I had the pleasure of speaking with Carlos Gamez, a leading legal thinker and legal innovator.  Carlos has been leading and working on legal innovation initiatives at Thomson Reuters for the past several years, as part of: the Legal business, Thomson Reuters Labs, and most recently within a dedicated legal technology innovation team. Throughout this time, he has worked on and delivered over 50 projects in partnership with stakeholders across the enterprise, as well as externally with customers, startups, academic institutions, and industry forums. He also has been charged with helping to define & refine the innovation and emerging technology strategy for law firms and corporate counsel.

Prior to joining Thomson Reuters, Carlos worked with startups in different capacities in Silicon Valley. Before that,he practiced intellectual property law in one of Mexico’s leading law firms. He has a Bachelors in Law from the Facultad Libre de Derecho de Monterrey (Mexico), and obtained an LL.M. at Stanford Law School and an MBA at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

How do you a) define innovation and b) innovate within your role given your definition of innovation?

a) I like to keep it simple and use the dictionary definition of innovation. It is either a new idea, device or method, or the process of introducing a new idea, device or method. It doesn’t have to be completely novel, but it should be new to the organization or as applied to a situation. Now, ‘innovations’ can be categorized in many ways, based on strategic intent, how they are developed, expected results, and so on. At the end of the day, an innovation capability is about how an organization is set up and resourced to deliberately and systematically produce change and introduce change. I discuss this in a bit more detail in a blog post I wrote for Legal Evolution a few months ago.

b)  I’ve had multiple roles in legal services and legal technology, from being a practicing lawyer to strategy, product strategy, legal operations, corporate development, and program and project management. In each role, I’ve worked on different projects and in different capacities. My focus has ranged from advisory to consultative, operational and ultimately end-to-end responsibility for a project’s execution. I try to frame and execute projects in ways that could test assumptions, validate hypotheses or deliver unexpected insights.

To clarify, I’ve had an ‘Innovation’ title or have been part of teams with the label ‘Innovation’ in the legal technology space for several years. However, I’ve never thought of my role as an ‘innovation’ role. I’m a consultant, a project manager, a business operator or a team leader with the added responsibility of bringing in a fresh perspective, new methods, and diversity of thinking in framing, scoping and executing on opportunities. For instance, I’ve worked on business turnaround situations where applying design thinking principles at the outset helped identify short-term opportunities and early success indicators; then an agile approach on the execution of workstreams helped with team engagement, cadence and transparency. I’ve worked on projects where, for example, we needed to understand functional product integrations or how text extraction could advance contract deviation analysis, and others where research was best approached through a series of design sprints with end users and prototyping using multiple approaches and technologies. I’ve also worked on projects where we’ve experimented with ‘open innovation’ methods, whether to identify predictive potential of data contained in dockets or to identify how a younger user demographic thought about task management.  Even though I’m not particularly fond of the ‘innovation’ moniker, I feel it creates an implicit responsibility to address business challenges with creative application of methods that are proven to yield new ideas or results. I’m always learning and eager to apply new ways of thinking and to collaborate with people that bring unique perspectives and skillsets to approach problem-solving.

How have your career choices informed the work that you do now and why?

To use the old Steve Jobs cliché, I believe that hindsight has helped me connect the dots more than career planning has helped me create a path. My choices have always been driven by a degree of competency, a motivation for change, and an exit strategy that included some optionality.  Let me explain:

When I first decided I wanted to be a lawyer in Mexico, I did so aware I could be giving up the international exposure that was very important for me. I focused on Intellectual Property Law because this was one of few ‘international’ practices available. Then, working at one of the largest firms, I realized that having an LLM from a leading US Law School would fast-track me onto a partnership, but I wasn’t convinced that was where I wanted to be. I had a choice to go to Boston or Silicon Valley but chose Silicon Valley because I felt it offered me a broader entrepreneurial network and exit strategy beyond the legal community.

After my LLM I decided to stay in Silicon Valley to join a startup and then an incubator. That period, filled with success and failure, opened my mind to learn from anyone. It gave me confidence to pursue a career in business with humility, knowing that the success I had enjoyed as a lawyer before may not necessarily give me a competitive advantage going forward. At that stage in my career, I had already made the change from law to business but felt that I did not have a burning idea, training or the network to pursue my own startup. I thought that a formal business education would help me solidify the career switch. Though I had already decided to pursue an MBA, the 2008 financial crisis removed any second-guesses.

My career choices until then helped me develop a passion and competency for learning how to nurture, protect and leverage new technologies and ways of doing things. During the MBA I built on this by adding business basics such as strategy and finance. I also discovered new interests that leveraged my past experiences. I learned how to think strategically about business scenarios (leadership, organizational design, sales, entrepreneurial finance, innovation, platforms, systems and networks, etc.). Most importantly, I learned how to work well in diverse and multidisciplinary teams.

