As Day One of the Law Firm Leaders Forum came to a close, Dr. Heidi Gardner, lecturer on law and distinguished fellow, Center on the Legal Profession, Harvard Law School, led an introspective panel on how successful firms innovate and change in the face of an uncertain future.

Lucy Endel Bassli, assistant general counsel, Legal & Corporate Affairs, Microsoft Corporation, looked back at her time working for Microsoft as outside counsel on procurement contracts. When she was eventually brought inside by the company do the work, she knew she wanted to bring a similar “LPO”-style model of doing business with her. What’s more, the streamlined approach informed how she chose to work with her outside legal firm.

Jay Hull, chief innovation partner, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, which works with Bassli now, noted that this has kept attorneys engaged. The goal was to create a structure that aligns with client demands, but also responds to what clients can do to streamline their processes.

“We don’t claim what we are doing is disruptive innovation, it’s sustained innovation,” Hull noted. He was clear to add that this approach was spurred by data, which Gardner echoed.

“You are sitting on a data goldmine…that you can use to understand your own organization,” she said.

Tim Mohan, chief executive partner, Chapman and Cutler LLP, noted that 15 years ago, his firm saw competitors being merged out of existence or closing their doors outright. Recognizing that their most successful clients were in financial services, the firm used that to inform their strategy of fixed fees and leveraging technology, like contract drafting automation tools, in ways that made sense to discriminating clients.

While words like “technology” and “innovation” have become buzzwords, Bassli was quick to point out that you can’t force firms to tackle these strategies if it doesn’t make sense for them. “It’s like telling a kid, ‘Be creative!'”

“Most lawyers don’t innovate,” noted Hugh Verrier, chairman, White & Case LLP. He added that the law firm of the future will be limited to high-end, value-added work. “How do you lead the flock to higher ground when you know the flood is coming?” Verrier noted that his firm was able to implement an innovative model over a four year period, but that it was challenging. He said some firms take bold steps because they have to in order to survive, but many others don’t care to.

Gardner asked the panel to reflect on what it takes to drive innovation and build a “burning platform.”

“What lights consensus is client demand,” Mohan stated plainly.

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