Law firm innovation takes many forms. We need a tool to de-risk and demystify the process.

The above graphic is the Maker’s Matrix©, which is a tool I created to more efficiently categorize, prioritize, and resource innovation projects.  This is because innovation in law firms is a nascent field with lots of hype and headlines but remarkably little structure.  See, e.g., Bruce MacEwen, “Who’s your Chief Innovation Officer, ” Adam Smith, Esq., Nov. 13, 2019.  That’s okay, though.  I’m happy for the opportunity to figure it out.

In my role as Director of Innovation at Eversheds Sutherland (US), the most common fact pattern is a combination of clients, lawyers, and allied professionals who have identified a pain point — or occasionally a blue ocean opportunity — combined with a willingness to invest their time in a solution.  Beyond this shared desire to innovate, however, the range of possible solutions is remarkably varied, including:

  • No tech (e.g., an Innovation Preparedness workshop built in conjunction with HLS Executive Ed)
  • High-tech (e.g., using machine learning to tag and merge data for a product that solves a major problem for a validated set of clients)
  • Tech-enabled (e.g., eLearning compliance training for one of the firm’s leading regulatory practices)
  • Innovations in substantive law (e.g., helping the Cannabis Industry Team draw the right resources to position itself as a first mover in legal solutions). Cf. Post 071 (comparing Type 0 substantive law innovation with Type 1 service delivery); Post 126 (same).

The above list reveals the immense talent and insights that exist inside virtually all large law firms.  As Director of Innovation, what I bring to the table is technical knowledge from several disciplines (I’m a generalist) plus a network of cost-effective internal and external resources (I locate, connect, translate).

Over the longer term, however, it’s my job to build a portfolio of projects that delivers a significant, measurable return to the firm (e.g., higher profits, deeper client relationships, diversified risk).  As one of the early pioneers in this exciting new field, the Maker’s Matrix© is my roadmap to get there.

This essay is organized in three parts.  Part I discusses the Innovation as a Service model, which is how I function at Eversheds Sutherland and the model I advocate for similar firms.  Part II describes my journey to put structure around this inherently ambiguous role and field.  Part III describes the Maker’s Matrix©, which is an effective way to fast track the problem-diagnosis-to-solution process.

I. The Innovation as a Service model

In his legal innovation seminars, Professor Scott Westfahl, Faculty Director at Harvard Law School Executive Education, often offers the words of Leonard Cohen as closing inspiration:

Ring the bells that still can ring //  Forget your perfect offering // There is a crack, a crack in everything // That’s how the light gets in

Right now in law, we have a crack (a crack in everything).  Consider that crack an open mind and the light flooding in as new thought, new people, new tools, and new ways of working — fresh air.  The open mindset of top leaders in law is unprecedented.  However, leaders expect results.  And, if we fall short, the crack that is currently allowing for the influx of fresh talent and methodologies will seal.  I worry about squandering the brief, perhaps three year, window we have to build legal innovation into a core discipline that exists in every best-in-class firm.

My concern is grounded.  I’ve heard frightening stories that make me pull my hair out and shout to the innovation gods — oh why!  Stories abound of prestigious global law firms tying bonuses to the number of innovation press releases and others white-labeling third party products as their own.  Unfortunately, these examples can create the perception that law firm “innovation” is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.  See, e.g, Casey Flaherty, “On Law Firm Marketing Bullshit,” 3Geeks and a Law Blog, Sept. 19, 2017.

When done right, however, innovation plays the critical role of driving the profession to reorient, define issues, and align the appropriate resources to problem-solve and build new value that is readily adopted.  In my humble opinion, that’s what we are really talking about with legal innovation — using the best available talent, methodologies, and tools to deliver more and better value to clients (internal and external).

To get there, however, we need to clear boundaries.  Foremost, in law as in other industries, innovation is a freestanding discipline.  See Peter Drucker, “The Discipline of Innovation,” Harv. Bus. Rev. (Aug. 2002).  It does not live solely within technology, or operations, or knowledge management, or any other existing function.  At Eversheds Sutherland, Innovation as a Service exists as a separate layer.  As such, we scan for opportunity and draw upon all available resources (high tech to no tech) to build new approaches, programs, products, and services.

At most large firms, Innovation as a Service is desperately needed.  Innovation is not currently accessible to all legal stakeholders because of the huge communication and education barriers needed to get a handle on the full range of problem-solving resources (talent, expertise, and tools) available.  Someone needs to untangle and clarify the multidisciplinary language surrounding innovation and pull together resources in a way the maximizes both efficiency and results.  And crucially, that someone also needs to understand the traditions and personalities involved.

For example, one collaborative project among a law firm and a university’s analytics department failed to launch because the professors — who were trying to help the law firm understand text analysis, machine learning, and predictive analytics — “didn’t show enough deference” to the litigation partner.  This would not have failed with the appropriate people, expectations, and methodologies in place.  People are the prerequisite to innovation. Their complex and mercurial nature makes the job more challenging (and fun).

I believe that Innovation as a Service is likely the most flexible, cost-effective innovation model for most large firms.  To support this claim, I offer a tool in practicing the methodology — the Maker’s Matrix©.   Going forward, my pie-in-the-sky vision is that when law departments, law firms, and trusted vendors sit down internally or in partnership with one another to discuss challenges, they use the Maker’s Matrix© to fast track the problem-diagnosis-to-solution process.  In doing so, they ensure that the most relevant talent and tools are promptly identified and organized for success.  Together, let’s build real value and move innovation “from the periphery to the core.”  David Wilkins & Maria Esteban, “Taking the ‘Alternative’ out of Alternative Legal Service Providers,” HLS Center on the Legal Profession No. 2019 (May 2019).

