The ability to continually innovate our work and its underlying processes have become requisite skills for in-house lawyers. Increasingly, in-house practitioners are being asked to work in new environments, provide a wider scope of services, utilize technology wherever possible and be adaptive to changing legal and general professional trends. Terms like productivity, efficiency, lean and design change are quickly becoming table stakes for any successful in-house team. This is why being recognized as an innovator in our profession is especially rewarding.
But what will legal innovation look like in years to come? We have known for some time that in-house practitioners have had to continually reinvent themselves and find new and efficient ways of doing their work, often with fewer resources. Arguably, market pressures have forced companies to do less with more. but is that really the force behind the innovation push?
I would argue that the innovation boon in the legal services profession is not cyclical. Rather, we are undergoing a major change in the tools and processes that support our work and, more importantly, in our roles themselves. This is not meant to be ominous, but if we sit back and consider the major innovations that legal practice has undergone over the past 10 years, it’s telling. Innovation has changed the way we do our work; and in some instances, the work we used to do is no longer done by lawyers at all. For example, we have seen legal process outsourcers and non-legal trained personnel take on contracting (and other types of legal work) in certain defined and controlled circumstances; we have complex software tools building template agreements (and negotiating with best alternate clauses); we have IBM’s Watson technology learning specific areas of law so that it can respond to any type of question. The list goes on.
While these innovations will never entirely eliminate the complex, substantive and critical work lawyers do, it should still make us look around and take notice.
In the face of this paradigm shift, we must embrace change not only in terms of how we do our work but also in the work we do. Our ability to adapt to this new reality will determine our collective and individual successes. We have, as a profession, always changed with the times — and in many cases led the charge. But innovating ourselves has to be a much more foundational concept. We will need to carry our legal skillsets into new environments and adapt to the changes that new technologies and processes will impose.
We have already seen this in the movement of lawyers from traditional legal roles to business ones. Increasingly, lawyers — especially those in-house — are being asked to support revenue-generating, frontline businesses within their organizations. The recognition that lawyers bring a unique collection of skills to the table, especially with an eye towards risk management, makes us distinctively positioned to help our enterprise partners find an appropriate balance between business risk and business reward.
However, the shift goes beyond lawyers moving from traditional legal practice into providing business-specific support. Increased regulatory scrutiny in more and more industries is making legal expertise an important commodity for organizations and their business teams. Many organizations are directly embedding lawyers into business teams and groups. At BMO, for example, lawyers have been seconded into agile development projects, providing critical and timely legal counsel that enables our businesses to launch new products or services faster to market. Other industries, such as social media, have embedded lawyers directly into early product development life cycles to benefit from legal advice as part of the process. No doubt, this new paradigm introduces professional challenges for lawyers, but they are not insurmountable.
More to come
All this is to say, we have as a profession done great things in the field of innovation, but there is still much more to come. To keep pace, lawyers will not only have to maintain substantive legal subject matter knowledge but subject matter expertise in the business development life cycle as well. The ability to pivot professionally between legal and business issues and, in some cases, move entirely into the business area full-time will likely become a hallmark of legal practitioners moving forward. It should be an interesting journey.
Imdad Ali is senior counsel, legal, corporate & compliance with BMO Financial Group. He was the 2015 Innovatio Tomorrow’s Leader recipient in the category of large departments.