6 ways law firms can set themselves up for innovation success

Innovation isn't easy. Despite giving lip service to thinking differently, it's almost always easier to simply hold the line. When law firms do try to optimize their processes, for example, they often find their good intentions crushed under the weight of the work, or a culture that isn't ready to change.

If your firm is taking those first steps toward innovation, keep these tips in mind for a successful experience.

1. Start with a challenge you already know

Innovation doesn't have to begin with a blank page. Instead, look at what already exists and consider what could be made better. Do you have work that seems stuck in the past or a process that could be automated? Are there tasks that rely on outdated systems or hyper-localized abilities? Do you have siloed work that could be coordinated or combined?

One of the best signs that you should be innovating is knowingly doing things the hard way, because there's no time to make it easier. (Which leads us to our next point.)

2. Set aside time to work on the change

When time is money, it's hard to devote hours towards a new way of working. Even if it will be worth it in the long run, the immediate hit to your productivity can be hard to take.

As simple as it sounds, blocking time on your work calendar does help. During that time, turn off your notifications and close out your email. Stay focused on the job at-hand and don't get distracted by what's not yet perfect or understood. No matter how big the job, innovation always starts with taking a first step.

3. Limit the scope of your work

If you're lucky enough to work as part of an innovative team, there will be an abundance of opportunities to add to the workload. Scope creep is real, and it will bury your attempts to innovate if you let it. As you head into new waters, remember your original purpose and don't take on too much.

4. Avoid mental roadblocks

Innovation is hard. Even the most inspired people can shrink before the challenge of change. Whether size of the work, the complexity of the problem, or regular old self doubt, innovators aren't immune to mental roadblocks.

A measure of self-awareness and critical thought is actually good. It helps prove out the concepts in private, reducing the risk of public errors later on. But when the thoughts turn from critical questions to criticism, it's time to check your head. Review your original charter and remind yourself of what set you on the path. Often, success comes only after the work gets hardest.

5. Ask all the right questions

That healthy self-awareness we just mentioned? Here it is. Don't wait for the partners to poke holes in your work. If you're changing an existing practice or process, consider who else is involved in the old way of doing things. Are their needs being considered? What are the core elements that can't be lost as you move forward?

Perhaps one of the most important questions is how you will know if your innovation is working? For simple changes, like automating your firm's deposition scheduling process, success is probably subjective. Are the depositions still running smoothly? Do the lawyers and paralegals involved like the new process and are they adopting it regularly?

6. Have a roll-out plan

Innovation is incompatible with isolation. No matter the scale of your change, someone is going to take notice. Law firms need to be considerate and purposeful when establishing new norms. Just how considerate (or cautious) will depend on many factors: firm size, business risk, cost, and scalability are just a few. Absent from that list, and possibly most important of all, are the people at your firm.

As you go public with your plan, identify who needs to be trained, who needs to be aware, and who needs to be a cheerleader. Consider also how long the transition will take, and whether you'll have time for revisions and iteration. After your launch rounds the first few turns, schedule a review session with key stakeholders to discuss what's working, and what still needs work. Whether you find yourself back at the drawing board or standing in the board room, it's all just part of the process.

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