If a successful large law firm faced an Innovator’s Dilemma, what would it look like?

On the one hand, the firm has a wonderful set of endowments: (1) longstanding and lucrative relationships with industry-leading clients; (2) a business that requires very little operating capital yet generates significant cash and profits; and (3) an established brand that makes it the safe choice against upstart new entrants.  On the other hand, when the traditional service offerings hit a plateau that is likely permanent, the firm struggles to use its superior endowments to reinvent itself in a way that locks in another generation of prosperity. The graphic above depicts the problem.

Many law firm leaders understand the innovator’s dilemma and worry about the timing and execution of reinvention. Thus, at numerous firms, there are internal innovators, or “intrapreneurs,” who are running carefully vetted projects designed to deliver tangible benefits to their firms. In its idealized form, this strategy raises awareness through small wins, which, in turn, create buy-in and momentum for more ambitious change.

We were fortunate to have three law firm intrapreneurs as guest lecturers during Week 5 of “How Innovation Diffuses in the Legal Industry“:


For a summary of Week 2 guest lectures (Pangea3, Practical Law Company, Hotshot), see Post 032. For week 3 (consultative sales at Thomson Reuters), see Post 034. For Week 4 (a deep dive into Axiom), see Post 036.


To set reader expectations, there was a lot to cover in this class. With three great guests, we ran out of time to probe each story with equal depth.  Also, for the purposes of publication, I need to disentangle the principles and lessons of intrapreneurship from the organizations where our guests have worked. The risk is that a discussion of context will be construed as criticism, and criticism was far from the spirit of our discussion.

To resolve this tension, I use the two problem statements below to meld together common themes. After that are specific highlights of each speaker’s remarks.

Problem statement from within the law firm

When we apply innovator’s dilemma and intrapreneurship concepts to law firms, the underlying subtext is that highly educated and successful partners are, as a group, ill-equipped to adapt to a changing legal market.  Assuming this problem statement is true — and I believe it is — why would it be true?

The problem is certainly not lack of creativity.  Within their substantive specialties, lawyers routinely come up with ingenious solutions.  Rather, the challenge is a confluence of experience, perspective, and incentives that create a powerful mental frame that is very difficult for long-time insiders to overcome.

Specifically, for several generations, lawyers in corporate law firms have carried on their craft within a simple business model that required very little time or attention to maintain. In most cases, if lawyers just focused intensively on their clients’ problems, the economic results got progressively better. This was (and is) powerful operant conditioning. As a result, for many law firm partners, the macro-trends of the legal industry are abstractions that carry very little weight.  The only market that matters is the tiny slice each particular partner serves.

Unfortunately, in very few instances are clients speaking with one voice.  In fact, voices vary by adopter type. See Post 013 (providing examples of two major corporate clients expressing completely opposite views on the need for change). Innovator and early adopter clients are drawn to new ways of legal problem-solving, though they’re in the minority.  Similarly, some early majority clients are pushed toward innovation because they can no longer afford solutions provided by traditional law firms, see Posts 032 and 036 (2008 recession led to surge in adoption for Pangea3 and Axiom).  But a sizable portion of the legal market is content with brand firms billing by the hour. If “my clients” feel differently next year or the year after, we can deal with it then.  This narrow client-centric approach is strongly reinforced by most law firm compensation systems.

The above description explains the paradox of the highly successful law firm unable to play its superior hand.  Thus, the innovator’s dilemma is a real strategy dilemma for virtually all large law firms.

Problem statement from the client side

Although clients don’t speak with one voice, the environment they are operating within is becoming more complex, global, and regulated.  This, in turn, is changing the structure of the corporate legal services market — i.e., the macro-level trends that many partners wave away as irrelevant to their practice.

Arguably, the biggest change is growth of corporate legal departments.  For at least the last 20 years, corporate clients have adapted by growing their in-house legal departments and insourcing more repetitive or lower-stakes work that formerly went to law firms. See Post 003 (showing 1997 to 2016 employment trends for lawyers working in government, in-house, and private law firms).

With more and more legal departments becoming the equivalent of large law firms embedded inside corporations, we’ve witnessed the rise of the legal operations movement (CLOC and ACC Legal Ops) and the rise of the “Type 6” client. See Post 005 (presenting a typology of law firm clients).

