality of mindset and an integrated, non-siloed approach. This commonality of mindset across the team, from leaders to graduates, and the way that we think and work with common attributes around curiosity and continuous improvement, has been key to our success.

This team of course, does not work in isolation. They approach projects and matters hand-in-hand with lawyers and collaborate with them to deliver legal work. For example, when leveraging Artificial Intelligence (AI) on matters, this team supports our lawyers in understanding the technology, its applications and helps them interpret results. The legal transformation specialist understands the AI, but also has a background in law and can speak the lawyer’s language. These varied skillsets are what gives the Legal Service Innovation team the edge. It is this combination of skills sitting across the Legal Service Innovation team and the legal practice groups that is the catalyst for excellence. We see it as the left arm supporting the right.

Improving Legal Productivity Through an In-house Innovation Unit

G+T’s business model is anchored in a spirit of innovation and a drive to embrace new technologies. The Legal Service Innovation team works alongside our internal innovation unit, ‘g+t<i>’ which was established to cut through the traditional hierarchies and organisational structures to harness the individual spirit of innovation at G+T. It is made up of lawyers, partners and operations staff who are passionate about innovation and doing things differently. Over 80 lawyers, operations and design team members leverage design thinking and other methodologies to re-engineer key legal processes, move law forward and create new opportunities to better serve our clients.

The collaboration of the ‘g+t<i>’ group and Legal Service Innovation team, results in the creation of new processes and in-house digital technology solutions that help differentiate our lawyers and legal service for clients.

Some of these proprietary solutions include:

  • dd: due diligence platform which captures and tracks due diligence reviews;

  • SmartSearch: G+T-patented suite of

  • tools automating all manual aspects of due diligence searches;

  • Verification: G+T-patented tool that digitally verifies prospectus statements, provides real-time data on status, and syncs verification changes into a master document;

  • Smart Counsel: provides free legal in- formation, expert tips, example clauses, usage guides, and answers FAQs for over 3,400 in-house counsel users;

  • Harper Ready: interactive tool to assess the risk of contravening Australia’s competition laws.

The Role of the ‘New’ Lawyer

Innovation culture thrives when we remove the artificial divide between the practice of law and the business of law. If lawyers wish to be successful in their careers, they need to understand both aspects. From the outset, our focus has been to educate and develop our lawyers as legal experts and impactful leaders who appreciate the importance of cultivating and overlaying an innovative mindset.

We now rotate Summer Clerks and Graduates into the Legal Service Innovation team. They may or may not settle in the team, however, if budding lawyers have a real interest in technology and innovation, the opportunity is there to learn.

As an example, over a ten-week period, our Summer Clerks worked in collaboration with ‘Josef’, an automation platform, to design legal bots to solve complex issues. It encourages clerks to think creatively and critically, and develop skills in problem-solving, design thinking and collaboration - skills and attributes expected of the future lawyer.

By introducing clerks to the firm’s strong innovation and capability strategy, we encourage them to think more broadly about the law than they would be accustomed to at university. We also encourage them to apply concepts they may not have been previously exposed to. This dynamic application of emerging capabilities with a bottom-up, top-down approach, has allowed us to rapidly bridge the gap between traditional lawyer attributes and those displayed by teams successfully embracing innovation.

G+T has also pioneered the practice of providing Graduate lawyers the option of undertaking a rotation in the Legal Service Innovation team. This aims to develop skills that go beyond traditional practice methods and prepare lawyers for an increasingly diverse and tech-driven marketplace. While we will still need lawyers with strong technical expertise (this in my view, is more important than ever), the successful lawyer of the future must combine this technical excellence with very strong legal problem-solving and analytical skills, and the ability to present solutions and make sound business decisions for their client – they must be ‘T-shaped’.

We also have unique hybrid roles at the firm, where experienced lawyers split their time between the Legal Service Innovation team and a practice group. The anecdotal feedback from G+T lawyers who have reflected on their time in the Legal Service Innovation team, concluded that the work was of great benefit to them. One said, “Law is a business and law is a service. You can only get better at giving legal advice if you understand all the elements of a business, and this way of working gives you that insight.”

Enable the Innovation Culture to Permeate the Firm

One creative way to establish an innovation culture at G+T was the introduction of a program that allowed lawyers to work on innovation projects that would count as billable hours for the purposes of lawyers’ performance assessments. ‘Project Invigorate’ was an annual $1million board-supported investment, launched to the firm’s lawyers in 2018 signalling a significant cultural shift in how we incentivise engagement with the business of law and innovation. This program has and will continue to have a significant impact on the firm’s culture, accelerating the breadth and pace of innovation.

A further initiative to motivate employees to think differently and creatively about innovation was to create an ‘Innovation Takeover’. The Legal Service Innovation team designed and co-ordinated three weeks of diverse events and a firm-wide marketing campaign to ‘takeover’ the firm’s offices, exposing lawyers to new technologies including AI and methodologies such as design thinking. We crowdsourced legal tasks ripe for re-design, culminating in a design thinking sprint. Shortlisted entries were fast-tracked through our design cycle, and teams pitched to the firm panel, with employees interactively voting for their favourites.

