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HBR: Why Your Innovation Team Needs a Lawyer

Posted by Gene Turner on 09-Aug-2016 08:34:19


When I first read this article in HBR, Why Your Innovation Team Needs a Lawyer, I liked it. All lawyers have probably experienced at least once the dismay of being brought in at the tail end of a new initiative, when all the key decisions have already been made and the deadline for sign-off is…5pm today. Nobody wants you to ask any questions, they don’t want to (and probably can’t) make any changes, and they’re scared that you will “kill the project – or reduce it to a shadow of its potential”. All they really want is a sign-off.

So an article identifying that the real problem is often that “not a single legal representative had been involved in these new business initiatives from the beginning” is a good thing. As the article says

This is where the opportunity lies – in collaboration that includes the final approvers, embedding the legal teams in the design and innovation process.

The problem is that the more I reflect on it, this article – and many people’s views of lawyers in general – is based on a view that the lawyers need to be on the team so they can understand it – if you explain it in simple terms - and not kill it, but there is no suggestion that the lawyers might themselves have the creativity to actually add to and enhance the underlying initiative.

To an extent, this is the fault of the legal profession. As a group, lawyers have been too slow to adopt new ideas and ways so working, and often have been more focused on their role as “steward” – to protect the client and keep them out of trouble. As this article notes, when law firms think of innovation, they often think of “open-plan workspaces, height-adjustable desks, living walls, and fancy CBD premises”. Law firms can be their own worst enemies.

But I know there are many lawyers with far more creativity than that. Unfortunately, many of the most creative end up applying their creativity outside law, which I think is a huge shame given the challenges the profession faces.

While there are some really innovative and creative lawyers within the profession (like Claudia King with Legal Beagle, or Brannavan Gnanalingam who I worked with at Buddle Findlay, and who combines his legal practice with writing novels), there are many more talented young lawyers who have left the profession very early on for different challenges. For example, in the past couple of months I’ve come across people like:

Carlos Chambers (ex Russell McVeagh, now the CEO of Common Ledger who provide data plumbing for accountants)

Michael Mullins (also ex Russell McVeagh, now Head of Business Development (Asia Pacific) for Mish Guru who provide the tools brands need to effectively use Snapchat as a marketing channel)

Nick Hornstein (ex Chapman Tripp, now Operations Manager at Mindhive, who specialise in high resolution machine vision systems and deep learning technology)

Anna Dowson (ex Buddle Findlay, and actually still a lawyer, but now Legal & Commercial Advisor at cutting edge Virtual Reality company 8i and also helping elderly people keep active through Locomo.

They’re doing some really cool things in their new roles, but imagine what they could have done for their firms and clients – and perceptions of lawyers - if they had stayed in law.

Law firms are going to have to offer different services, involving much more creativity, than they have in the past. I reckon that they have the people who can do that sitting among their lawyers today. They just have to choose to start using their abilities. One young lawyer told me today that she is trying to start an innovation movement within her firm, but “Quite a lot of feedback I'm getting from junior staff is that the partners won't change”. Fortunately she went on to say “I think that’s irrelevant. They are going to have to adapt or die and juniors need to think 15 to 20 years ahead about the career they want to have and the kind of business they want to run/be a part of”. The firm and its clients will be substantially better off for her perseverance.

Wouldn’t it be great if the next HBR article on this topic was on why your innovation team needs a lawyer because of how innovative they can be?

Topics: Practise of Law, Future of Law

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