Legal operations as a profession and field is coming into being because many large corporate clients need more sophisticated methods and systems for managing legal cost and legal risk.  The ascendency of this role is strong evidence that the business-as-usual law firm billable hour model is on a slow but permanent decline, at least for operational “run-the-company” work that accounts for the majority of the corporate legal services market. See Post 034 (discussing trend through the lens of Axiom); Post 010 (discussing trend through the lens of the managed services industry).

The graphic below depicts the market transformation.

In general, legal complexity increases with economic growth.  For about 100 years, we’ve coped with this problem through division of labor and specialization.  This approach created the large law firm. In more recent decades, as the growth-complexity line has steepened, law firms reaped higher profits.

Yet, we have reached a point where division of labor and specialization are no longer a match for the geometric growth of legal complexity. Although clients and law firms experience this pressure as a cost problem, the root cause is lack of productivity gains.  See Post 001 (discussing systemic problems created by lagging legal productivity). To meet this productivity imperative, the legal industry is starting to migrate to new methods of legal problem-solving that are based on data, process, and technology. Indeed, these pressures are why NewLaw exists, financed in large part by venture capitalists and private equity.


NB: All the analysis and charts above frame a structural problem from the perspective of organizational clients. For this group of clients, the problem of lagging productivity is leading to market-based responses, albeit slowly. For individual clients in the PeopleLaw sector (roughly one-quarter of the legal market and shrinking), lagging legal productivity manifests itself through self-representation or people failing to seek any type of legal-based solution. See The Decline of the PeopleLaw Sector 037. In short, these are two distinct problem sets.


So the question is very simple: for large corporate clients, who is going to create the new paradigm? There are three contenders:

  • Legal departments through more legal operations and in-sourcing;
  • Law firms by skillfully playing their superior hand; or
  • NewLaw, which has data, process, and technology as its core competency but has the challenge of being new and unfamiliar.

The answer is likely to be some combination of all three. Yet, it is also likely that many law firms will fall victim to the innovator’s dilemma and be among the losers.

The challenge for law firms is that the business opportunities of a structural market shift require partners to make business judgments about macro-trends at the same time they are under pressure to acquire, bill, and collect hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in legal fees for the current fiscal year.  Unfortunately, this problem can’t be fixed by changing a comp system to reward a long-term focus, as those with a short-term focus are free to leave and take their clients with them.

Kubicki: Intrapreneurship inside a law firm

Among my three guest lecturers, Josh Kubicki has given the most thought to intrapreneurship as an applied discipline. See, e.g., Kubicki, The Intrapreneur’s Dilemma, Medium, Aug. 20, 2014.  During his guest lecture, Josh asked us to envision a simple corporate pyramid that consists of the CEO (at the top), the C-Suite (layer 2), vice-presidents (layer 3), directors (layer 4), managers (layer 5), and line workers (base of the pyramid). “Obviously, we know who’s in charge.”

“Law Firms,” noted Josh, “are much flatter.” He then picked up a grease marker to draw a stylized law firm org chart.

At the top of the pyramid, which may not be a pyramid at all, are partners who are also owners. Although partners are not the CEO, they do tend to act as CEOs of their own practice, particularly if they keep a lot of other lawyers busy.  However, increasing performance and enterprise value of the firm require collaboration across the partner / owner / CEO class.

To do this well, the law firm intrapreneur has to find ways to break down the partitions between partners — the blue lines above — without engendering fear or resistance.  Further, the intrapreneur has to do it with little or no formal authority.  “No matter what your title is, the intrapreneur is part of the professional staff paid for by revenue-generating lawyers.  So the only tool you have is your ability to make someone’s life better in a relatively simple and low-cost way.”

This reality is why Josh relies heavily on design thinking in all his change initiatives.  Josh drew the diagram below, which he called “the trifecta.”

Innovations start as an idea in an innovator’s head.  Once we move to implementation within an organization, however, we move into people’s daily experience — busy people whose job it is to serve others. Even if an innovation will, in theory, make the organization better off, implementation will fail if individual stakeholders have a negative experience that makes their job harder. Thus, successful innovation (Phase I Initiation + Phase II Implementation, see Post 015) is actually a series of properly designed sub-innovations.

A successful sub-innovation requires making the complex very simple, culturally compatible, and highly advantageous to the end-user, ideally with a very fast return-on-investment. Cf. Post 008 (presenting the key factors in Rogers rate of adoption model). If the coordinated sub-innovations all result in a good individual experience, the larger innovation has a chance of being successful. Seen through Josh’s eyes, the effectiveness of the law firm intraprenuer is less about individual brilliance than empathy, listening skills, patience, and budget, as doing this type of work “is very labor intensive.”

