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Dr. Floor Blindenbach-Driessen on How to Structure Private Sector Legal Innovation

Dr. Floor Blindenbach-Driessen

Law 2030 Podcast - Season 2 | Episode 3

Dr.Floor Blindenbach-Driessen Dr. Floor Blindenbach-Driessen is CEO of Organizing4Innovation. Drawing from her background in chemical engineering, Floor works with professional services firms, including law firms, to develop structured processes for developing and measuring the viability of innovation efforts. Floor has researched law firm innovation efforts, and she’s drawn conclusions about how firms can better structure and manage their innovation projects.

On this episode, Floor shares her thoughts on how leaders in legal can shift their mindset around innovation, and why many of these innovation efforts in law firms fail.

Episode Mentions:

Organization4Innovation

ILTAON

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Our Key Takeaways From This Episode

Innovation sounds like a lot of fun, but we don’t just innovate for the sake of innovating.

In a law firm context, firms do it to maintain and grow profitability.

Innovation isn’t just a buzzword or a fad.

It’s an actual process that can be managed, evaluated, and which provides real learning opportunities for firms.

Innovation isn’t as impactful as it could be in a firm environment because innovation is always important, but it’s never urgent.

And urgent matters always take precedence. By carving out time for innovation, including using non-billable attorney time, firms can make better use of their resources to drive innovation that will strengthen their business.

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Full Episode Transcript

Jennifer: Floor, what makes you optimistic about the future?

Floor: A lot of things. I think if you’re in the profession of innovation, you need to be optimistic. So, any team that comes to me, I always believe they can make it. That’s what I set out as a girl, and that’s why I started studying chemical engineering, mostly because I wanted to make the world greener. And I still will, if I cannot only make it greener, but also more just in the process, that would be awesome.

Jennifer: Hi everyone. I’m Jennifer Leonard, Chief Innovation Officer at the University of Pennsylvania, Carey Law School. As an alum of the law school who practiced law for a decade in private sector and government practices, I realized there are so many ways we lawyers can better serve our clients. And now through the Future of the Profession Initiative, my colleagues and I focus all our energy on thinking about how to do just that. Our profession is full of bright, engaged lawyers working at the highest levels, but we frustrate many of those we want to serve because of the way we structured the practice of law in our legal systems. And students coming to law school today need new skills that turbocharge their legal education so that they can navigate the dynamic landscape that lies ahead.

To develop fresh approaches to the way we educate lawyers and serve our clients, we need to open up the conversation. So, on this podcast, we’ll hear from experts working to change the legal profession and leaders who’ve developed creative solutions to complex problems in other fields. We’ll also discuss how the law school is producing the next generation of lawyers, a generation that will create new ways to put the people they serve at the center of everything they do. There’s so much to do, so let’s get started

Today, I’m excited to welcome Floor Blindenbach-Driessen. Floor is CEO of Organizing4Innovation. Drawing from her background in chemical engineering, Floor works with professional services firms, including law firms, to develop structured processes for developing and measuring the viability of innovation efforts.

Floor’s researched law firm innovation efforts, and she’s drawn conclusions about how firms can better structure and manage their innovation projects. She joins us today to share her thoughts on how leaders in legal can shift their mindset around innovation, and why many of these innovation efforts in law firms fail. Here’s my conversation with Floor Blindenbach-Driessen. Welcome, Floor, to the podcast.

Floor: Thank you, Jennifer, for having me.

Jennifer: We’re talking today all about perspective and about bringing a new lens around innovation into a profession where we are very new to innovation, really. Even though we’re really new to it, we talk about it now all the time. And sometimes when I’m out doing programs or events and we start talking about innovation, what I hear from people is, I don’t want to hear about innovation anymore, or I hate the word innovation. It’s just a buzzword, just a cliche. People like to say it to sound like they’re doing something new when they’re doing the same old thing. So, you say, though, that innovation is not a cliche, that it is actually something that can be managed in a structured process around designing new solutions to problems. Tell me more about that.

