Stop Innovating and Read This First

  • December 13, 2019
  • Kyla Sandwith

Stop Innovating and Read This First

In recent years, “innovation” has become the legal industry buzzword that everyone is talking about. However, the true purpose and mechanics of innovation have largely been lost in myth and mystique.

Instead of a means to enhance in-house counsel’s delivery of legal service, innovation has become an end in and of itself. We develop conferences around the idea, write articles about it, and use our talents to define and refine our understanding of what is (and is not) legal innovation. To complicate matters further, we regularly equate innovation with technology, and see technology as a one-size-fits-all solution and the answer to all legal operations questions. We also assume that true innovation requires us and our organizations to take an “all in” approach to digital transformation.

Given this environment, it’s not surprising that what I hear most from in-house counsel is a certain degree of fatigue and disillusionment with the topic itself. While they are certainly inspired to pursue opportunities that will streamline their work and provide better outcomes for their client, that inspiration often dissipates in the face of what I call “resource barriers.” Resource barriers are the time, money, buy-in and knowledge needed to successfully pursue greater efficiencies and effectiveness. Without overcoming them, no matter the will or passion for innovation, your project is over before it begins.

Setting the Stage

Before we address the resource barriers, we must look at the problematic approach we have taken to legal innovation and technology. First, let’s adjust our definition of innovation so we can alleviate the pressure of this “innovate or die” environment. Innovation is simply a new idea or way of doing something that better meets stakeholder needs. This shifts the focus from the idea or innovation itself to what is truly important: those impacted by the innovation.

Second, let’s separate technology from innovation, at least at the outset. While it’s true that technology often becomes part of many solutions, it should not be where we start. By prejudging that the solution lies in resolving operational issues, we unnecessarily limit alternative solutions that may be more viable and cost effective. In my experience, starting with technology also increases the risk of implementing a solution that does not fit the organization or the problem itself. This becomes costly and time consuming for the organization.

Identifying the Issue

Most in-house counsel have a good idea of where their group or organization needs help. As such, I won’t spend time a great deal of time addressing how to identify and assess opportunities for innovation other than to say the assessment should begin with a consideration of the following factors: alignment with corporate strategy, risk level, and estimated financial and organizational impact.

In addition, if you are new to the innovation game, it’s important to choose a project that is manageable and offers relatively quick wins. This will allow you to build your own skills and earn trust within your organization—creating a good platform from which to launch your next project.

Creating Buy-In

Buy-in is one of the most critical resources in-house counsel require to effect any kind of organizational change. As such, every project should begin with identifying key stakeholders and creating buy-in—and I use the word “create” purposefully.

In-house counsel have a unique perspective within the organization and often see inefficiencies, risk and ineffectiveness that others may not. As such, creating buy-in often means educating key stakeholders not only about the issue but also about the cost. Once those stakeholders understand the issue and its impact, the result is often a demand pull from stakeholders for a solution.

Creating buy-in might look like working with internal paralegals to determine how much time is spent on redundant work and how that impacts their personal efficiency, stress or engagement levels. Or it may involve working with key operations personnel to determine the impact of delays in contract review on their productivity and efficiency. The key is to identify as many stakeholders impacted by the process as possible and create a demand pull from all levels of the organization.

Creating this buy-in early has significant benefit, as it initiates the change management process quickly. With legal groups in particular, my experience is that if you have people demanding change at the outset, you’ve begun the process of developing the project champions necessary to improve the odds of project success.

Securing Resources

Creating buy-in is the prerequisite to securing the money, time and other resources necessary to pursue innovative solutions to the issues identified. Because in-house legal departments are seen as overhead, securing funding for innovative projects is difficult even in the most forward-thinking organizations. Leveraging operational buy-in or being able to identify the potential time or money saved through innovation reframes the legal group as a crucial component to corporate operations and fiscal responsibility.

As part of the buy-in process, it is critical to quantify the impact of the issue identified. In many cases there will be intangible impacts such as risk, reputation, stress and frustration, all of which are important to capture, along with the financial impact.

Assessing the financial impact often requires a best estimate based on assumptions. For example, to ascertain the organizational cost of redundant data entry, you would determine the number of hours it takes on an annual basis to enter the data multiplied by the hourly salary, including benefits and bonuses, of the individual(s) entering the data. While this may not seem particularly accurate, as long as your base assumptions are sound, it is an effective way of putting a number on operational inefficiencies.

Both the intangible and financial impacts will begin to frame the discussion around resources: is the impact something the organization must address? How much money does the project warrant? What, if any, other internal resources will we commit to the project (employee time, expertise, IT resources, etc.)? What, if any, external resources will we secure for the project (consultants, subject matter experts, etc.)?

With this solid foundation of resources, your project is set up for success. But where’s the technology?

Selecting Technology

In the work I do driving operational efficiencies, discussions around technology come after we have done a deep dive to uncover the root cause(s) of the problem and identify what success looks like from the stakeholders’ perspective. The rationale is that technology is a tool designed to support a process and produce a desired outcome. If you choose a technology to support a broken process and/or ill-defined outcomes, you are potentially exacerbating the operational issues you are seeking to solve.

Outlining the ideal process and outcomes allows us to better answer questions like “What is the best eDiscovery software? Should we use AI or blockchain? How do we automate to support our organizational needs?” The italicized portion at the end of the question is the part that really matters. I often see a deep dive into the bells and whistles of a given technology and hear salespeople extolling the virtues of what it can do with little consideration of what the technology specifically needs to do for the organization.

By turning the conventional approach on its head and starting with the process, we increase the odds of finding the right solution and the right technology that meet stakeholder and organizational needs. Ultimately, this approach exponentially increases the odds of successfully implementing your project and seeing sustained results for years to come.

Kyla Sandwith is a lawyer and legal operations consultant with De Nova Inc., with experience in corporate counsel and private practice settings. For questions on starting your next innovation project feel free to contact her at