Can Lawyers Innovate If They Don’t Own It?

I came across this article from Fast Company about the  50 Best Workplaces for Innovators.  Unfortunately, the article simply lists the companies rather than describing what characteristics make them innovative. And so I got to thinking: when it comes to law, can innovation truly come from within? Or do you have to own it to change it?

I’ve written about innovation in the legal profession over the past decade. Predictably –  but earnestly – I’ve always taken the position that solo and small firms are the drivers behind innovation – from SCOTUS lawyer Tom Goldstein’s business model of ambulance chasing Supreme Court cases to Greg Siskind, a once small immigration law firm owner who pioneered use of the Internet for biz development to family law firm owner Erin Levine with her company, who has built Hello Divorce, that offers tech-powered divorce lite legal services. But all of these lawyers and the others who innovate did so on their own, far from the demands and cost constraints and bureaucracy that is big law. 

Moreover, solos and smalls innovate best because they’re hungry. As I wrote here solos innovate to get paid while biglaw attorneys are paid to innovate.  Hard to hustle when innovation is just another task at your job.  Indeed because of internal constraints on innovation within an organization, I wrote over a decade ago – that biglaw should outsource innovation to solo and small law firms. 

But outsourcing innovation doesn’t have to stop there. Law schools and bar associations can also look to solo and small firms for ideas on how to produce graduates with skills needed to hit the ground running or how to future proof law practices – or law schools, for that matter. 

Of course, constant innovation within solo and small firm practice can also be a challenge. Because over time, you get lazy and set in your ways. You start to take on the attitude that you never had before – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – instead of constantly embracing the lightness of new beginnings.  In short, keeping it fresh is always a challenge, but less so at solo and small firms where it doesn’t take much to pivot once the urge does strike.

But the bottom line is this: can we expect innovation in law to trickle down if it comes from institutions? Or does it need to come from independents on the outside? That’s yet another reason why it’s so important, in this time of transition, to ensure that solo and small firm practice remains sustainable.

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