Top 10 Reasons Law Firms Resist Innovation

This article was published as “Why Do Law Firms Resist Innovation? 10 Reasons” in Law Practice, December 2006. Law Practice is the magazine of the ABA Law Practice Management Section.

Abstract: Innovating in law firms is hard. Here’s a tongue-in-cheek look at the top 10 reasons why.

It’s not just your imagination, innovating in the legal market is hard. What passes for a radical change in a law practice – new training program, some alternative billing, an extranet – is old hat in other markets.

Over two decades in the legal market, I’ve seen lawyers resist most innovation.

For example, it wasn’t all that long ago that buying laptops for the firm’s lawyers or sending e-mail newsletters to clients conjured up a parade of horrors in law firms. To this day, something as simple as preparing a spreadsheet to outline the budget and main activities for a client matter still elicits blank stares from most partners.

As another telling example, a few years ago I suggested a firm support lawyers working at home a couple of days per week. “No, the culture requires we all work in the same place,” came the reply. Never mind that lawyers rarely visit adjacent floors (much less go to the lobby and switch elevator banks). Never mind that if your team is in another city, they won’t even know if you’re in the office or at home. Today corporate America embraces working virtually, to save money, to foster flexibility and to fundamentally redesign space for collaboration. But for law firms, hey, what’s more important—myths or real data?

So, why do lawyers resist innovation? Many of you will disagree with me (and I actually hope you can prove me wrong), but here are the top reasons I’ve observed, accompanied by the typical things lawyers say (not necessarily out loud) to explain their resistance to change.

  1. Doing nothing is better than doing something. My firm evaluates me by my billings and business generation, not by my new ideas. Worse, if I did something new that lost money, I’d be harshly criticized. It’s one thing to lose money if a new branch office or lateral hire does not work out. But it’s quite another to lose it on a concept that hasn’t been tried before.
  2. What we’re doing now is right, so why consider alternatives? I know, for example, that contract lawyers can accurately review gigabytes of e-discovery data working 70 hours a week for months, all with little supervision or statistical controls. So why bother thinking about other approaches like concept searching? What I’m doing ain’t broke, so it don’t need fixin’.
  3. Others might realize I don’t know everything. Doing something new might mean learning things I don’t already know. Why would I want to do that and reveal what could be perceived as a weakness in my knowledge? Plus, I might have to rely more on my staff. Making copies is one thing, but you want me to rely on non-lawyers for something really important?
  4. It’s easier to shoot down ideas than to calculate how they will help. I get paid to spot problems and avoid risks, not to take risks. My place is to figure out the one reason in a bazillion something will fail, not to assess its potential benefits.
  5. Innovating would require accepting client feedback. To get new ideas, I might need to really talk to my clients. Or, to test out a new idea, I’d have to run it by them. That makes me uncomfortable, especially since talking to my clients about something outside the scope of substantive legal matters might call my expertise into judgment.
  6. I might have to manage or lead. Change requires leadership and management. I can barely manage my associates and my client matters—and you want me to manage something else?
  7. My corporate clients object whenever I try something new. I read articles about how many general counsels are unhappy with their outside counsel and want to see innovations in law firms. But when they have a big problem, the GCs only care about the outcome. In fact, they often shoot down proposed new approaches. If I can’t convince my clients to innovate, I certainly can’t convince my partners.
  8. I’m already making a boatload. I get paid plenty for billing hours and bringing in business as it is. Why bother with innovation when life (well, at least income) is already good?
  9. I remember when so-and-so tried something like that 15 years ago and it didn’t work. If it didn’t work then, we shouldn’t try it today. “Failing fast” might work in tech start-ups and consumer goods, but here, if something doesn’t work the first time out, it’s just a failure.
  10. And, finally, the top reason of them all … Who else did you say is doing that? Be first out of the gate? Are you nuts? Maybe fourth or fifth in a pinch, but I’d prefer to see how the first 20 firms do. Then it might be safe.