Floor: Well, it’s interesting that you say that the law, like innovation is new. So indeed, for me, innovation is a process and a mindset. And I don’t think it’s really new to the law, I think there’s just a new aspect to it that makes it feel really new. To go back to the basics, innovation is about, for a firm, to keep maintain its profitability there’s nothing new under the sun there and that’s what law firms have done for ages. What is different is that traditionally, if a law firm innovates or if someone keeps on top of their profession, they’ve only looked at the legal aspect of it to keep up with the laws.

And they never had to think about the business model or how they deliver their services, and I think that is new for the profession. And if you want to call that innovation, fair, but I think both it’s interrelated, you can’t see one without the other. And that’s I think the mindset that you need to have, it’s not just keeping up with all the new laws that come out and all the new regulations, but it’s also keeping up with the latest technologies and the latest business models in how you deliver your services. And for that, you need a process because you can have all these ideas and especially on technologies, if you go to legal tech, there’s so much new stuff that you can try out.

So, how do you know what is relevant for your practice? And for that, you need a process in which you can quickly explore if a new technology, for instance, or a new business model or a new opportunity is worth implementing in your practice, will that help you, will that help your clients? And there’s just a very structured process to that, to validate the needs, come up with a solution, test the solution, scale the solution and that’s what we call innovation. And that’s a process that can be managed.

Jennifer: And I think you make such great points. In fact, our Dean often says that one of the most innovative instruments of our era is the US constitution, and that lawyers have been innovating for a very long time. And to your point, every practicing attorney is focused on an area of law that changes constantly with new regulations, statutes, case law, all those kinds of things, and even emerging practice areas that didn’t exist five years ago. But what we’re thinking about today, when we’re talking about innovation as a separate set of innovation projects that relate to the business model, which as you note has been a very durable and stubborn business model in the private sector and one that lawyers have not had to think about that much.

It is a standard across big law firms around the globe and certainly in the US. So, you talked a little bit about it being a mindset around innovation. Tell me a little bit more about how you think about lawyers in the delivery of legal services needing to adjust their mindset to be more innovative, not with the law, but with the actual provision of services and the way that they run their businesses?

Floor: Well, it starts with, what does the client need? In the end, especially if you’re looking like in the business context, even like today, I had a conversation with a client, they wanted to create a portal. And they said, “So we want the documents.” I said, “What does your client want to do?” Well, they want to create documents faster. I said, “Honestly, are you telling me that your client wants to create documents?” And then there was a little pause because they realized too, that’s not what the client want to do. They want to identify, prioritize, mitigate, and address potential legal issues and do it as fast as possible.

If you could do that by voice, if you could do that by wishing it away, whatever the formats and still nowadays it’s often on paper. But the question is, is that really the best format for lawyers moving forward with all the different options that we have? So, I think that’s the mindset, lawyers will need to adopt. It’s no longer sufficient to be on top of all the litigation and everything you mentioned. It’s also being on top of how do you solve the problems for your clients?

Jennifer: And it sounds to me too, I love that example, Floor, because getting documents done more quickly is what a lawyer would think of, as what the client wants, because the lawyer’s working on the documents. So, that’s what she’s focused on and that’s what traditionally she has been doing for the clients. But is that assumption or that solution skipping too far ahead in the process, to your point? How do you back up and help lawyers understand how to gather information from their clients so that they’re solving for the right problem, and they’re understanding what the client needs before jumping to the solution?

Floor: Well, it is also having a conversation with your clients. And it has been fascinating to see… So, we have a solution where we take clients through, we call it your Innovation Project Manager, but we really track how teams go through the process. And especially in law firms, we saw that where there was a pause in their process is when we send them out to ask their clients what they want. And I was a bit stunned to be honest, how difficult it is for a lawyer to ask their clients what they want or need or looking for.

They’re so afraid to go into that conversation for sometimes very valid reasons. And I think sometimes also, perhaps not so valid reasons and there COVID does not help because I think it is much more difficult to ask that over Zoom call, it’s more formal. It’s great, if you can have these more informal conversations and ask what they, and how do you say it. Never asked what they want, because then you’ll get a whole wish list, that you then have to act on. So, the better conversation with your clients is to first ask, what goes really well? Just to put it in a positive mode and then ask them, so what are some challenges?