The intrapreneur’s intellectual gift is that, for a variety of reasons, they are not stuck inside the frame of the traditional model, often because of some prior life experience that gives them an outsider’s view. (For one of Kubicki’s transformative life experiences, which he discussed in class, read his Intrapreneur’s Dilemma.)  Yet, Josh was emphatic that humility is the single most important attribute for intrapreneur effectiveness. “If something works, congratulate the adopter for their insight and move on.”

Josh described some of the wins of his team but it would be counterproductive to publish them on the web, as Josh believes the credit goes to the entire Seyfarth Shaw organization.

Eric Wood: making partner as a technology innovator

One of the reasons I am carefully chronicling my class is that I want to create a contemporaneous record of how the legal profession navigated the shift from a world of lawyer specialization to one based on multidisciplinary collaboration.  I am confident that Eric Wood’s story is going to be replicated by hundreds of young lawyers who begin their careers at law firms. Yet, Eric was the first to blaze this trail.

Eric is the Practice Innovations and Technology Partner at Chapman and Cutler.  The key word here is partner.  Eric is a 2008 graduate of the University of Chicago Law School.  After a stint at Cleary Gottlieb in NYC doing capital markets work, Eric moved back to Chicago and joined Chapman as a banking and financial services associate.  However, several years ago, Eric quit doing client billable work and instead focused all of his attention on technology-based initiatives.  During this time, his formal title remained associate. And earlier this year, he was promoted to partner.

Practice Innovations and Technology Partner is a new role within a law firm. During his portion of the class, Eric described his work as primarily “R&D” that fell into three major buckets:

  1. Writing code to build legal expert systems and automate the drafting of documentation for a wide range of legal matters.  Often this includes the design of web interfaces so the systems are relatively intuitive for the lawyers, clients, and other personnel who use them.
  2. Designing new technology products and managing their development, release, and maintenance. Often this involves finding ways to scale innovations across multiple practice groups, including via the development of new staffing models.
  3. Other knowledge management and technology projects, such as building transactional metadata databases and data visualizations, evaluating vendor products, and researching technological developments that might affect transactional practice (e.g., blockchains and crypto currencies).

Eric has no formal training in a technical field.  His undergraduate training is in political science and environmental studies.  Instead, he attributes the initial development of his technical abilities in computer coding and database structures to a desire to impress his friends with fantasy basketball data visualizations. That hobby required a lot of scraping of data from websites followed by computational analysis.

Yet, Eric’s work in the legal field enabled him to see cross-over applications. Prior to law school, as an AmeriCorps volunteer with Wyoming Legal Services, he helped build web content to reach the agency’s far-flung clientele. “We had to scale seven lawyers for the entire state, and it was obvious that only technology could do that.”  Likewise, many late nights as a NYC transactional associate gave Eric many ideas for how to automate unpleasant, time-consuming grunt work.

In 2013, as Eric continued to improve his technical skills, he decided it was time to find a outlet in the legaltech world.  However, during this time period, the firm’s Chief Executive Partner, Tim Mohan, began bringing in outside speakers to explain how the traditional practice of law was on the brink of a major shift.  So Eric requested a meeting with Mohan to explain some of this ideas.

Mohan immediately embraced what he heard and Eric stopped doing billable. Now do the math — taking Eric off the billable track is roughly a million-dollar decision ($500/hour x 2,000 per year).  Yet, what is the price of failing to reinvent?

Relatively quickly, the decision proved to be a wise one.  For example, one of Eric’s projects was the automation of closing document sets for finance transactions.  The market no longer pays full price for the organization, indexing, and tabbing of the full deal documentation, yet this work still needs to be done and delivered to the client in a polished, professional, and timely manner.  “What used to take weeks now takes a minute.”  At roughly $500 in staff time (with wide variations based on the size and complexity of the deal) x 3,000 closings per year, this single project is saving the firm roughly $1.5 million in labor that can be allocated to other value-add projects. And that is just one example.

