Why are lawyers afraid of opportunity?

Why are lawyers afraid of opportunity? is a most welcome contribution to Dialogue by Dr. Floortje Blindenbach-Driessen.

When chatting with my lawyer friends, the only thing I hear is that all is sweet and well. “We have been practicing law this way for 100 years.” “Our clients hire us to address their mission-critical and complex problems, which require our in-depth expertise.” “Innovating is not something we do, lawyers are by nature risk averse and conservative.” Meanwhile, they are moving to smaller offices, further out of town, reducing their staff, and purchasing smaller lease cars. While that is just anecdotal and symptomatic evidence of tough times, there are several books that provide in-depth detail of the struggles of law firms, such as Remaking Law Firms: Why & How (American Bar Association 2016).  What I’m fascinated with is why lawyers struggle to acknowledge there is the opportunity and need for change?

Afraid of success?

In the current era of the fourth industrial revolution, there is so much opportunity to enhance the law service experience. For example, computers are much better and more consistent at searching for information and can work overnight.  This gives you, as a lawyer, the opportunity to focus on those matters that truly require ingenuity. Alternatively, you can service more clients, because a lot of the work can be done in half the time. Clients certainly welcome these higher value services, since they get more and higher quality work, at lower costs.

Of course, there is a caveat; taking advantage of the technology and other opportunities available requires you to do things differently. It requires changing your business model and key performance indicators, to give such a new service the chance to establish itself and prove its worth. However, why not set clear objectives and give these new opportunities a try?

Afraid of failure?

Perhaps few law firms give the available opportunities a try because they are too afraid to fail. Indeed, on average it takes 1,000 ideas to generate one successful commercial new product. This does not mean that as a law firm you get the opportunity to say “no” to 999 ideas and then place your bet on that one brilliant idea. That is unfortunately not how innovation works. It means that you must set out your course, define your strategic objectives, and then figure out how to make it happen. Which means doing a lot of background research about the problem and existing solutions, as well as interviewing many people that encounter the issue, including clients. Through this process of customer discovery, you can ensure you are developing a novel service solution that your clients truly want and need. In this process, you most likely learn that your initial gut feeling was off and that you need to adjust and fine tune your solution. Is that failure? No, that is part of the innovation process. As Thomas Edison said

I have not failed. I’ve just found 1,000 ways how not to create a light bulb.”

Afraid to start?

Could it be that starting is the problem? Do most lawyers even know where and how to start developing a new service? After all, how to innovate or develop a new service is not taught in law schools. Without precedent, stepping into unchartered territory is something lawyers tend to avoid instead of embrace. However, even if one knew how to innovate, it still could be scary to start. The first step implies a commitment and sets expectations to deliver.

Where to start?

Often clients ask me, why can we not just copy the processes of an innovative firm like Google? To be honest, that is a very bad idea. Their innovative processes, no matter how successful, are not relevant for law firms. No law firm can afford to spend $100 million per year on innovation or has billions of customers to offset the cost of innovation failures such as Google Glass and many others.

Quite the contrary, to be a successful innovator in the professional services requires a very effective and efficient execution of the innovation efforts. Without diligence and discipline, it is very difficult to generate a positive overall return of investment. Among others, because of the relatively small scale, any new service can be applied and the labor intensity of the process. After all, law entails professional services, not products.

The good news is that there are proven innovation processes for professional service firms that yield successful outcomes and software to support these processes, such as our O4I Workbooks. O4I Workbooks enable professionals service firms such as law firms to create, optimize and manage a pipeline of new service initiatives. The educational component helps guide lawyers through the innovation process step-by-step, while the analytics that result from this process enable management to easily identify the best teams and opportunities with the highest likelihood of success.

A use case example in healthcare – an industry that has equal troubles in renewing their service models – is provided below, to give a more concrete example of what a structured approach to new service development actually entails:

Innovations in Telemedicine Course

In July 2016, 14 participants started a six-week online Innovations in Telemedicine summer course at the George Washington University, facilitated by an online education and support platform.

The participants were all busy professionals; four were practicing clinicians.

Teams are the key to success when bringing ideas to practice. Forming and working in such multidisciplinary innovation teams is often troublesome and time-consuming. It is stressful to select suitable teammates, challenging to find common ground, and difficult to make all pull their weight in a process already fraught with uncertainty. The platform therefore also facilitated team formation. These teams would later be qualified by several participants as the “best team I ever worked in.”

The online education platform guided the teams through the ideation process. Exercises kept them focused on the task at hand and weekly progress reports kept the teams on track. These reports also enabled the teams to identify and strengthen weak areas.

By the end of six weeks, four testable concepts were presented, with each concept substantiated by data. The proposals produced in the process, described the opportunity and outline next steps.

Two of the four teams concluded based on the data gathered and the insights learned, that further pursuing their concept would not be worth the time and effort.

The analytics provided insights in team learning, a factor that helps to predict the likelihood of success for the continuing teams. 

Perhaps most importantly, by streamlining the ideation process the participants saved time, while aligned tasks and motivated team members helped them to be successful in exploring their innovation endeavors.


So, why do lawyers struggle to take advantage of the current era full of opportunities? Why do they prefer to pretend the status quo is just fine, even if it clearly is not? What is needed to enable them to become innovators and take advantage of all of the many opportunities that are out there?