But, before we get started … a step back to lay the foundation.

II. A more accurate way to think about innovation

Over the past 19 months, I’ve had the great privilege of building the formal innovation capability at my law firm, Eversheds Sutherland.  I joined the firm from a program design post at Harvard Law School Executive Education where I was immersed in academic frameworks that the world-renowned professors expertly digested, bridged, and adapted to the practical experience of our managing partner, general counsel, and senior leader audiences.

I admired the heavy reliance on multidisciplinary frameworks, as they proved to be effective “hacks” to lawyer brains raised on rules, regulations, and precedent.  As a result of this immersion, my mind now floats in and among these and other models and frameworks to guide how I analyze problems and make decisions.

Thus, from the very beginning of my tenure at Eversheds Sutherland, I felt it necessary to put structure around the seemingly ambiguous concept of innovation.  (At the same time, I pushed back on the idea of innovation committees that could water down or slow the required multidisciplinary agility at these beginning stages.)  Rather than colleagues coming to me, I went to them and began my research.  I embarked on an international listening tour to interview, empathize, and understand the challenges our lawyers were coming up against, as well as their clients.  It was fascinating to, as my father says, “understand what’s going on between the ears” at all levels of the firm when it came to the concept of innovation.

In each instance, I left these interviews with at least two specific problems or priorities that I then organized in an Excel spreadsheet (so innovative) and stared at, over and over, as I continued through my interviews.  Then, sitting alone in my New York hotel room on the evening of October 24, 2018 after a day of divergent interviews, I had a rush of thought and adrenaline that I poured on paper, sorted through, and summarized, as follows:

Chart 1

Chart 2
I finally had my framework.

I began using this framework as a problem-typology tool.  I mentally categorized conversations as being in the world of data, business models, or thought leadership to test the framework, and it held.  In the year that followed, this basic — yet foundational — model evolved into a more sophisticated problem-typology and talent-resourcing tool that I now refer to as the Maker’s Matrix©.

Here’s what it looks like:

Chart 3

[click on to enlarge]
And, here’s how to use it:

III. The Maker’s Matrix© – a tool to fast track the problem-diagnosis-solution process

A.  Identifying the type of problem

Anyone this far in the article has likely heard of design thinking and, at one point or another, been subjected to a presentation that included reference to the famous Einstein quote: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”  See, e.g., Bill Burnett, “Design Thinking = Method, Not Magic,” YouTube (Apr. 20, 2016) (famous primer by master design thinker at Stanford).

My New England sarcasm aside — a focus on spending time to properly answer the question “what’s the problem we are trying to solve” is critical before moving to the ideation stage, but it is also critical to understand what type of problem you are working to solve.

Consider management consulting case interviews that firms like McKinsey, BCG, and Bain use to assess candidates in the recruiting process.  In these case interviews, candidates are given a set of facts and asked to solve the described business problem.  One of the things MBA-type students learn in their prep courses is that there are four types of cases: (1) profitability, (2) market sizing, (3) market study, and (4) mergers & acquisitions (a kitchen sink of the first three types).  Thus, the threshold issue for each candidate is figuring out what type of case they are being asked to solve.  The type of case frames the problem and thus the resources, tools, and analyses required to best solve it.  Figuring out the type of case orients the problem-solver.

The Maker’s Matrix© works in a similar way.  Once you’ve defined your problem or opportunity, work through the matrix as follows:

Chart 4

[click on to enlarge]
To bring this conceptual structure to life, below I’ve included examples in each of the nine squares:

Chart 5

[click on to enlarge]

B. Creating the right team

 Over the past several years, I’ve had the good fortune to participate in design workshops, legal “hackathons,” and other focused efforts to innovate in law.  (For those unfamiliar with design thinking programs, they gather professionals around specific pain points in law, break the professionals into teams, offer various exercises to pull teams through the design thinking methodology, and often end in a competition of solutions generated.)

While the sessions and programs offered top-notch content, it struck me that there was always a huge methodological gap around talent and teams.  The programs didn’t have the right people at the table, which was consistently apparent when we moved into the ideation and prototyping stages of design.  To ideate and prototype, you have to know what multidisciplinary resources you have at your disposal (high tech to no tech), how they work, who you need to make them work, and how much effort, time, and money is required to use those resources for the desired purposes.  This is the second place that the Maker’s Matrix© comes into play.

Once you have categorized your problem or opportunity into one of the nine squares, drop down to the relevant talent section and consider – what world am I in, and what mix of talent is best positioned to solve this type of problem?  Note that the type of talent likely required for your project changes as you move across the matrix, see Chart 6, with technology most relevant with data-type projects, operations most relevant with business model-type projects, and various subject matter expertise most relevant for thought leadership-type projects.

Chart 6

[Click on to enlarge]
The type of talent needed also varies vertically with the type of service — from legal advice, to legal partnership, to legal service.  You may need to consult experts to determine the talent required for your team, and also to double check whether there is an existing solution.  For example, in Chart 5 above, you’ll need a structured data expert for Square 1, a data scientist for Square 4, and for Square 7, your work is done — it already exists!  Thanks Kira.  A full set of example solutions is set forth below in Chart 7.

Chart 7

[click on to enlarge]
Using the Maker’s Matrix© as a talent-resourcing tool helps ensure that you have the right people at the table to tackle your defined and typed problem or opportunity.  Since people are the prerequisite to sophisticated and successful innovations, my hope is that this tool may ultimately help drive accelerated and readily adopted innovations in law.

Thank you for your interest. I welcome your comments and feedback.