So, focus on the problems they’re having and then in your mind, you can think about like, how can I solve this? How can I solve this better? How can I help the client address this without having to promise any solutions or did you do anything about it, just listen to them.

Jennifer: And I think the point that you made about lawyers being afraid to have this conversation is true because I’ve heard it from lawyers. And what I’ve heard from them is that it presents a weakness to the client, that you’re being vulnerable to the client and conceding that you don’t know the answers and the clients are coming to you for confidence, and reliability, and your established reputation. So, what do you think are some of the fears that lawyers have and how would you mitigate those fears? How would you help lawyers think differently about those conversations?

Floor: Well, this has been interesting there, the role that COVID plays because especially last year around this time, it was clear nobody knew. So, this was for the first time I heard from lawyers literally say like, “Wow, I felt comfortable going out to the client and ask what they really needed. And these conversations were so insightful.” So, at the moment, I think fear is really in the way. It takes some practice; I’m not going to lie. I’ve had many, many conversations for our own business, with our own clients, and it’s not always easy. And for me, what was key learning moments that after a conversation I felt really bad about while we had the conversation, because I just asked a few questions, and my client was literally talking 80% of the time.

And it was like, “Well, where is this going to end?” Till at the end of the conversation, she asked “Floor, this was such a great conversation. I learned so much from you. I would love to have these conversations more regularly,” which really made me scratch my head. It was like, “I didn’t say a thing.” I didn’t say it of course, but I was thinking back in my mind. But from that I learned, I just asked a few probing questions which made her think about her processes, which then she considered as very, very valuable. So, it’s that kind of conversation where you just are listening to the client, what are their needs?

Jennifer: You were giving her the opportunity to process and externalize and the space to do that, and I could see that being very helpful. It’s like anything else in your professional world, having the ability to carve out some time and space really is insightful for the person exploring those topics.

Floor: Yeah. So, it’s just a different conversation you have, and it’s something that I think can be taught and learned to have these conversations, because normally you feel that if you are the provider, you have to talk 80% of the conversation because you need to lead it. You need to show that you have the wisdom, but there are different ways to have that conversation with your clients. And I think there’s a time for both types of conversations.

Jennifer: So, Floor, I would love to know a little bit about some of the structural impediments in the law firm business model that make it very challenging to innovate in a law firm. And some of the things that I’m thinking about are the billable hour, the annual budgeting process, the dichotomy between the dreaded use of the words, lawyer and non-lawyer within a law firm and siloed practice groups. What are some of the things that stand out to you as the main reasons why law firms struggle around innovation?

Floor: Let me start, like in very general, innovation is a challenge. It’s really easy to spend on innovation, but it’s really difficult to create a financial return. And for law firms that holds perhaps even more than for the Apples and Amazons of this world, because even if you come up with a fantastic say client portal or whatever technology solution, and you can serve a thousand clients, that’s it, a thousand clients. You’ll never have the billion-dollar markets that some product companies can reach.

That means that you need to innovate very, very efficiently and very effectively, you can’t spend a lot of money on it. And so, in that sense, the billable or the focus on hours is a blessing and a curse. It is a curse in the sense that law firms are very, very wise and practical in anything that’s billable. They focused to the last minute. And innovation is really expensive in terms of hours, but that’s also the good news because in most law firms, the expenses of innovation are tip in hours.

If you look into it a bit further, but you also see that no one is 100% billable, perhaps a paralegal somewhere deep in the organization. But at the managing partner level, or even your senior associates, they’re never 100% billable all the time. So, what happens in that un-billable time, and I’ve always been surprised, and it’s not only in law firms, it’s also in engineering firms, consultancies, hospitals, because we serve more than just the legal profession. As structured and as disciplined lawyers are about their billable hours, as unstructured and undisciplined, they are about all the rest. There’s no structure to it. It goes into one big buckets of CLE, business development.

Jennifer: And that’s all segmented as your un-billable time, but it’s not strategically deployed in your opinion?

