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Joe Cohen

Joe Cohen is the Director of Innovation at Charles Russell Speechlys, an international law firm focusing on private capital. Joe was previously Head of Innovation at Dentons UKIME for 5 years and prior to that also had innovation roles at Linklaters and Slaughter & May. Joe is responsible for Legal Tech, LPM, Solution Development and Legal Process Improvement amongst other functions, and leads on a number of innovation culture initiatives such as practice-specific innovation committees and the trainee technology programme. Joe is a regular industry speaker and thought leader on Generative AI and was nominated for the LIA Innovation Trailblazer of the year award in 2021 and 2023.


 

How have your roles at Dentons, Linklaters, Slaughter & May, and Deloitte influenced your innovation approach?

 

Great question! I think that often it’s about your boss as opposed to the company itself. Particularly at Linklaters around 7/8 years ago I was working under the Head of Business Improvement, a great guy called Laurence Muscat who really influenced the way I see things, both in terms of how to set out innovation and how to work with lawyers. His structure of a department with LPMs, innovation, paralegals and process improvement working side-by-side I think is still really relevant today. At Slaughters I picked up some interesting ideas on diversified training from Julia Robinson, one of the L&D Managers, and that seed of an idea ultimately became the award-winning trainee innovation training scheme at Dentons that produced about ~250 innovation projects over 4 years. At Deloitte it was amazing to be able to spend a year working in Argentina, experiencing a totally different culture and way of looking at life.

 

 

I’m sure I will regret this but the above is a snap from the Buenos Aires office Xmas party in 2013, which I think didn’t even start until 11pm. Remember, Xmas out there is usually around 40©. (No comment on whatever that is I’m wearing, or the hairstyle!).

 

But I suppose it was at Dentons where I’ve made most of my mark so far. What we did with FleetAI was very exciting and quite novel at the time – I hope to be able to recreate that success and more with our Gen AI strategy at CRS. Things like Innovation Committees in each practice area meeting regularly, the trainee scheme, meeting with clients, people management; I was fortunate there to be able to implement so many initiatives and I look back with fond memories. I am very much looking forward to bringing all of these experiences into my role at Charles Russell Speechlys!


Can you share a challenging legal tech project you've led and its outcome?

 

I would say that my most challenging project to date has been on resource allocation and capacity/forecasting. The idea behind these types of projects is that partners are usually the ones who know the skills of the associates the best as well as the detail behind the new matter, and therefore end up being the ones to do staffing, but it’s not a great use of their time. The theory instead is that the associates could put their upcoming weeks’ forecasts and their self-assessed skillset into a tool which partners then browse once they have a new instruction come in, so that they only staff associates who are free to do the work without having to contact them all separately.

 

In practice it isn’t so simple. With other legal tech tools every extra user is a bonus and provides incremental gains. For the capacity tools, everyone needs to use it consistently. If, for example, 3/10 associates don’t put in their forecasts one week and the partners goes into the tool, they show up blank.  Now, clearly, they aren’t doing no work, so the partner needs to contact them anyway. This quickly leads to them not trusting the data in the tool, and once they stop using it, the associates stop forecasting all together – so even if it goes well for a while, we really struggled to make it work long term despite many pilots in different practice areas. Some firms have dedicated resource managers but I’m still not sure if that is the answer. I have heard some interesting ideas in this area, including potentially AI assisting, but if there are any law firms out there that have cracked this issue consistently I would really love to hear about it 


What strategies do you use to foster innovation within traditional legal cultures?

 

This is one of my favourite topics. In my experience, you will see different functions within business services in law firms perfectly capable of innovating themselves. So, for example, they will run their own finance/HR transformations, implement new versions of iManage etc without much, if any, input needed from the innovation team.


But the legal side isn’t really like that. My approach in recent years has been geared towards what I call ‘proactive innovation’, i.e. in recognition of the fact that most lawyers will usually not innovate of their own accord.

 

Here are some examples:

 

  •  1-to-many legal tech training sessions are OK for raising awareness, but I don’t think they are the answer to gaining good levels of adoption for legal tech tools or LPM. Better in my view to approach the partners just as matters are starting to recommend the platforms/services (LPMs, paralegals, other automation etc) for that work and have a discussion – at least then you’re in the conversation. Remember that it is imperative to get involved at the start of the matter, as it’s much harder to insert an LPM or a specific platform later on. However, at the start of a matter the partner is thinking about whether they have priced it right, what the timeline is, staffing associates, their competing workload, precedents/templates etc etc. And innovative and efficient delivery is one of those things, but it’s not always the top priority – so the question really should be how can you get yourself into the frame at the right time on the right deals. Having a very quick chat with the partner just before the work starts is always a good option.

 

  •  Why is it that most ideation competitions/funnels/processes in law firms struggle? In my view there are many factors such as lack of structure, incentivisation, time allowed to implement, tendency to produce ‘moans’ as opposed to bone fide ideas etc. The training scheme for trainees that I mentioned areas saw them have to deliver an innovation project in each seat, pursuant to one of a few different broad categories (e.g. AI, design thinking, doc automation, data visualisation etc). They had to either come up with their own ideas or, crucially, find another idea from within their department if they didn’t have one, and progress it as if was their own. This was a much better way of identifying good ideas and getting them progressed. But the interesting thing is: why is it that before the scheme, no trainees were doing innovation projects? After the scheme was implemented and they had to do something, suddenly they had all these great ideas and were able to progress them. It comes back to empowerment, but in order to get there, you probably need the nudge of proactive innovation. 

 

How have discussions with clients and government shaped your innovation strategies?

 

I have actually been very lucky to have had fascinating discussions with various senior government leaders and regulators in the UK in recent years on AI and Access to Justice amongst other things. Similarly I was meeting ~1 client per day over the second half of 2023 to talk about AI, which was a really valuable experience (at least for me – maybe the clients would disagree!). It was crucial, for example, to include client feedback and pointers into fleetAI whilst we were building it, and also to develop our AI policies based on conversations with regulators and how they anticipate the regulations developing etc.


More generally on innovation strategy, it always comes back to client service. So the question shouldn’t be: if we automate this document and thereby save a few hours of drafting each time we need it, or if AI can do a good first review of this contract, how can we just purely increase our profit? But instead, how can we improve client service by reducing risk, improving accuracy, integrating external databases into the automation etc as that is how you strengthen the relationship longer term. I think this will come into focus even more as we progress through the Gen AI revolution.

 

How does balancing personal interests and family life impact your professional perspective?

 

The greatest joy in my life is my two little girls - seeing them grow up is a pleasure every day (until they steal and hide all my stuff that is!). I think that has been very grounding in terms of realising what is important when work gets busy etc. I also play a lot of competitive sport (mainly football and golf) which helps keep the energy levels high. One of my old friends described me as ‘emphatic’ the other day, which I found a bit curious, but I suppose I have always tried to bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm into my various workplaces. Sometimes it can be difficult to make time for everything but similarly it is an incentive to not procrastinate and be organised!

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