When the COVID-19 pandemic shined a spotlight on the antiquated parts of our justice system and exposed gaps in our legal practice models, courts and law firms quickly shifted processes and practices. Now, there’s no turning back.
To help you plan for the future of your practice, you can embrace innovation mindsets — different ways of thinking to help us create processes and ideas that improve our lives. Building on last month’s installment, we continue in this issue by presenting tips to help you make your innovations become a reality and transform your practice over the long haul.
INNOVATION IN ACTION: TIPS FOR IMPLEMENTATION
Innovation as a project
An innovation project is like any other project. At its core, an innovation project involves:
- Conducting an environmental scan to see what’s going on;
- Defining the issue to address;
- Considering your options and choosing your solution;
- Planning for and launching your solution;
- Seeking feedback to continuously improve on your solution; and
- Starting on the next project.
There are lots of project management and design thinking models to help map out the steps for your innovation project. While project management tools can help, creating a simple project plan that identifies key steps, timing, and the people who need to be involved can help you move forward.
Start with one project
As you scan for problems, you will likely find lots of things you’d like to try and more than one area where you could improve. Pick one project. When you tackle innovation projects one at a time, they add up and make your practice better with each change. Taking small steps rather than trying to make everything happen at once is also far less stressful.
As “Atomic Habits” author James Clear notes, the effects of our habits multiply over time.1 There is power in working continuously toward incremental improvements. By focusing on one step at a time and continuously working on improving your practice, you’re compounding your gains and you’re not only benefitting from the innovations you roll out, but also transforming your practice into one that embraces continuous improvement. When the next challenge arises, you will have the experience and confidence to meet it head on. Innovation, continuous learning, and improvement become part of your practice mindset, and minor setbacks become learning opportunities rather than full-blown crises.
Call in your dream team
At its core, innovation is about people. It may lead to changes in processes or how services are delivered, but it starts with people and improving their lives. Having a range of people on board can help you build diversity of thought and keep you open to new possibilities.
Spark innovation by calling in your team. In a law firm, this includes all staff. Whether you are in a large firm or a true solo with no staff, ask for input from suppliers, clients, and colleagues.
Innovate to identify and fix your pain points
Whether you’re a solo lawyer or in a large firm, to get started … you need to get started. Explore your terrain and focus on your pain points.
Ask yourself and your team: If I could change one thing about my practice, what would it be? What’s the most aggravating part of my daily practice, the one task that seems that seems to cause frustration and/or delay? Similarly, ask your clients: What’s one thing you wish we’d done differently for you? What’s something that would have made things easier?
Take the time to properly define
Spend as much time as you can getting to know the issue. Ask your clients and staff follow-up questions to make sure you’re focusing on the root cause of the problem rather than a symptom. Clearly define the issue you’re trying to address before trying to jump in to solve it.
Tech isn’t always the answer
Too often, we rush the process of solving the problem. There are usually many options available to address a pain point. While technology can often help, it may not be the easiest, most efficient, or cost-conscious solution. If the problem does require a tech solution, think carefully about how different options work with your existing processes, workflows, and technology.
Don’t forget training
There is a risk of mistakes being made any time a new process or technology is introduced to a workplace. Reduce your risk by making sure your rollout plan includes training. Budget for it (in dollars, time, or both.) Build in early-stage quality assurance checks and assume training may need to happen in stages with refreshers as required. Support your team and you’ll get there faster and easier.
Embrace continuous feedback loops
The innovation journey never ends. Gains lead to further gains. For each new shift in process, build in opportunities for real-time feedback and debriefs about what worked and didn’t work with both your innovation and your process for getting there. Ask everyone involved in the rollout and include opportunities for user comment. By embracing continuous feedback loops, you can learn to detect and prevent mistakes, correct mistakes at earlier stages, and improve your products and processes. Adopting this approach also embeds an openness to innovation, creativity, and collaboration within your practice, which further accelerates opportunities for positive change.
Legal practice has its ups and downs, so it’s important to celebrate wins. It’s a win when you introduce changes to your practice that make life better. Celebrate it. Make it a ritual. It may not be scientifically proven that law firms are more productive when there are cupcakes celebrating milestone events, but it couldn’t hurt.
TIPS FOR THE LONG RUN
Take your breaks and find supports when you need them
The practice of law is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s important to take breaks daily and throughout the year. During the day, stretch, go for walks, listen to music, or find breaks that help you recharge and enhance your overall productivity. Plan vacations in advance for something to look forward to.
Lawyers and staff can also be exposed to high levels of stress and the risk of vicarious trauma and burnout. It’s important to recognize and understand the mental health stresses in the legal profession.2 Lawyers and law firms can encourage open discussions about mental health and promote mental health resources.3 We are all human and can use help.
Set a learning plan to keep exploring and keep innovating
Keep exploring to find your inspiration. At least once a year, create a learning plan focusing on areas in which you wish to improve based on self-reflection and self-assessment. While it is important to keep up with changes to the law, consider other skills you need to develop, including skills to harness legal innovation. There are many ways to continue building your skills including:
- Attending state and local bar association conferences and continuing legal education and technology events such as ABA TECHSHOW (www.techshow.com) to learn more about innovation and practice management.
- Taking courses or setting aside time to learn how to maximize everyday technology supports such as Microsoft Outlook, Word, and Teams.
- Exploring and building skills through executive education programs or from lower-cost online learning platforms such as Coursera (www.coursera.com) and Udemy (www.udemy.com).
There are also lots of publications that can fuel your innovation dreams. Here are just a few you can explore:
Finally, while some of this learning will happen at the individual level, you can always learn with colleagues from both inside and outside of your firm. Having a study peer can keep you moving forward with your learning objectives — and keep it fun.
Best of luck on your journey and building toward your future practice.