Floor: No. And so I think it’s fair to assume for many it’s about 10% of their time, think about how many hours that are? And I’m not saying that all of that can be spent on innovation, but if you just spend 1% of innovation, or if you just look at the training hours, there’s a lot of time lawyers spend in training. And most of that is to keep up with the current changes in law, fair enough. But if some of that could be directed to innovation efforts and not only looking at the law, but also how you deliver the law. You learn both at the same time, because if you let them, like, I would say more of a senior associate probably than a junior associate.

But if you let them explore how a piece of the law could be surfaced in a portal, they will learn a lot about the client’s they serve, how the business works, about that particular area of the law because to productize it, that requires an in-depth knowledge of the field. So, it’s a fantastic learning opportunity. So, there are many hours in a law firm, in the day of any professional, in their working hours that can be structured in a way that it’s more productive and can be added up to innovation outcomes.

Jennifer: Floor, can you talk a little bit about in addition to the billable hour and its pros and cons, some of the dynamics created by the way that law firms run their budgets?

Floor: Well, what is really problematic, what we see is annual budgeting. So, it’s not uncommon to, and depending on where you are on the globe, where do you have your budgeting like in December or January or March, but somewhere in the timeframe, all proposals need to come forward and say, okay, we have 40 ideas that we’re going to invest in. And then what happens throughout the year, eight of those never got off the ground because there was no time, or they are no longer relevant. And at the end of the year 12 perhaps made it into something, that means 18 disappear from the radar screen.

And I’ve got these numbers because we got these out of interviews from our study, and that’s a problem. For numerous reasons, innovation projects are inherently uncertain. So, when you start, you don’t know what there’ll be the outcome, even though it seems like the holy grail of when you innovate that’s how many innovation projects are evaluated in this business cycle, how much gold will that return? Well, that’s basically fantasies that the person that submitted the idea came up with, so the person with most clout or the biggest mouth or the clearest stories, their product usually gets selected, which is already a really bad model.

But then the ship sails and no one keeps track. So, their budgets have been approved and then you hope for the best at the end of the year. Well, that’s not innovation management. There is nothing to manage about that. And it also means that if, like last year, when COVID hit in March, there’s no budgets because all the budgets were already given. So, any idea that comes in June, you can’t execute because there’s no budget.

Jennifer: Right. And your point resonates with me about the way that projects are selected. The organizational dynamics and the loudest person in the room, or the most powerful partner in the room has an idea and that’s the one that gets legs. But it goes back to your earlier point about the documents, how do we know that that is actually the one that we should be pursuing? And I read in your research that law firms consistently overestimate the success rates of their innovation projects. Can you talk a little bit about that and why law firms should be more forgiving of the outcomes of their innovation projects?

Floor: Yeah. No, that was an interesting find. Last year, at ILTAON, we did a poll and even to my surprise, so we asked, “How many budgets was in the shoestring session, innovating on the shoestring budget?” And we asked like, “How many projects did you undertake? How many were on a shoestring budget and how many were successful?” And if you did the math, it was like 80 to 90% success rate. Well, if you look at any other industry, innovation success rates are typically around 10, 25%. So, either law firms knew something that no one else knew, or there was something really wrong in the perception.

And at the moment we were doing some research into how innovation is managed in law firms. So, I just started asking like, “So how many projects do you start and how many products do you finish?” And that’s when we learned that these numbers were very different and what really happens most of the time is that people look back. So, you’re probably familiar with like, well, you remember the bias. So, they only remember the things that got implemented and of those 80% are successful, which is fantastic. But to get there, you typically have 10 times more projects to start off with and they’re conveniently forgotten.

So that’s how you get them to like, at the beginning of the year, 40 projects were approved. Eight, never were launched, 12 were implemented. And no one talks about the 18 projects that leaves 16 projects, at least there somewhere in the middle. Well, from an innovation perspective, and if you want to create a financial return, you have to cover for all these hours. And what we’ve also seen when we looked at the cost of innovation, as I mentioned, in a law firm, you need to innovate very effectively if you want to get the financial return. Where do law firms waste a lot of money, is that they invest too much in too many projects.

