Unknowingly, law firms are some of the largest 3M Company investors. Every Post-It, colored flag, or ruled pad used for trial notes is a result of 3M staff creativity and hard work, followed by years of development. 3M Company’s 79,000 employees craft roughly 55,000 different products in over 60 countries. So it’s not surprising that this Fortune 500 Company is one of the most successful in the industry, whose merchandise can be found in practically every office around the world.
What is surprising, however, is the fact that 3M’s most valuable product is not sold in stores. In fact, this item is not tangible at all. Instead of office supplies, the field of law should make use of 3M’s model work environment—one that encourages innovation, experimentation, and the exploitation of company resources for company gain—as a tool and competitive advantage by which to get ahead.
Easily 3M’s most iconic product, the Post-It Note’s history demonstrates the five principles of business that have literally paved the way for this company to thrive. And, the takeaway lessons for law firms are about as subtle as Post-It’s equally iconic canary yellow color.
3M chemist Spence Silver was in search of a strong adhesive. In 1968, Silver experimented with a variety of organic molecules to achieve this end. His new polymer, however, did not bind materials together. Instead, it served as ineffectual and temporary glue that could be removed easily. Silver knew there must be an application for this paste (that did not paste very well), but he wasn’t quite sure what. His first idea was a bulletin board that was thumbtack-free. Simply apply this new adhesive to cork board and photographs and documents could be added and removed at leisure. 3M marketed this idea, but sales for the new product were low.
Lesson: Encourage associates to keep up with appeals or seemingly defeated cases. There’s always another way or second chance in law.
Still convinced there was an application for his non-stick adhesive, Silver held company-wide seminars that promoted collaborative brainstorming. A fellow chemist, Art Fry, attended one of those seminars. While singing hymns in his church choir, Fry became inspired. He realized that the adhesive could be used on strips of paper and serve as a sticky, but not abrasive place-marker on the pages of books. Through a bit more trial and error, Silver and Fry soon developed the modern-day Post-It Note.
Lesson: Outside CLEs, law firms should encourage more collaboration among its associates, case managers, even partners. Collaboration should be formalized in terms of weekly seminars or case meetings. Seminars should have a problem-solving theme and encourage 100 percent participation. Each tier of the company hierarchy should work together, which will help promote mentorship relationships in the office.
3. Invest In New Resources
The first obstacle faced by this Silver and Fry was the lack of equipment necessary to manufacture their product at 3M’s offices. Undeterred, Fry built a prototype in his own basement until he was able to convince the company that the more complicated the manufacturing process proved to be, the larger and more difficult the barrier to entry for future competitors. Once the product was officially launched, it took in-person demonstrations and house-calls for Post-It Notes to finally catch on. However, since its discovery, Post-It Notes have led to over $100 million in revenue for 3M.
Lesson: A lot of law firms skimp when it comes to buying case management or electronic discovery software, but as the Post-It Notes story demonstrates, sometimes it takes money to make money. If associates approach the partners with a new idea or tool, stay open-minded about the cost. Give them time to demonstrate it will pay off.
4. Motivate Your Associates To Be Creative
3M Company has institutionalized what is known as the “15 percent rule”. At 3M, employees are encouraged to spend 15 percent of their time innovating and working on new concepts and ideas, even if the ideas have no direct or foreseeable commercial benefits.
Lesson: Imagine that associates are encouraged to conduct legal research outside the scope of their case matters, or work on case studies for publication. Not only does this provide advertising for and boost the prestige of the firm when printed in legal journals, but encouraging extracurricular legal research will help the younger litigators “think outside the box” and take risks when it comes time to build their defenses.
5. Reward Innovation
Spence Silver owns the patent on the adhesive formula (Acrylate-copolymer microspheres), Art Fry owns the patent on Post-It Notes (Repositionable pressure-sensitive adhesive sheet material), and 3M owns trademarks to the name “Post-It Note” and its canary yellow color. In the end, the Post-It Note was a win-win-win venture.
Lesson: Good business managers (and law firms are no exception) realize that professional development in an employee provides real returns to the company. It’s time for law firms to incentivize new ideas. Try implementing a “15 percent rule” for associates, where 15 percent of time is billed to the firm for legal publishing efforts or brainstorming sessions on firm efficiency, for example. Like 3M, your returns on investment just may come back three-fold.