To paraphrase an old quote, the wheels of change grind slowly at biglaw. But some recent initiatives suggest that big firms are tentatively dipping a toe into the innovation pool. For example,last year global law firm ReedSmith launched an innovation hours program, where lawyers can earn up to fifty billable hours for time invested in learning new technologies or developing more efficient workflow. The firm’s program has already borne fruit with the firm’s publication of an exhaustive and authoritative paper on the law of blockchain. Complementing its “innovation hours” program, Reed Smith’s summer associate program includes five legal tech summer associates who will devote their time to assisting the firm in evaluating and implementing new technology. Other firms like Mayer, Brown and Orrick have followed suit with similar incentive programs to encourage innovation.
These large firms deserve credit for acknowledging the need for change and taking steps to do so. But though I wish the firms well, their efforts sadly are doomed to fail for several reasons. First, for biglaw, just like any other large company,in-house innovation is slow, ineffective and costly, hampered by corporate bureaucracy, lack of expertise and fear of stiff penalties for failure. For all the innovation that Google’s famous twenty percent program has spawned, just as much innovation comes from Google’s acquisition of scrappy startups.
Crediting lawyers with billable hours doesn’t address the obstacles to innovation in large organizations. Law firms’ innovation programs aren’t cheap: with associate rates of $300 dollars an hour or more, if just ten lawyers avail themselves of the program, that’s 500 hours of innovation for a total of $150,000 in foregone revenue – enough to hire a team of experienced consultants.
And in any event, even with billable credit, many projects initiated may die on the vine. That’s because the innovation projects may require more than 50 hours of time – and there’s no financial incentive to lawyers who carry on with their projects after the billable allotment is up. After all, a biglaw attorney gets paid no matter what, and innovation or not, will earn more by billing more hours.
Contrast biglaw with solo innovation. For all of the criticism of solo lawyers as old-fashioned Luddites, there’s also some way , cool innovation coming out of the solo and small firm space. It’s not a coincidence either – solos have been innovating since the beginning of time with the development of the contingency fee as a way to fund cases or promoting legal advertising as a way to educate the public and attract clients.
So why do solos and smalls innovate so well? Two words: desperation and hustle . Having started our firms with nothing but a vision and determination, we solos and smalls know that we’re always just a couple of cases away from losing it all. And so those of us here for the long haul are constantly innovating and experimenting with technology, social media, document automation, outsourcing, subscription services and just about anything else that we can come up with on our own or steal from other industries that will bring in the kind of revenue that will let us thrive so that we can continue to do this thing we love.
Innovation is about urgency and hunger. That’s why it’s so tough to innovate as a law firm associate when you’re well compensated, complacent and no real reason to change or rock the boat. By contrast, we solos innovate as if our lives depend upon it – because they do. That’s why large firms might be better off outsourcing innovation to solos and smalls than trying it on their own.