So, they will explore 10 projects and let them run way too long without stopping them. Instead of in a very disciplined way, explore 10 things, give it each 10 hours. Select from those, and usually it’s the self-selection. The top five, there seems to be a there, there. You invest in all our 20 to 30 hours to create a business case for that. And then you have rock solid projects to invest in, and you have very different math at the end. So, then you have like two or three projects that come out of there, but a few can be reasonable that there will be an outcome. But what now happens all 10 get a “Yes”, and at the end of the year, you hope that one will deliver.

Jennifer: And I think it’s an interesting component of lawyer culture and training too, is the need to understand that failure is expected in the majority of innovation projects, because you’re trying them out by design and experimenting and seeing what works and lawyers are not trained or comfortable, I think for the most part, with the idea of failing and after having invested anything into a project. So how do you help lawyers think about the need to encourage failure or encourage learning from dead ends as you’ve talked about it?

Floor: I love that you rephrased yourself because I was just saying like, do you really think that lawyer’s ever can fail? Is fail fast, is that a reasonable expectation that you can have from a lawyer?

Jennifer: No. I would say it would be a big lift. So maybe reframing it as you do to a learning process about the dead ends and the value in the dead ends. So, could you tell me about that?

Floor: Yeah. So, I think fail fast to succeed sooner is just something that you can do that as a law firm. You can’t say to your clients, oops, sorry, this failed You have to pay millions, or worst case go to jail, whatever the consequences would be. That’s not an option, but that’s also not a fail fast to succeed sooner is about, I think it’s a very misunderstood term. Basically, it’s about learn fast and all lawyers are smart people. So, to learn fast whether something is an opportunity or not, and for that, you don’t need to bring it all the way through practice.

So, for instance, we have one of our teams, they looked in AI. They went to one of these conferences. They saw AI software for the patent practice. And it was really wild about it, like, “Wow, I’m going to chance my practice.” But within two weeks, looking at really what the software could do, where his practice was struggling, there was a huge mismatch. Because there’s what his clients were asking him to do and there’s what the software could do. And there were the market polls worth three totally different things. So, he realized that with the current state of the art of AI in patent software, it wouldn’t help him change his practice.

So, within two weeks we could say like, “Okay, this is not a project that’s worth pursuing further.” But he said too, he was very grateful. He said “Floor, I learned a lot. I also now know, like I will keep an eye on all the developments in this sphere and what the vendors are coming up with. Because I know when they will be ready, I will be ready.” And he was just perfectly fine with parking it because he also realized that if he wants to implement the current solutions, it would be a totally different practice. And he didn’t want to go there.

Jennifer: I know you have written about how innovation projects are driven within law firms through the IT department or the tech team. And that seems to me to be a really complicated dynamic among lawyers who are not really trained to identify how to align technology solutions with their legal service delivery. Just being inundated with new vendors and new technology all the time, and then being disconnected from the team in your organization that is actually executing on this technology. How do you bring together that conversation to be more integrated among the IT team, the lawyers and the vendors? And how do firms assess the quality of the tech itself, to be sure that they don’t end up in the situation that you’re referring to with this lawyer, where they invest in technology and then it’s completely misaligned with the use with their clients?

Floor: Well, to be clear, this lawyer didn’t invest in the technology. Again, it started with the problem and it starts in, what is it that you want to do? Having, how do you say this, expecting your IT department to come up with the latest technologies and introduce them to you, I have not seen that work. And one of the findings in our research on innovation, in managing innovation in law firms, every single successful project if you ask like attributes, there is a managing partner or a senior someone in the firm driving the project because you need a practical experience. It goes back to the very beginning what I said, what innovation is. Innovation is about the profitability and the growth and the sustaining of your current offerings. So how can someone in IT help a lawyer keep their practice up to date? They can’t.

So, the onus is on the partners themselves and associates if they want to build their own practice out, they need to be on top also of the technology. They need to know what in their field is the state of the art, not only on the content side, but also the delivery side and what kind of tools would be really useful. Where an IT department can help them once they have expressed and say like, “Hey, this is really time consuming.” Then an IT department probably has a knowledge of like, hey, in similar fields, or we know these kinds of AI solutions, or an auto practice group is already this. So, then it becomes like a dialogue. They can bring solutions, but it is up to the legal professionals to identify where is the need?

