Lawyers are very busy people. When you are a practising lawyer, you often don’t have time to breathe between all the client work you are doing. Often, you are so busy that you are eating lunch at your desk while simultaneously trying to draft an urgent document that needs to be presented in court.
The fact that lawyers are very busy people is a good thing, because the busier a law firm is, the more likely it is that its revenue is churning over. But some might say that this leads to a perfect disaster as far as innovation is concerned: lawyers are incentivised to be as busy as possible on client work, and don’t have any time to do anything else.
Getting lawyers to contribute to innovation activities — or do anything except client work — is a common challenge faced by innovation teams. In this article, I analyse some of the most common ways lawyers can be incentivised to spend more time on innovation activities. But first, let’s take a look at what I mean by the phrase “innovation activities”, and why it’s important for lawyers to get involved in them.
What are innovation activities?
This varies from firm to firm, but the most common examples of innovation activities I see are:
- Discovery sessions: At the onset of any legal technology project, I usually engage with lawyers and other users about their experiences in the relevant area. This feedback is pivotal because it addresses real-world challenges users encounter, making them feel integrated into the project rather than sidelined.
- Testing new solutions: As you progress in a technology project, it’s prudent to test prototypes or early software versions with end-users. This early feedback allows you to correct errors and make enhancements before a negative perception builds up throughout an organisation
- Documenting best practices: The value isn’t just in the technology, but also in its application. Progressive lawyers might want to invest time formulating best practices for their teams in how they use technology. These insights can be shared internally. For example, a document management system works better if people are using it in a consistent way and for consistent things. People don’t necessarily need help on how to push buttons, but they do need help on which buttons to push and when
- Using new solutions: While some tech will be used by everyone, emerging systems will often need to ripple through an organisation. For example, when introducing a transaction management solution, it might be that only a handful of early adopters use it in the first instance, while others continue to do things the old way. You need groups of people to be those early adopters.
- Evangelising technology: Peer endorsement of a new tool is often more compelling than any other form of communication. Advocates of novel work methodologies should be acknowledged for their efforts promoting new tools. A team training session on a new piece of tech is far more convincing coming from an actual user, than a central innovation team.
- Client-facing technology: In a law firm, clients might seek guidance on integrating technology within their legal teams. Law firms have a wealth of experience in this domain. Lawyers should be motivated to converse directly with clients, sharing insights on navigating change in their operations. At the same time, lawyers should be incentivised to spend time talking to clients about ways of working and how they can improve the way they work with clients.
#1 Appraisals and reputation
Anybody saying that it’s impossible to incentivise lawyers to spend any time on anything that’s not client work is wrong. I know this because when I was a lawyer, I was always eager to take up opportunities to do “extracurricular activities” such as the above.
One of the reasons for this was that I was already sharing top tips on using office productivity software, thus getting noticed by partners. People often approached me with challenges, seeking advice on working smarter, and this recognition soon became a regular feature in my appraisals. Others in my team realised that my IT literacy was viewed as a valuable asset and tried to emulate me. An often overlooked factor when devising incentives for lawyers is the powerful motivator of peer perception.
Hierarchies within firms can be instrumental here. I recall an article on law firm personality types published in the Financial Times a few years ago and a quote from it has always resonated with me. It described many lawyers as “insecure overachievers”. While not all fit this description, in my experience, many do. If the culture of your legal team or law firm can harness this sentiment, you can motivate lawyers to invest time in innovative activities if they are seen as valuable by senior lawyers. Of course, this depends on partners and other senior staff members valuing the individual contributions made to these endeavors. Addressing this challenge might very well merit its own article.
#2 Innovation time codes
Many law firms reach the inescapable conclusion that lawyers value, above all else, their timetable. For this reason, many organisations decide to set up a time code for lawyers to track innovation and other extracurricular hours. The crux of the matter may not be that these hours are being tracked, but how these hours are recognised: any innovation activity time code will invariably be considered secondary to a client time code that pertains to client work.
For instance, it's common for lawyers to have a minimum billable hour target to meet annually. Because lawyers often have time codes for non-billable tasks like admin, which don't count towards any bonus targets, it seems pointless to develop a time code for innovation activities if they aren't recognised elsewhere. A strategy many law firms employ is to create a monetary incentive if a certain threshold of innovation hours is met. This then becomes a discussion point in appraisals.
This approach differs from method #1, which emphasises the qualitative value of innovation activities. In contrast, judging innovation activities solely on hours logged might not guarantee that anything of value has been contributed. Instead of having a catch-all time code for innovation activities, it might be more practical to implement checks and balances surrounding the work being done. For example, someone could validate the time entries people submit. Alternatively, innovation teams could delineate specific tasks or initiatives for lawyers to tackle similar to those listed above.
Given that every minute a lawyer works must be documented, it seems logical for law firms to institute time codes for innovation tasks. However, I believe this is just the baseline. A more holistic framework is essential to get meaningful engagement.
# 3 Awards and prizes
Another way organisations try to incentivise lawyers to contribute to innovation and knowledge activities is through awarding prizes to the most active contributors. For instance, it's common for the knowledge management team to offer either a cash or cash-equivalent prize to lawyers who share the most valuable work products in a given month.
Another incentive might be to establish leaderboards, showcasing a visible list of top contributors.
I'm not convinced these methods always yield the desired outcomes. When I've discussed these incentives with users, the frequent feedback is either indifference, or a general perception that if you are winning these awards, you have too much time on your hands. However, it's undeniable that these types of "gamification" activities can help. What's crucial is to create a culture where continuous improvement is the norm and where everyone isn't always perceived as having their heads buried in their work.
#4 Removing Frustrations
While the above might represent direct methods to motivate individuals to engage, there's a subtler avenue to foster participation.
This approach hinges on pinpointing the specific day-to-day frustrations people encounter and identifying opportunities to enhance their work experiences. For example, junior lawyers might lament the manual tasks they face daily, such as processing comments, updating trackers, and managing their inboxes. These are tangible pain points that people confront and would eagerly eliminate from their routines. By addressing specific challenges that individuals wish resolved, the likelihood of securing their engagement amplifies.
The key takeaway here, and one that should underscore any technological endeavour with lawyers, is ensuring its purpose is clear and relatable. If individuals don't grasp its significance, they won't be inclined to invest their time.
#5 Business Imperative
A challenge many innovation teams face is that their activities are not always viewed as business critical. Legal organisations are not always analogous to car production lines, where efficiencies directly translate into increased profits. The reality is more nuanced. While the aforementioned strategies can be effective, to truly maximise their impact, there needs to be a top-down business driver explaining why individuals should allocate their time to innovation activities.
For instance, it’s beneficial to discuss appraisal targets centred on innovation hours, but these won’t hold weight unless backed by the organisation’s leadership. Too often, I observe some innovation initiatives undertaken merely because they seem like the right action. While this can occasionally be adequate, it’s not always the best approach. If there’s a genuine desire to instigate significant change and move beyond small, incremental progress, a deeper commitment is necessary.