Strategic planning and innovation in the legal industry

It takes a thoughtful, patient and visionary leader to accomplish innovation

Innovation is a word we hear quite frequently, specifically in the context of law firms needing to find ways to beat the competition and face a maturing industry’s challenges head on in order to keep their firms alive. To be truly innovative means looking outside one’s industry and studying other successful business models to determine how they may transfer to the legal industry. This is difficult to do even in the most strategic and visionary of companies, never mind adding a layer of skepticism, cynicism and disinterest in changing the way things work right now. It takes a thoughtful, patient and visionary leader to accomplish these goals.

Seyfarth Shaw’s Chairman, Stephen Poor, has led his firm through a cultural transformation using education, Lean Six Sigma processes, technology investments and an emphasis on continuously improving on success along the way. His firm created new delivery models for its services in alignment with client needs through its Seyfarth Lean approach. When asked about his perspective on innovation, Poor comments, “Why have more law firms not been innovative in the broader, more classic sense of the term? Until recently, the market has not required anything approaching innovation. Think about the string of years from 2002 and 2008. All you had to do was get bigger and charge more money—that’s hardly a business driver for innovation. You put together the lack of a burning platform along with the fact that most lawyers really resist change and it lays the foundation for why there has not been more innovation.”

General Counsel of FMC Technologies Jeffrey Carr agrees. “There is tremendous resistance to change. It really goes to the point of if you talk to a lawyer about being innovative, they seldom think of it in terms of reducing the demand for their services—reducing their billable hours. In my view everything the legal industry does falls into one of four boxes—process, content, advocacy and counseling. The latter two involved the truly distinguishing features of a lawyer—judgment.”

Carr adds, “We have a legal industry focused on the bottom two boxes, process and content, because those yield the most billable time. True innovation will occur when people realize that what customers want is value—which I define as obtaining the desired results—effectiveness with efficiency…. If firms increase throughput while decreasing waste and time, the firm may well make the same amount of money by focusing on profitability as opposed to top line revenue. Find ways to streamline and reduce the costs of the process and content parts, weave in alternative pricing for the judgment to the advocacy and counseling boxes, and now the new formula can change what you might charge for what a client highly values. That’s a home run.”

This is assuming that clients and law firms are talking and aligning their goals with one another.

Adds Steve Poor, “It’s different now than when we started down this path 10 years ago because there is much more of an external business case. For lawyers, the most important voice is often the voice of the client and it hits home when your clients are telling you the way you need to deliver services. That client voice has gotten much louder and many firms haven’t been listening carefully. In two years, there have also been new entrants in terms of service providers which have changed the dynamic for a lot of firms, setting forth a new groundwork against which they need to change their business model.”

Jeff Carr adds, “The next stage of innovation comes with a focus on efficiencies—on taking the hour delivery cost reductions and multiplying that with absolute hourly reductions. Where will we see that next? Perhaps in contract review—using artificial intelligence to take time out of the process and increase the quality and repeatability of results. Does it need to happen? Yes. Will it happen? It already is. Should this mantra apply to all legal services? Absolutely. Will it? Perhaps.”

Silvia Coulter

Silvia Coulter is a principal consultant with LawVision Group LLC. Reach her at

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