What is the client’s need? What does the practice group need? Where are shortcomings in the process? And then make it acceptable to adjust it. And in that case, maybe interesting, and another firm that was building a toolkit for paralegals. And we had also fantastic conversations with that team around truly the need, because we discussed like in a workflow, where would this paralegal pick up on new tools? And we get earlier and earlier in that story by asking paralegals, it was clear, there was no incentive for them to pick up on new technology because they would have to stick out.

First, they needed to identify that there was a repetitive process that perhaps technology could do faster, that already asked for a lot of brainpowers. Then they needed to realize that for that particular matter, and usually by the time they get the request, they’re already on a time pressure that there may be a technology they need to try out. So, they can go to their managing partner or other associates, the lead on the matter to say like, “Okay, there may be a technology that can help me with this. Is it okay for me to test it out?” Well, mind you, if it goes well, then the clients or the person leading the matter they get the credit.

If it goes wrong, the paralegal will be punished for trying something new. So, there’s no incentive for them to try anything new on an ongoing matter. So, if you want, you can build all the toolkits in the world, but if you don’t incentivize them, before a matter starts, to start using it or making it easier for them to adopt new technologies on a matter, they won’t try anything new because the incentives are not aligned. So, I think that’s also why is it important to have innovation as a process. Because we drive deep, deep to a core understanding what is the problem you’re trying to solve?

And we also really focus, thanks to design thinking, on the people in the process. Because in the end, it’s not organizations that take decisions, is not clients are more forced to buy, it’s people. It’s people delivering the service. It’s people that buy the service. It’s people that take the decisions. It’s people that take the actions. So don’t forget that human aspect. And I think that’s where you put a lot of attention in your programs too, as well.

Jennifer: Absolutely. And the humans are the most complicating factor in all of this, and the incentive alignment is key to changing behavior. And it also strikes me that what you’re talking about is a leadership question and needing the leaders in your organization to understand innovation as a process, to value it and to create an environment in which everyone in the organization, or at least the people who are interested in participating feel comfortable and understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, which is an enormous leadership challenge. At the same time, you have said that really strong innovation projects can be most effective at the practice group level. So where in the law firm, or which attorneys would you think would be the ones that really need to be the driving forces behind making these efforts part of your firm culture?

Floor: I think at the top, you can say, like, if we want to be an innovative law firm that practice is state of the art and is known as a top-notch firm, you need to expect your lawyers to engage in innovation projects. As we know, not all of them will be successful, but you can measure how many are initiated and how many lead to lessons learned and how many lead to actual outcomes. You can also demand for the practice groups that you see flatten, like, look back, when was the last time they initiated the innovation project?

But what often happens is the moment that the practice group starts to flatten in profitability and revenues, they put so much pressure that the only thing they can do is try to run faster the way they have already been running, instead of giving them a little bit of space. Or first of all, identifying sooner when they’re flattening and right when they’re starting to flatten, then invest in changing how they deliver services. And that’s perhaps interesting where law, I think can learn from other professions, for instance, at the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Woods, he started his innovation initiative there. They looked at their least profitable practice group, which in their case was dermatology.

They worked with that department, turn it around, did a whole design thinking exercise and turned into one of the most profitable areas. And then thereafter, they started a new one, and that’s one of the very few innovation groups that I know of that is actually revenue generating for the Mayo Clinic or for any firm. In most organizations just because it’s not organized very well, innovation is a cost, and it shouldn’t be.

Jennifer: Yeah. I think that, that’s a great point too. It’s another place where the law firm business model can really be challenging because you’re constantly driven by the profits from that year, and there’s no time to sort of invest in thinking about how you create an innovation ecosystem in a practice group. But then if the practice group is flattening, the partners are just focused on retaining the clients they have, or trying to get new clients in the same way that they always have.

Floor: Yeah.

Jennifer: Extremely challenging.

