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Analysis

Overcoming resistance in legal services innovation

Challenges in corporate legal innovation

Does your legal department embrace or resist innovative ideas? Learn how to recognize barriers to innovative thinking in corporate legal departments, and explore three ways you can cultivate a team that welcomes fresh, approaches to tackling old—and new—challenges.

Innovation resistance in the legal department

It’s hard to address a problem if you aren’t thinking about it correctly. If that’s the case, the legal departments of the world’s largest corporations may have a serious problem indeed.

The challenge that many of them face today is clear enough. Corporate leaders are pressuring law departments to manage themselves more like other business units. They are being asked to watch their budgets carefully perhaps more than ever and, in some cases, to do more with less.

At first glance, the solution appears to be as straightforward as the challenge itself.

Law department leaders and their legal operations professionals are seeking innovative ways to consume and deliver legal services.

For corporate legal departments, legal services “innovation” has become a kind of talisman. A much-desired key to unlocking vast productivity at little cost.

But thinking about how to make legal departments more innovative can be a difficult endeavor. As organizations seek to encourage innovation in their legal departments, they may be tempted to think about it incorrectly in at least two different ways.

First, when we think about innovation, our minds often go directly to technology. The hardware and software. The gadgetry and algorithms. The alluring lights and hypnotic terminology of buzzwords such as “machine learning” and “artificial intelligence.” As flashy as they may be, however, these are not the drivers of innovation; nor are they impediments to it. People are.

Paving the way for innovation: What stands in the way of progress in legal departments?

Legal services vs. law firms: how is innovation perceived?

In his seminal book on change, Beyond the Wall of Resistance, Rick Maurer illustrates this point in dramatic fashion. He asked chief information officers at Fortune 500 companies to identify the main reason why technology projects failed. Among respondents, 80% identified human resistance as the culprit. Not the technology itself, or technical skills, or the amount of resources put into a project. Instead, Maurer says, “it’s that soft, touchy-feely, human reaction of resistance that matters.”

From this, corporate legal departments should take an important lesson:

Innovating is first and foremost a people issue. Specifically, it’s an issue of recognizing resistance and overcoming it.

Which brings us to the second way in which companies may be thinking incorrectly about innovation within their legal departments. It lies in a particular nugget of conventional wisdom—namely, that lawyers tend to be a brake on innovation.

The presumption that lawyers’ risk-averse psyches are a major impediment to innovation is accepted almost universally in legal and business circles alike. And it is not entirely without merit. In its 2018 Law Firms in Transition study, Altman Weil noted: “In 69% of law firms, partners resist most change efforts.” Note, however, that this finding applies specifically to lawyers at law firms.

While it is conventional wisdom that in-house lawyers may also tend to be a brake on innovation, the facts may not bear that out. At minimum, there are two core misconceptions in the statement as it applies to in-house lawyers. Regardless, in-house legal department leaders can adopt strategies to effectively encourage members of their teams to undertake productive innovation.
 

Overcoming innovation resistance: Common misconceptions

Three considerations for cultivating a team that embraces innovation

We have seen that in-house lawyers are more open to innovation than conventional wisdom would suggest and that the protector mindset can play a valuable role in screening new ideas to enhance productive innovation. What are the implications of these insights for an in-house legal department leader who seeks to cultivate a team that will embrace innovation? We offer three considerations.

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