First to Be Second – new take on legal innovation

On Legal OnRamp (a collaboration platform for in-house counsel and invited outside lawyers, with the aim to help legal departments reduce costs and improve quality through collaboration) there has been an interesting discussion following a post made by Susan Hackett on lawyers' approach to innovation.

Susan Hackett is CEO of Legal Executive Leadership and former Senior Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) for 22 years. Often referred to as the "voice of the in-house bar", Susan is widely recognized as the top spokesperson on trends in corporate counseling and the law firms and legal services providers with whom they collaborate.

In the Legal OnRamp post "First to be Second? Susan Hackett's take on Legal Innovation" Susan describes the two ways in which lawyers are responding to "The New Normal" as either being extremely excited by the progress and opportunities in re-thinking the practice to focus less on hours and more on providing client value and solutions to client problems, or remaining skeptical, with no interest to changing long-held behaviors.

With Susan's longtime experience and in discussions with other leading practitioners and pioneers in the field of professional law firm management, it has become clear that continuing progress must be pushed forward, which is the reason for starting the column: "We can't afford to sit back and assume that folks will make the monumental effort to change the way that they do their work without successful models to replicate, or without tangible rewards for their efforts. We believe that most lawyers are not interested in innovation because they wish to drive it - they are interested in innovation when it is demonstrable that it will benefit them or their clients. Thus, we believe that most lawyers would prefer to be "first to be second" - they wish to distinguish themselves with superior service based on the best value practices available, but only after someone else has established that the path of that practice leads to a successful outcome. They want to learn from and be comforted by the fact that others have tried this before and it works."

/…/ "Being "first to be second" is not cowardly.  It's a simple recognition that many lawyers are brilliant - but not inventors, or confident - but not risk-takers. We can't all be the first, so the goal is for folks to see good ideasand want to replicate them, rather than presume that we're somehow falling short if we take advantage of others' innovations to promote our own improvement and the rising boats of the legal profession. Personally, I take pride in the concept of first to be second - it's a Darwinian recognition that followers can adapt and improve."

Melody Cramer, added to the discussion the observation that "lawyers tend to operate out of fear - and fear goes not go hand in hand with risk taking. If you are afraid of doing something wrong, you will not risk trying something new. However, if one looks around at the legal landscape now, compared with say even five years ago, there are innovators stepping forward with new models of practice and new ideas. Some are very successful, some are not, but for everyone who steps forward with a new idea, he or she emboldens a colleague to try something new too. Maybe not taking the chicken position of wanting to be "first to be second" (i.e. not taking a chance that we could be wrong) could be the "New Normal."

A similar discussion has also been taking place in the LinkedIn Legal Innovation group, starting with a post by Jon Busby, "That word… innovation", pinpointing his views on innovation. Some of the great observations made by Jon are that

  • A lot of things considered "remarkable" in the legal sector are considered "unremarkable" elsewhere.
  • The challenge is not innovation. The challenge is implementation. Lawyers would get a much better return if they invested more resource in implementation and left innovation to the people who are good at it.
  • The really innovative, disruptive thing hasn't happened yet but it is coming. That is when the client is brought into the process.

Some really good comments were made to this post by for example Alastair Ross and Charlie Garland. Alastair pointed out how innovation is "such an important issue for law firms struggling with pricing pressures, demanding clients, deregulation and the march of the web. It is important to distinguish between content and methods. Just because the content of the product provided by law firms is legal advice doesn't preclude the use of efficient and innovative delivery methods." He also made a clarifying differentiation between innovation (e.g. ideas applied to create value) and creativity (e.g. just ideas): "It is also important to recognize that innovation is the creation of value from ideas. Implementation is a key element of innovation, good ideas alone represent creativity, not innovation."

Charlie Garland added the cultural aspect in the observation that "one thing I have found in discussing these very issues with lawyers is (dare I say this?) that large law firms, culturally, have assimilated a degree of "arrogance" around their operating models, which has them believe that there's nobody out there smarter than they are around running their firm. I truly don't mean to be insulting here; what's happening in the law is not at all unlike what's happened in many other fields. There's hope, of course, but that will come first to those who have the humility, vision, and maturity to imagine, experiment, persevere, and inspire others around them toward new forms of operation in an ever-evolving (and sometimes treacherous) ecosystem."

What is your take on this? Can the "first to be second" concept be a way to encourage innovation in the legal field? Please read Susan Hackett's thoughtful essay and add your comments and ideas on innovation at Legal OnRamp's legal innovation column.

You can also get Susan's insights at the upcoming VQ Knowledge and Strategy Forum where Susan is key note speaker and will bring her decades of unparalleled access to, knowledge of, and experience in driving leading practices in "New Normal" legal service business models and share her insights on how newly emerging practices promise to turn the future delivery of corporate legal services "inside out". Please find here further information about VQ Knowledge and Strategy Forum or contact VQ directly via email to


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