When I started recruiting for a Summer internship, I was primarily looking into technology companies in the West Coast. I was competing for spots with peers that could leverage their investment banking, consulting or engineering backgrounds. During a career fair, I met an interviewer for a leadership development program at Thomson Reuters. I hadn’t really thought about the company in my job search but the conversation with the alum opened my eyes. This was a global technology company where my legal background could be leveraged. The leadership development program also offered me, as a career changer, the chance to try different corporate functions to find the best fit and growth path. The program was designed to rotate MBAs in multiple roles and functions in the company. I ‘graduated’ from the program into a legal operations role after my first year, but I never stopped rotating roles, projects or teams.  The good thing about being part of a large company in the legal industry is that I’ve developed an expertise in the space while I’m also always acquiring new functional business skills (strategy, finance, M&A, business development, product development, program management, etc.). Fast-forward almost 10 years, and every project is basically a new role where I leverage my expertise, do something different, and have access to new business challenges and opportunities.

The legal profession seems to be on the fence when it comes to actually engaging in innovation. How do you/I/we together get the profession to be more on board with innovating?

This is a hard question to answer because I don’t think of the legal profession as an entity or even a category. It’s more an ecosystem of organizations that influence the legal system and the delivery of legal services. Each organization operates under different risk profiles and constraints.  Each player has its own stakeholders and is made up of human associates that respond to different incentives. Thinking about the legal profession as a homogeneous entity that can engage in innovation can take us through a real rabbit hole!

I’m going to reframe (and unfortunately over-simplify) the question and assume that we’re looking to engage legal professionals (e.g., in law firms or corporate legal departments) to embrace a specific change in how they do things. In this case, I think we need to have a sound strategy for why that change matters to their organization. For instance, are they part of a law firm seeking to differentiate and create institutional client experiences to safeguard a book of business? Are they part of a legal department seeking more proactive and DIY legal servicing to focus legal practitioner resources on higher stakes advisory work, etc.?

We also need to have a compelling answer/motivation for each person that is being asked to do something differently to deliver on the goal. Are all these people part of the same organization or are they with different organizations that must work together to achieve the outcome? The potential payback of the outcome must be greater than the opportunity cost for each of these organizations and for those individuals that can make or break the project.

The bottom line is that it’s all about aligning incentives and getting people to work together to achieve a desired outcome.  From there, the challenge is less about innovating and more about setting clear expectations and managing change in phases and at a pace that are tolerable by all parties involved. As with any operation, change can only go as fast as the slowest part of the process. So, perhaps before getting legal practitioners (in the broad) to engage in change, the best approach is to identify the bottlenecks that are likely to impact the change initiative and either tackle them first or approach the initiative in a way that acknowledges these constraints and sets expectations accordingly.

After all, and to use the original wording of the question, it’s preferable to engage legal practitioners in smaller, tangible innovations than losing them to disillusionment because we set unrealistic expectations that were crushed by insurmountable and foreseeable dependencies. This is all just another way of saying: think big, start small, and move as fast as your bottlenecks allow (while you figure out how to unblock them).

What do you see as a big misconception about legal innovation?

I’ll say something that may be a little controversial. Some people believe that the term ‘legal innovation’ is part of a trend within the legal industry to label generic disciplines with the prefix ‘legal’ to make them sound special: legal design, legal technology, legal process outsourcing, legal innovation…

It is true that some innovations in the legal space are concepts that are not unique to legal services (e.g., information retrieval, enterprise resource management, distributed computing, document collaboration, process management, etc.). However, I think there are innovations that are truly ‘legal’ in nature because they are only applicable to the legal industry or to legal services. Innovations in the legal space are not only new to the space but they must also be defensible, enforceable and compliant.

For instance, there are innovations in legal constructs and strategies. A good example is the ‘invention’ of the poison pill to prevent hostile takeovers in M&A by Martin Lipton in the 1980’s. There are also technologies and processes that must be designed with enforceability in mind. For instance, an online dispute resolution system needs to ensure constitutional, legal and regulatory protections to safeguard against challenges on the arbitral award’s execution; computable contracts need to form valid contracts per Contract Law to be enforceable, and so on. Often, an innovation is not usable in the legal space until it is recognized as legally admissible or permissible. For instance, machine learning technology applied to predictive coding existed for many years before courts allowed it to be used in e-discovery. Some innovations like DIY legal document creation have pushed the boundaries of what constitutes unauthorized practice of law, changing the way individuals self-solve for legal needs. Litigation funding, new business models and law firm ownership structures, investment vehicles to participate in clients’ businesses without triggering ethical concerns, electronic signatures, obligation management, legal risk models and insurance… there are many examples of innovations that have transformed how legal services are rendered.

I think that innovations that push the boundaries of legal services in ways that are defensible, enforceable and compliant are legal innovations.

To a young lawyer interested in innovating, what would be your advice?

Play to your strengths but develop fluency in other disciplines to recognize skills. Then, be humble and collaborate with people that complement your skills.

While there are exceptions to the rule, I believe that lawyers will have a hard time competing with people skilled in their craft. Software developers, UX designers, data scientists, process engineers, project managers, financial planners, business analysts, etc., are trained professionals with a specialized skillset that can’t be mastered as a side gig.

What these professionals don’t have is a nuanced understanding of the law, use cases, and needs to be innovated or solved in legal services. Spend most of your time understanding and falling in love with the problem because this is where you’ll add most value. Find professionals in other disciplines that have solved or are working to solve similar problems. Try to build alliances with these people. They’ll value learning how their skills and work can be applied to legal services and you’ll be more likely to succeed in bringing change in your problem space with their help.