How do you measure innovation?

Innovation means different things to different people. For some it must involve technology, for others it’s about process change or reducing costs. For others cost is not the number one factor, it’s about delivering legal services better or reducing risk for the organization.

In all the conversations I have with our in-house judges, with leaders in law firms and other service providers who are touting innovation in law, about how we determine what is innovative for our annual Innovatio Awards it seems everyone is looking for that unicorn of a project or individual who is doing things no one has seen before.

Innovation means different things to different people. For some it must involve technology, for others it’s about process change or reducing costs. For others cost is not the number one factor, it’s about delivering legal services better or reducing risk for the organization.

Trust me, in many of the conference calls with our Innovatio judges when reviewing nominations, I hear this from them: “I just didn’t find that innovative factor.”

As Lorne O’Reilly, senior counsel of Dow Chemical, defined it in the call when we determined the Toronto District School Board as the winner in the category of Law Department Management, small departments and our overall winner of Innovation of the Year:

“How did the legal department create something new that assisted its customer in such a way that there is true tangible results being realized, and they are seen as leaders, and there were reduced costs and a positive outcome?”

That’s a tall order, but in the case of TDSB, it met that criteria.

O’Reilly also emphasizes: “Who brought the best value to their organization?”

The TDSB is often, as all of the judges of this category pointed out, in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons but acting general counsel Leola Pon and her group are quietly doing tough work in their very public-facing corner of the world.

“This is where I found innovative activity,” said O’Reilly. “It was innovative activity done by the legal department to create a better interaction with their customers. And in driving value, they sought to make sure the business realized the greatest efforts from what they were doing, reducing arbitration dates, getting efficiencies. That is so difficult in that sort of organization when you think of bureaucracy at an organization such as this.”

Innovatio judge Lynn Korbak agreed. “This is what we see in the private sector being translated into public sector on the client focus. That’s what stood out for me. The pilot project for expedited arbitration was very significant because they’re doing it on a risk-based approach and the sharing of knowledge management piece is a big step,” she said.

Dorothy Quann, general counsel at Xerox, was also impressed with the way the TDSB focused on the grievance process and knowledge management. “What I liked is they are focusing on delivery of legal services and under a push for service excellence.”

I think at the end of the day, all legal departments probably find themselves in this “push for excellence,” but it’s how they go about it that makes what they do innovative. Pon worked directly with her opposing union counsel to figure out how to tackle their biggest cost burden. As for the other winners this year, many of the in-house teams tackled old processes applying use of data and real-time applications to improve risk mitigation.

How you define innovation I think depends on the challenges that lie before you and what you decide to do to improve not only how the legal department functions but how it benefits the business. IH

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