Floor: Yeah. Do you know that, that cartoon? It’s like a cartoon where you have soldiers fighting with rifles and a general overseeing them and they’re all very busy. And then someone comes along with an automatic machine gun, and then the general says, “Oh, I have no time for you. I’m fighting a war.” And I think that happens in many organizations. They are so bogged down in the day-to-day stuff that they forget to take a step back and to focus on what is really important. And there, I do see a struggle, and you asked me earlier about one of the biggest impediments for innovation in law firms. Innovation by nature is important, but never urgent.

Client matters are always more urgent, and I think that’s where that mindset comes back. You need to carve out time for innovation because it’s important, but never urgent. So, if you don’t give it some time in a week, it won’t happen. And that’s what we see with our clients, because we are on top of it. We have weekly meetings; we make it urgent.

Jennifer: Spend a minute, step back and figure out how to strategically build in opportunities for your firm to grow innovation projects. And maybe this is the moment now that we’re in this state of disruption to really take that opportunity to do it.

Floor: Absolutely. Yeah. And you don’t innovate to innovate. So, keep the higher purpose. It’s just another way to maintain the profitability and the growth of your firm.

Jennifer: It’s a great mindset shift one that I know lawyers can certainly understand and embrace.

Floor: Yeah. So, since you are working on the lawyer of the future, how important in that curriculum or in your programs is innovation and innovation management, how do you make on your ends happen?

Jennifer: Yeah. I think it’s a small, but growing trend across law schools is learning how to teach innovation as a process, as you said using frameworks like design thinking in seminars so that students understand the flexibility of the framework. Not that it’s the only framework you can use for innovation, but I think what you talked about earlier about this mindset shift and this client centricity is really the key to helping the lawyers of the future be able to do the things that we’re talking about today.

So, law school traditionally so much about the lawyer and the development of the lawyer’s mind thinking like a lawyer, but spending time thinking like a client so that our solutions are not let’s get forms done more quickly because that’s what we know how to do. But stepping back and saying, what is a client’s actual goal in a representation? What are their goals in a representation? And how can I be delivering our services to them more efficiently and in new ways? When we teach the students about some of the challenges that clients have with their attorneys and with legal systems, the students sometimes express embarrassment that they hadn’t thought about that before.

And they’ll say I’m a third year in law school and it never occurred to me how inconvenient it is to have a single courthouse serve an entire region. And I always say to them, you shouldn’t be embarrassed at all because I guarantee you an enormous percentage of lawyers have never thought about that question, but doing it now, I think in doing it across law schools has the power to transform the legal profession because they are the future.

Floor: Yeah. And how do you as a law school look at the apprentice model because that’s something I have the feeling that it’s broken due to the digital revolution, so to speak. It used to be that you could copy the models of the people that are leading and are currently successful. Well, I can guarantee if you’re now a young lawyer joining a law firm, if you would copy the practices of the people that are now at the top, you won’t make it.

Jennifer: Oh, I think it’s such a great question Floor. And I often say that the biggest difference between this generation of law students and our generation of law students is that they can’t look to senior lawyers and ask for a roadmap of exactly what they should do to be effective in practice, because everything is changing in lots of different ways. And I think that, that can be scary and sometimes students express fear around that, but I think it should also be hopeful and exciting because they have the opportunity to do things in different ways and carve out new paths for themselves.

I think two things that are helpful at the law school level, I guess three things as much experiential exposure as possible through clinics, through pro bono projects, through legal practice skills programs and other summer externships and internship opportunities. But I think also teaching students the value of multidisciplinary problem solving, finding ways in your courses to bring in either students from other schools on your school’s campus or professors from other schools or creating assignments where the students are required to find somebody from another field to help them figure out the answer.

Not only the lawyers who practice for a very long time and we’ll give them the same response, but other people and make that a requirement. And I think the other thing that we try to build into our curriculum is being comfortable with ambiguity and being comfortable navigating the unknown and that is new for law students. Sometimes if you look at law school exams, the instructions alone are four pages long, and students are frequently very uncomfortable if you give them a broad assignment that doesn’t have very clear directions on how to proceed. But to me, that is the future and that’s what we’re experiencing now is the need to navigate the unknown. So, the more you can give students the space to do that, the better prepared they will be in practice to face those challenges.