Dr. Blindenbach-Driessen is passionate about innovation management and new service development in the professional services, which led her to start Organizing for Innovation LLC (www.organizing4innovation.com). She teaches courses related to innovation management and strategy implementation for executive education programs around the globe. Her research focuses on the innovation challenges and opportunities of professional service organizations. Her work has appeared in academic journals such as Research Policy, IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, and the Journal of Product Innovation Management.

Dr. Blindenbach-Driessen championed many innovation projects while working for the Fluor Corporation and for Children’s National Medical Center. She coached professionals in their innovation endeavors in engineering firms (Tauw and Tebodin), system integrators (Fluor, CGI), consultancies (Deloitte, PWC, and IG&H), law firms (Baker&McKenzie, Loyens and Loeff, Conway), research centers (Barco and NXP), health care (Children’s National Medical Center, Mediq), and entrepreneurship programs (NSF I-Corps, DC I-corps and Accelerate DC).


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Mike O\'Horo

I’ll offer two bases for resistance:
1) 90th-percentile scores for Autonomy and Skepticism, and 30th-percentile score for Resilience. 2) The universal condition of Unconscious Incompetence, i.e., they don’t know what they don’t know. One central characteristic of that stage is unjustified overconfidence in one’s innate ability to perform, caused by ignorance of what it actually takes to perform. This isn’t unique to lawyers, but is what we all face with any new concept or skill. This precludes recognizing a deficiency. No deficiency, no motivation for change. So far, the growing deficiency in demand feels far off and abstract to many lawyers, who may not have experienced it personally to a sufficient degree to matter. If you’re making $800k/year, and it drops to $750k, that’s hardly an OMG disaster. As one wag put it, “It’s hard to convince a room full of millionaires that their business model is broken.”

George Beaton

Mike, the ‘wag’ is David Maister. This is one of my favorite Maisterisms. Perhaps we should start an anthology of his aphorisms?

Mike O\'Horo

Yeah, that sounds like David. I saw a pithy expression yesterday in Jamie Pennington’s blog: “Your email Inbox isn’t your To-Do list. It’s someone else’s To-Do list for you.”

Floortje Blindenbach

I agree that if you make $1 million per year, you are doing something worthwhile, so why change? However, this dialogue wouldn’t exist if all lawyers would be making over $1 million per year and have growing practices. For all not-that-well-paid lawyers there are plenty of opportunities to increase their revenues and profitability, if they learn how to embrace the opportunities provided by collaboration, automation, artificial intelligence etc.. That is, learning how to vet, develop, and implement new business opportunities. Since lawyers are smart people, why it is so difficult to learn these skills? Perhaps because you learn these skills by doing, instead of learning them before doing?

Mike O\'Horo

The millionaires that Maister refers to are the firm leaders who are making the strategy and operating decisions. In a big firm, they’re all making $1 million or more. In smaller firms, whatever the income number, it’s more than most ever thought they’d earn practicing law. They have little incentive to change because, for them, things are working must fine. This is exacerbated when those leaders are within shouting distance of retirement, in which case they’re motivated to maximize their earnings now, and kick the reinvention can down the road to their successors. As for the other lawyers you ask about, it’s not that skills are so hard to learn. They’re not. But the lawyer-personality characteristics I cited above erect powerful barriers to them doing so. Yes, you learn by doing, but not exclusively. You need to gain an understanding and contextual grasp before you can even attempt the doing. To use a sports metaphor, when you only get to play in the game for a few minutes each time, you can’t afford to learn during the game. You have to learn and improve your skills in training camp, and at practice. You can’t afford to be in the game… Read more »

Floortje Blindenbach

So perhaps it’s time to start seeking another entry point? Are we beating a dead horse, when there is no awareness of the problem, no urgency to change, and no personal impact until retirement. Yet, if you look at a technology like artificial intelligence, there is certainly an appetite for adoption, at least amongst some parts of the legal services supply chain: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/19/technology/lawyers-artificial-intelligence.html. By putting some structure and education behind the adoption and development process, we can make sure that clients receive higher value solutions, concepts are developed faster, and lawyers face less risk in the development. Who doesn’t want to make more money, while doing less, and with less risk involved?

Mike O\'Horo

It’s not that you need a different entry point, but a different approach. Right now, you’re describing an opportunity-based approach. People like to talk about opportunities, but few pursue them. I’d encourage a problem-based approach. We only make the decisions that we have to make. All others get deferred until their recognized consequences become sufficiently acute that it becomes an imperative. Identify a specific business problem that has concrete consequences that, once fully defined and appreciated, require the stakeholders to conclude that those consequences (the cost of doing nothing) are unacceptable and that they’re obligated to take action. Only then will they have an appetite for a better way to inform the nature of that action decision and achieve it expeditiously.
First comes “We must take action.” Then you can invest in which action might be optimal.

George Beaton

Mike/Floor, to me the issue is the lack of sufficient current and expected pain in the near future, i.e. the “there’s no burning platform”, to which so many make reference. Given the long lead times involved, for many (most?) firms it’s going to be a case of too little, too late. But then, if you plan to retire in a few years, does it matter? Recently a 50-something managing partner said to me, referring to himself and his cohort of senior partners in the firm: “We rather like our million dollars and plan to keep earning them for the next few years; we’re not about to rock our boat.” QED