For this interview, I decided to follow up with someone I had previously interviewed – Josh Kubicki. I suggest reading that interview first.
Given your background, for the young in-house counsel who wants to engage in innovation, how would you advise them?
Do not ask about getting involved in “innovation.” Do not use that word. Do not ask about AI or robotics or other hype terms. Do not read the thought leaders in the legal press and echo chamber. Do not buy into the bullshit of #legaltech, #legaldesign, or other slapped-on, shallow, in-authentic terms/words that some people use to self-credential based on nothing.
Instead . .
Do get to know the businesses of the company. Do make personal connections in both the front-line and back-end of the business. Do get to know the small insignificant pains of these customers (internal and external). Do try to fix the ones you can. Do this dozens of times. Do this until it becomes a natural part of your job (if you do it humbly and consistently, trust me, it will). Do build trust and credibility by always focusing on the problem and not making it personal. Do all of this enough and the bigger problems will start to find you. Then and only then will you be afforded the chance to do something actually innovative – but that should never be the goal – fixing the problem should be – even if the solution is truly unsexy, most are.
What most surprised you about your experience as in-house counsel?
To be clear, I joined an in-house team right out of law school and was in a business of law role (very similar to some of today’s legal operations roles) rather than a practicing lawyer role. It was a role whose responsibilities was determined more by the personality in it, rather than a formal job description. There were a few of us and each had quite different functions from one another.
At that time in my career I was truly surprised to learn just how misunderstood or how unknown the in-house function was by the vast majority of the business and management lines. So many times I was asked just what all these legal people do? Unlike HR, Finance, IT, and so on, the legal functions was one that the vast majority of employees had zero contact with and so had no idea what we worked on, how we worked, and what outcomes we drove.
The other thing that was not so much a surprise but was fascinating (and has stuck with me my whole career) was how well the in-house team “knew” the business of the business units. The degree of knowledge and experience within certain business lines was outstanding. This customer insight, even intimacy, allowed us to work so efficiently. Many on our in-house team certain business lines better than the then-leader of that line. And by know, I mean the business strategy, performance, competition, culture and business practices, and where it fit in the overall corporate strategy. This resonated deeply with me. It truly was one of the first times I realized the power of having real customer insight and knowledge and how that impacts your work. But the flip side of this was that often even with all that knowledge and insight, the lawyer did not know the actual people in the business. To the lawyer, they were a distraction not a focus. This created many challenges, many of which spawned a bunch of little problems. It was these that I focused on fixing and thus I became quite deft at managing people, process, technology, and experience (think customer/user journey) in fashioning solutions.
You had said in the past that the law firm does not have a business model problem, but a cultural problem. If that is the case, how do you starting trying to solve the cultural problem? Does this problem extend in any way to the in-house arena?
Yes I have said that and continue to. The truth is most people who say that firms have a business model problem are using that phrase as a generalization. Instead they should use “business practices.” The business model is the specific construct of how an organization operates in order to execute its strategy. Business practices refers to culture, heuristics, behaviors, and processes. The traditional business model of a firm is not problematic for most purposes of driving change or allowing innovation to occur. It is in fact elastic and flexible. Business practices however are a major challenge. And these tend to be somewhat fixed and immovable.
Any business practice or culture problem is a gnarly thing to address. It is easy to get lost in change management literature or leadership style training when trying to tackle a culture change. It is grueling work for anyone and unless you can take a figurative punch in the face, you should avoid it. Where to start? Find a pain point that someone inside your organization is feeling and is measurable that is associated with revenue (winning it, keeping it, growing it). Get to a customer (internal or external) and learn how addressing that pain would impact them. Nobody will change for change’s sake. Nobody will follow your lead without you having adequate “time in the field.” You need to understand how things are actually getting done today (the functional component) as well as why they are getting done this way (often more emotionally or socially-driven than functional). Once this insight is gained you have a better view of the change burden and can chart a course more wisely. Too often everyone focuses on the functional outcome of change, not the emotional and social outcomes. This is why change fails.
Change is change and so the above applies to in-house or any function and type of organization. Over my career I have worked in many sectors, not just legal services, and this holds true.
How can one become a legal intrapreneur? What would be some foundational steps to take?
Learn the business wherever you are. Get deep. Without the understanding of how the organization works and operates, you efforts will be pure folly and dangerous to your career. Understand the language of your organization, its functions, its practices. Focus on solving problems, not manufacturing outcomes. Everything will flow from here.
To what extent can the tool of technology help or hurt with innovation efforts?
It is often a false lead because it is tangible and often “cool” or new. It can become a distraction and the effort it takes to acquire it and launch it often consumes vast amounts of the patience and resilience of a team or organization, leaving little for the majority of the other work needed, such as process redesign, talent reconfiguration/utilization, and user-experience design. Anchoring an “innovation effort” to a technology often results in shooting yourself in the foot.