Floor: Cool. Yeah, no, I wish I was a student in these times. It is really exciting.

Jennifer: I agree. I agree. And I have a few quick lightning round questions for you, Floor, before we say farewell to you for the day. What attracts you to the legal profession out of all the professions you could work with? Why us?

Floor: I think it’s a profession with a lot of opportunities. It’s one of the professional services, so that’s why it’s in my wheelhouse, but it’s also a profession where on the top, you have people that make millions by solving client problems in a very elegant and smart ways. And then you have the numbers probably better than I do, 40 or 50% that’s underserved. So, you have both very smart people, a huge underserved population, and then you have all these new technology that’s coming into the markets. So, I think there’s lots of opportunity for innovation there.

Jennifer: And how do you think innovation relates to talent retention?

Floor: I see this going hand in hand. I would love there to do some research to show, but if you’re now a young lawyer and we just discussed and you come into a firm and you see the leadership walking around with manila folders, and if you see that their archive is all paper, do you want to work there? No. And I think you will also see this generation, they will start asking like, what are the opportunities to explore? What are the opportunities, if you’ve taught them well, what are the opportunities for me to set up my own practice group or to carve out a client segment through technology?

So, I think that’s what you will see the younger generation, they will start demanding that they can carve out a space for themselves. And innovation is a fantastic learning opportunity because what I’ve seen it really like junior associates that do innovate, they learn all aspects, not only the law, but they also learn the business. How it’s operating, where do they get funding, how profitable does their offering need to be for it to be considered? So very early in your career at a very small scale, you will learn what it takes to run the business of law or your practice.

Jennifer: I think from the work I do with our students, many of them are very hungry to learn those skills as early as possible. One of the challenges they have is figuring out from all these firms that look exactly the same on their websites, on paper, through the statistics, how do they find the markers of a truly innovative law firm? What to you stands out and you think that firm is probably more innovative than others?

Floor: I wish I could say it was profitability if you can compare for a similar practice to profitability, but I know that these figures, profitability numbers in most law firms that’s a whole topic by itself. How they calculate that, so that’s such unreliable figures. I think what I found the fantastic indicator is if a law firm is called Johnson and White and Baker and Case and Richardson and Sealy and Woolford, LLP, that’s not an innovative firm. It’s such a billboard for that they find themselves more important than their clients. So, I think there, you see already shifted most law firms use one or perhaps two names so that we, as clients can remember who they are but that’s just one indicator that I have used on my end.

And another thing that I also sometimes look at, at law firms, like in their list of talent or professionals or their team, I’m sometimes struck that if I’m looking for an innovation manager or their knowledge manager or their CIO, they’re not listed there. So, they’re not talents, they don’t help. And I think that is an indicator, again, that how do you look at your firm? Do you look at it like we are legal professionals, or do you look at like, we solve legal problems for our clients and that can be done through technology or with a lawyer or with a paralegal. We solve our client’s problems.

Jennifer: Well, I’m so glad to know you, Floor. This has been a delight and very educational, and I know our listeners, particularly those who work in large law firms will find this very insightful. So, thank you for spending your time with us today, and we look forward to seeing you again in the future.

What an enlightening conversation with Floor Blindenbach-Driessen. Here are my key takeaways, innovation sounds like a lot of fun, but we’re not innovating just for the sake of innovating. In a law firm context firms, do it to maintain and grow profitability. Also, innovation, isn’t just a buzz word or a fad, it’s an actual process that can be managed, evaluated, and which provides real learning opportunities for firms.

And finally, innovation isn’t as impactful as it could be in a firm environment because innovation is always important, but it’s never urgent, and urgent matters always take precedence. But by carving out time for innovation, including using non-billable attorney time, firms can better align the resource investment with the importance of innovation to their business. Thanks to all of you for joining us today. Make sure to subscribe to this podcast wherever you listen. Be sure to leave us a comment and rate the show too. We’ll see you next time on another edition of law, 2030.

 


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