By stimulating the conversation and engag- ing employees, we encouraged and grew our innovation culture, by focussing on our greatest asset: our people.

More recently, the team hosted a series of talks, focusing on the use of legal apps as tools to deliver efficient and immediate legal advice to clients. We invited two leading legal app platform providers to give insights into their process for identifying legal app ideas, developing a business case and creating legal apps in their platform.

Culture Drives Outcomes: The Commercialisation of Innovation.

The commercial results of embedding an in-novation culture and mindset are now coming to fruition. There is no question that we continue to grow our core business and win pitches on the strength of our market-leading legal partners and talent, alongside our undeniable focus on innovation. With an unprecedented and ambitious business strategy, we launched G+T Innovate in 2018, our technology and transformation advisory capability.

G+T Innovate was conceived as a compass for beleaguered in-house teams knowing that they needed to change the way in which they worked but were unclear on where to start and how to drive effective change.

The service reflects increasing client demand for our innovation service and is a clear market differentiator. Tapping into non-conventional income streams and offering unique value to clients, G+T Innovate has already been utilised in market-leading transformation projects for prestigious ASX 20 companies. It has gone from being a ‘nice to have’ idea into a fully fledged legal services consulting offering.

The strength of G+T Innovate is its ability to draw upon a very broad and deep range of practical operational and battle-tested experience, methodologies and knowledge of technologies existing across our Legal Service Innovation team – it is a multi-disciplinary approach that is co-ordinated on a bespoke basis for each client.

The Future Potential for Innovation

Innovation is in our DNA. It starts at a Sum-mer Clerk level where interns learn about AI and the creation of legal apps. It provides opportunities for lawyers to understand methodologies like ‘design thinking’ and ‘lean’. It runs through the firm in the form of ‘Innovation Takeovers’. It allows lawyers, through Project Invigorate, to spend billable hours working on innovation projects. It is nurtured by the G+T partnership.

We’ve proven to the G+T partnership that we can create an innovation culture that permeates through the entire firm and build a team that has the capacity and capability to be truly leading edge. Innovation now drives tangible results in the form of products, technologies, services and measurable efficiencies.

We have taken the traditional functions of a law firm and moved them into the 21st century.

We have created a truly cohesive, multi-disciplinary Legal Service Innovation team that is ready for the future.

We have started building the foundations for lawyers to be ‘T-shaped’ and agile.

We still have a way to go, but the foundations are very real.

True success lies in the realisation of an innovation culture at G+T. Testament to this fulfillment is my progression from selling the concept of legal innovation to partners, to the partners now selling the services of the Legal Service Innovation team and G+T Innovate (led by my expertise) – we have truly come full-circle.


About the Author and Contributors

Caryn Sandler is Partner + Chief Knowledge and Innovation Officer and leads the Gilbert + Tobin Legal Service Innovation Team. This team provides specialised services to support Gilbert + Tobin’s legal service delivery, and also delivers new tools and services benefiting the firm’s practice and clients. A former practising corporate M&A lawyer, Caryn brings 16 years of experience in legal, knowledge management, legal technology, change management, transformation and solution design to her role. Caryn also conceived and launched G+T Innovate – a new technology and transformation advisory service that delivers unique value for clients and is being utilised in market-leading projects for prestigious ASX100 corporations. She is a recognised thought-leader in legal innovation. She frequently speaks at leading seminars in both Australia and globally, and actively contributes to many market-defining forums and mentorships.

Under Caryn’s leadership, Gilbert + Tobin was named Most Innovative Law Firm in Asia-Pacific 2019 at the FT Innovative Lawyers Awards and Most Innovative Firm for the 3rd year in a row at the Australian Financial Review Client Choice 2020 Awards. Caryn won ‘Innovator of the Year’ at the Lawyer’s Weekly Women in Law Awards 2019.

Anu Briggs is the Head of Capability, Development and Change and resident high-performance coach at Gilbert + Tobin. Anu combines legal experience, leadership development expertise and an entrepreneurship mindset to get best outcomes for the leaders and teams that she works with. She also plays an advisory role in developing start up concepts and scaling businesses. Anu has cross-market experience having worked in the UK in both legal and commercial roles with high profile media and sports organisations. Accredited in behavioural profiling, coaching and training and as an experienced content developer, facilitator and coach, Anu regularly collaborates with leaders and business teams to build and drive high performance. She is passionate about helping individuals and organisations thrive, particularly in times of transition.

Andrean Duffy is Marketing and Communications Manager. A classically trained marketer, with broad experience across multiple categories in FMCG, consumer healthcare and professional services. She has market experience from both the UK and ANZ having worked with some of the world’s largest consumer goods multi-national firms. She specialises in conceiving, evaluating and implementing strategic business plans and has a strong commercial acumen. Her skills include developing partnerships, influencing key stakeholders and media relations.