The three boxes of innovation

There are many obstacles to 'innovation' within a typical law firm environment. When I first took on the role of Legal Technology Innovation Architect at my previous firm, it seemed that the obstacles were overwhelming and possibly insurmountable.

I discovered early on that even the notion of being responsible for innovation within a firm could draw an involuntary laugh from those who first heard my title. I once announced to a friendly audience at a private knowledge management conference that my goal for the year was "to create a culture of innovation" at the firm. That got a rather large guffaw from the gathered attendees.

The laugh was not malicious or cruel. I'm fairly certain it wasn't a commentary on my abilities either. It was the uncomfortable and sad laughter of an experienced adult when confronted with the naive optimism of a child.

Of course, anyone who knows me knows that I'm a bit of a cynic and generally not given to naive optimism. My impossible goal was not set because I felt it was a likely achievement within the year, nor did I feel it was likely at all, but as far as I'm concerned, if you're going to 'innovate' in a notoriously backward looking industry, creating a new culture is the only way to do it.

My quixotic quest began by identifying the underlying obstacles to innovation. These are many and almost all were out of my control. I can't change the organizational structure of the firm, nor can I adjust the compensation scheme to favor the innovative, and I'm not likely to ever convince a group of very successful partners that they are somehow 'doing it wrong'.

My first step was to not worry about any of that. You can't change a culture all at once anyway. You start by helping like-minded individuals to find success with their pet projects, and then let them spread the word about the new 'innovation' movement within the firm.   

There were, however, three primary obstacles that I felt I had to overcome, or at least bypass, if I ever hoped to change the culture. These obstacles were certainly true of my firm, but from conversations I've had with others in similar positions at other firms, I believe these three obstacles are universal.

Three obstacles to innovation

The first is the speed differential between the pace of technological change and the rate at which the firm can make decisions about anything. Law firms are not designed to be quick or nimble. They make decisions deliberately, with calculating precision, taking into account all of the risks and potential negative outcomes.

This deliberate pace usually serves their clients well when they are advising on a matter; it's annoying, but relatively inconsequential, when they're deciding what kind of paper cups to put by the water cooler; but it's the kiss of death when they're trying to select technologies to deliver legal services in new and innovative ways.

The second obstacle is money. I don't think this issue needs much elaboration. Even if you have a dedicated innovation fund (how many law firms do?) you still can't afford to buy the latest and greatest tech every time something new comes on the market. 

The third obstacle is the general perception that IT (or knowledge management/KM, or BD, or any other department within the firm) is not the place to go for innovation projects. In some cases, IT has become the department of 'No', narrowly focusing on 'keep the lights on' technology. In other cases, they've gotten involved and took twice as long to deliver half the solution.

When I first tackled the innovation role, I learned that the more forward thinking partners and practice groups had already begun to hire their own outside developers and consultants for these kinds of projects.

Over the course of several months, I began to develop a model that helped me address these three obstacles.

The three boxes

This model is embarrassingly simple and it's even more embarrassing considering how long it took to develop. It requires no executive approval or administrative support. No money must be allocated and no additional staff need to be hired. This is the kind of change law firms do well. Especially because there is no need to tell anyone that you are adopting the model.

The three boxes of innovation simply represent a new way of thinking about the problem.  

The Sandbox

It begins with the Sandbox. This is something I had been doing for many years, not because it was part of some grand innovation scheme, but because I'm a geek and I like to play with new technology. I end nearly every conversation with a tech vendor with the same question, "can I get a sandbox?"  

To me a sandbox is an open ended trial of the product. I can't guarantee that I'll be able to put it through it's paces in two weeks or three months, but if you can limit the storage capacity, or the number of users instead of the amount of time that I can test the software, I'll promise that when an appropriate use case arises, I will do my best to sell your product internally. It can be a hard sell with large platforms or data driven products, but most vendors will go along with some version of the sandbox.

Once we have a sandbox we can play with the technology. We explore its capabilities and limitations. We try to make it do things that even the developers don't claim it can do. Just so that we can understand the various and potential ways that we could use the product at some point in the future. Over time, we end up with access to a lot of technology that we are not licensed to use in any way, but that we also haven't paid for.

The Toolbox

The second box is the Toolbox. This simply represents the collected tools that we are licensed to use at any given time. We know how to develop solutions using these tools and we are comfortable using them to build products and services for our clients.