With the encouragement of the firm’s leadership, Eric regularly gives internal demos that have generated significant curiosity and broad buy-in among partners.  Eric notes that these internal sales were often predicated on the quality advantages of technology — of increasing transparency of changes to complex forms and reducing opportunities for error. Yet, the economics are also very attractive.  Chapman and Cutler is a highly specialized financial services firms that does approximately 40% of its work on a fixed-fee basis.  In this context, technology and process enable the firm to continue to charge less than many rival firms while protecting or improving its margins. This is exactly how innovation is supposed to function.

In addition to Eric, other transactional lawyers at Chapman have begun to invest in technical skills, with several automating significant portions of their practice. Part of this transition is made possible by an accounting system that treats “productive” hours related to firm innovation the same as client billable work. Eric gave the example of one  associate who has logged hundreds of productive hours over the past few years working on projects with Eric and his team. In short, Chapman is building more internal capacity.

This is a remarkable story. But can it be replicated by other other law firms?

I think the answer is “not easily.”  First, a firm needs someone like Eric Wood who possesses both deep legal domain knowledge and strong technical skills. Second, the stars have to align so that a leader like Tim Mohan can enable such a person to focus full-time on innovation and execution. In competitive markets, half-time efforts seldom win.  Third, it undoubtedly helped that Chapman and Cutler is a “small” large firm (~230 lawyers) that is focused on a single industry. This makes it culturally and logistically easier to implement change.

Beckett’s business mindset

As noted in Legal Evolution’s foundational posts, innovation is strongly influenced by connections between different social systems. Being on the edge of two or three systems is more valuable than being in the center of one. This is because multiple perspectives enable a person to transcend the dominant local frame and see problems with fresh eyes.

In addition to knowledge of law, all of our guest lecturers possessed a second or third frame for viewing the world. However, the most pronounced example was Jim Beckett, who acquired his legal frame after working five years in sales and distribution in the food industry, helping to grow market share for companies like Frito-Lay and Haagen Dazs.  During this time, Jim was following the advice of his father, who was impressed with Jim’s people skills and aptitude for business. Ironically, Jim’s father was a lawyer, working in-house at KFC.

Then, several years into Jim’s business career, his father had second thoughts.  “Jim,” his father said, “Law doesn’t have enough people who truly understand how businesses work.  If you get a law degree, you’ll go a long way.”  So, as an older student, Jim returned to Indiana University to go to law school.

Jim shared that law school was very difficult for him because the level of abstraction was so far removed from the practical problem-solving he was used to. It wasn’t until he was a law firm associate that we was able to meld the two perspectives.

The business frame, however, remained the dominant perspective.  For example, Jim discussed how he got his first in-house job at Brown & Williamson (a large tobacco company that later become part of RJ Reynolds). “I was the only lawyer they interviewed who could discuss the business issues that were at the core of the company’s legal work.” Further, rather than pursue upward mobility in the legal department, Jim asked to move to the business side, eventually running an RJ Reynolds operating unit in Puerto Rico.

Jim’s multiple perspectives in law and business was one of the reasons that John Crockett, chairman of Frost Brown Todd, recruited Jim to return to Louisville to run business development for the firm. Roughly 10 years earlier, Jim and John had worked together at the firm as billing lawyers. Jim was hired despite his warning that long-term success was going to require significant change, which would make some of Jim’s efforts controversial.

While the firm implemented many client-centric initiatives, Jim eventually became convinced that he could do more good by helping clients focus their purchasing power. Thus, in the summer of 2016, Jim left Frost Brown Todd to become the CEO of Qualmet, a technology company that provides legal departments with a scorecarding methodology that collects, organizes, analyzes, and shares feedback with their outside service providers.

During his lecture, Jim spoke with passion about what happens when lawyers get in full alignment with clients. “All lawyers want to do a great job. Unfortunately, very few are getting the information they need to take their practice to the next level.”  Jim believes that structured metrics and dialogue will enable clients and law firms to smoothly transition into the world of data, process, and technology.  Jim see this as not as a question of “how”, but “when.” Today’s CEOs expect their GCs, CLOs and in-house teams to drive business value that aligns with their respective company goals and objectives. Jim wants to bridge the “value” gap and sees 360 performance management as a critical piece to accelerate alignment. “Value creation is no commodity,” Jim observed, “So all stakeholders will benefit when performance is properly measured.”

Qualmet’s scorecarding methodology is closely related to Dan Currell’s post on the necessity of active outside counsel management. Convergence alone can’t deliver the desired results. See Post 031.  Thus, scorecarding will be the topic of a future post.