Overemphasizing Innovation & Underestimating Common Sense: Law Firm Management Dos & Don’ts

Academics keep throwing around the word “innovation.” Innovation is often used synonymously with “new technology”, “creativity”, and even “best business practice”.

In theory, innovation is meant to be radical change or ideas. In the real world, however, investing in innovative ideas is both costly and risky, and the returns uncertain.

So while firms are constant in search of the next big idea in business, occasionally the best way to create fresh ideas is to affirm tried-and-true old ones.

In an article titled, “Nine Rules for Stifling Innovation,” Rosabeth Moss Kanter laments, “For all the talk about innovation, I see many leaders in numerous organizations in every sector who actively stifle it.”

“They say they want more innovation. But at the same time, they seem to operate by a set of hidden principles designed to prevent innovations from surfacing or succeeding.”

For law firms, forget designing an environment around innovation. Kanter’s nine rules are easily applied to the legal industry’s biggest flaws in everyday management.

Remember a few of these “don’ts” so that you “do” retain employees, impress your clients, turn a profit, and successfully manage your firm in this year.

“1. Be suspicious of any new idea from below — because it’s new, and because it’s from below. After all, if the idea were any good, we at the top would have thought of it already.”

Sure there’s a law firm hierarchy, but that doesn’t mean the best case strategy can’t come from a hardworking first-year. In fact, with so many billable hours spent in the office trying to impress senior attorneys, junior associates may even have a leg up.

“2. Invoke history. If a new idea comes up for discussion, find a precedent in an earlier idea that didn’t work, remind everyone of that bad past experience. Those who have been around a long time know that we tried it before, so it won’t work this time either.”

Certainly senior attorneys and law firm partners have the most trial and transactional experience. But, sometimes the line between objectively-perceived experience and personal bias is fine.

In the courtroom, use past precedent to help you argue the merits of your case, but in management, don’t treat it like it’s the law.

“3. Keep people really busy. If people seem to have free time, load them with more work. In the name of excellence, encourage cut-throat competition. Get groups to critique and challenge each other’s proposals, preferably in public forums, and then declare winners and losers.”

Healthy competition—especially among first-years—can be beneficial. However, so is collaboration and training.

In law firms, having free time is usually a faux-pas. But, associate free time can be weel spent networking around the office, collaborating and learning from peers, and pertinent but not billable research.

Stop treating billable hours like a competition for who is the best. Sometimes high billable hours simply represent the person who manages their time the worst.

“4. Confine discussion of strategies and plans to a small circle of trusted advisors. Then announce big decisions in full-blown form. This ensures that no one will start anything new because they never know what new orders will be coming down from the top.”

Law firms should consider constructing a youth board composed of up-and-comers.

Firm partners should be given one nomination each, and the reign of these young attorneys (or legal professionals) should last at least a year.

A representative for this youth board can then report directly to managing partners on a regular basis. This board should be official, transparent, and meaningful. It should be perceived as an honor.

Give your youth board concrete powers and abilities to impact firm policy and strategy—don’t make it an honorary position. For more information about how and why your firm should start a “youth board,” see this article.

“5. Act as though punishing failure motivates success. Practice public humiliation, making object lessons out of those who fail to meet expectations. Everyone will know that risk-taking is bad.”

Sometimes placing blame—like in the world of torts—is necessary. But, on a micro-level, within the law office, accepting responsibility is better.

When individuals accept responsibility for their actions, a plan for reparation can be made more quickly and efficiently (at least, that’s surely what Lance Armstrong’s lawyers are telling him).

With this in mind, law firms should remember to be lenient and reward open communication. Forgiveness will not encourage mistake making—that’s just a fact of life. It will, on the other hand, keep your firm from being sidetracked by the blame game instead of strategies for recovery.

“6. Above all, never forget that we got to the top because we already know everything there is to know about this business.”

If you didn’t laugh (and understand the sarcasm of) this last one, why don’t you start again from the top…

So, law firm mangers: Do make plans for installing innovative technology, implementing innovative strategy, or incentivizing innovative idea generation at your firm. But, for all the other days, don’t forget to use your common (and good business) sense.



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