The Window Box

Finally, the Window Box. This represents the fast prototypes, or the finished products that we build using various technology from the Toolbox or the Sandbox.

How do the three boxes work?

I can hear some of you asking, how does this help alleviate the three obstacles above? I think it's best to give you a real world example.  

Last spring, I was approached by a practice group who had spent many months compiling and writing a comprehensive guide to new legislation. They had just completed the arduous process of turning the content into a beautiful, glossy pdf with the help of the marketing team and then they discovered they had a problem. They wanted to sell this guide to clients for a substantial amount of money, but were worried that there was nothing to keep their clients from simply sharing the guide with their friends and colleagues at other companies?

This is the classic dilemma that every industry faces as they begin to digitize their products and services. The music and movie industries went through this more than a decade ago and we know they didn't initially handle it well. Today, the digital dilemma has come to the legal industry.

The practice group sent me the pdf. It was 110 pages with 20 pages of a compliance checklist in the appendix. I went to the Toolbox.

I had two products available that I knew would help. I had HighQ Publisher, which the KM group had recently purchased, and I had Neota Logic, which I had spent most of the previous year getting approval for. (Different story for another time, but that purchase played a key role in developing the thee coxes model.)

I turned the first page of the checklists into a rudimentary Neota app and called up the KM group to get a HighQ microsite in which to put the bulk of the content from the guide. To my horror, I discovered that KM had not purchased the Microsite module because marketing was building their own platform, and that the new platform wouldn't be ready for at least six months. So I called HighQ to get a Sandbox microsite. If the practice group liked my solution, there was a good chance we would purchase the microsites and if they didn't I offered to return the Sandbox the following week.

Within two days of my first meeting with the practice group, I had a functional prototype of a product that included the first few sections of the guide in HighQ Publisher with an embedded checklist app built in Neota Logic. I mocked up some more features that we could potentially add some day using other tools from the Sandbox and I presented it to the practice group. I highlighted the user management in Publisher and pointed out that, rather than selling this one time, we could sell it as a subscription on a monthly or annual basis.  

I had spent no money, I wasn't yet licensed to use much of the technology I was showing, I didn't have the expertise in the legislation to build the product myself, but I had turned around a prototype in a couple of days.

The partner said, "Do it!" With a clear use case and a partner sponsor, we had the microsites fully licensed in about two weeks (crazy fast in law firm time). The practice team worked with marketing to build the microsite and we trained a few associates in Neota Logic. Those associates began to add back much of the complexity that they had removed from the original pdf compliance checklist and we soon had a full online guide with eight embedded Neota apps that was much more than simply a reference tool, but actually a useful platform to measure current levels of compliance and to advise on specific steps to take to come fully into compliance with the new legislation. And it was a platform that could now become a renewing source of revenue instead of a one time sale. 

By about three months into development, this product was easily ready for a beta trial with friendly clients. That's when I discovered...

Obstacle to innovation number four

Law firms don't do beta trials.  

So, it turns out that the three boxes are not a panacea for all obstacles to innovation within a law firm, but this approach does help immensely. Most importantly, the associates that worked on this project began to talk to other associates around the world. Other practice groups began to come to me with similar kinds of problems and the three boxes continued to provide similar results.

There was one constant that began to emerge in most of the projects, and that was that HighQ was the easiest way to deliver a combination of tools and platforms to clients within a single interface. It's not coincidental that I decided to join HighQ.

I do not claim to have succeeded in creating a single firm-wide culture of innovation before I left, but I believe we sparked a number of small burgeoning cultures that will continue to grow in the coming years.  The rapid prototyping that the three boxes approach allows, bypasses many of the obstacles that stand in the way of innovation at law firms. 

As the new Business Transformation and Innovation Architect, I am looking forward to working with HighQ's customers to develop their own version of the three boxes model and their own cultures of innovation.

SmartLaw: The future of law

Ryan McClead

Ryan McClead is a 2015 FastCase 50 recipient - honoring 50 "entrepreneurs, innovators, and trailblazers... who have charted a new course for the delivery of legal services" -  and he is a regular contributor to the popular 3 Geeks and a Law Blog. 

Ryan led the Global Legal Technology Innovation initiative at Norton Rose Fulbright.  He has spent the last 13 years in BigLaw technology advocating for and implementing policies, procedures, and tools to improve the flow of knowledge and the pace of innovation within firms. He has worked with all facets of the business to find logical and technological solutions to problems plaguing individuals, departments, and the firm at large. 
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