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8 Things Law Firm Partners Need to Know about the Innovators they Lead

Last week, I had the opportunity to be a part of the ILTA>ON panel, “Selling Innovation: A New Profit Frontier.” The panel was focused on law firm innovation, but ILTA kindly included me to offer the ALSP perspective.

I enjoyed the prep for the panel more than the panel itself because it’s not every day I get to listen to extremely bright attorneys from well-respected law firms exchange ideas and practices about how their firms approach innovation. These attorneys are earnest, client-focused, and working hard to meet their shareholders’ expectations. It was a privilege for me to be included.

As I have processed that experience, I have wondered more and more about what it would be like to be an innovator in a law firm culture. Also, I have wondered what do their leaders really understand about how they think, how they come up with new ideas, and how they solve problems.

I know law firm innovation is a relatively new endeavor, and I know it is counter-intuitive to the training that lawyers receive to be risk-averse and choose proven solutions. For those law firm leaders who are willing to break the mold in the interest of better serving clients and pushing the industry forward, I thought these eight insights based on my own personal insights as an innovator might shed some light into how to foster a culture of growth and acceptance on your team, which will lead to more success:

1. If they fail, they are fine with it being their fault. Of course, this assumes you are giving them the room they need to try things that might not work. But a real innovator doesn’t ever pass the buck. It doesn’t matter to them whose fault it is as long as everyone is giving their best.

2. They change their minds often. And they will feel passionate about it every time. They care more about getting to the best solution, not being right the first time. They’ll get it right, trust them.

3. They will never form a committee or ask for consensus, but they will benefit from strong colleagues who are excellent in execution. Give them the support they need to help take the idea from start to finish.

4. Money is not their primary currency. An entrepreneur can have money as their primary currency, but innovation is born from a generous spirit. There is nothing wrong with either, but you have to know how your innovator is motivated, which is the sheer joy of knowing they have helped to solve a problem or make someone’s life better.

5. They will ask so many questions you will regret hiring them. They have no problem admitting they do not know the answer or do not understand something. They will ask your client, your mother, the elevator operator – anyone and everyone to gather information constantly. You will reap the benefit of this practice when you see dots connect in their brains and out pops the innovation that leads to your early retirement.

6. They understand drive and grit at levels you have never known. Don’t try to compete with them here. This useful pathology is a good thing because all they want to do is help you.

7. They have to believe in you to give you their best work. Innovators can work for tyrants easier than they can work for inauthentic people. They can overcome this if they believe the company itself has a purpose larger than their immediate boss, but they will likely wear out quickly if they have no true north to work toward.

8. They are a package deal. The characteristics that make them good at what they do don’t suit up well in law land. They need flexibility, zero micromanagement, freedom to explore and learn and a budget to do so, and perhaps most importantly – they need you to be their shield from the sharp criticism that can come too early in an innovative process and ruin it.

Again, thank you ILTA>ON for letting me participate and an opportunity to learn from some of the best in the field.