"I wonder if we can do something during B-innovative week?" In August, I was on a Zoom call with the Innovation and Client Solutions team at independent UK law firm Burges Salmon. Who were speculating on next steps following a trial of Autto by one of its trainees, Alex.
Alex Knowles-Smith (now qualified and in the Pensions team) was finishing his traineeship with a seat in the Innovation team. One of his assignments had been to trial Autto for an afternoon to see how easy it was to create useful tools. Autto is a no-code automation solution that makes it easy for professionals to deliver solutions to clients or colleagues using knowledge, business process and document automation. Alex had progressed from never having logged on to Autto before, to building an automated NDA process in only three hours. Alex, a history graduate, doesn't have a technical background and his success with Autto in such a short time had galvanised our discussion with the firm. Alex had an idea, and a few hours later, it was working - a practical innovation.
As Autto's product owner, it was thrilling. It is very easy when building software to get caught up comparing your feature list with the next product along and forget about the user. The reality is it doesn't matter how many features you have if your software is so complicated most of the functionality never gets used. Our product philosophy at Autto has always been about practical innovation. In business, ideas are worthless if they don't make off the drawing board; they must be implemented to have real value. For the Autto team, this means rapid easy-to-use automation available to non-technical users at a price point that isn't eye watering. Alex's feedback was another confirmation that our hard work was paying off.
The Next Generation
This week we presented Autto and Alex's NDA process to the broader Burges Salmon team. In the Q&A at the end of the session, one of his colleagues asked Alex how useful he had found his time working with Autto and the Innovation team. Alex's response was fascinating:
"It made me think in-depth for the first time during my training contract beyond the services we provide as lawyers, to how we provide those services. It set me thinking more creatively and more broadly about the ways the profession might change in future. The ways that the firm is positioning itself to navigate and harness those changes.
The model by which legal services have been delivered has been unchanged for so long. We record by the hour, a lot of it is still done using classic legal resources. It set me thinking about how we take that legal expertise, engineer it in different ways, and deliver it to the client in different ways. It was the first time that I'd grappled with that and thought about it in some depth. Going forward, I'm going to be trying to build that technological angle into my career. As more and more things are automated and the profession changes, it's going to be very valuable."
It seems the latest generation of lawyers is not only more open than previous generations to real changes in the way their legal services are delivered but expect and value that opportunity as part of their careers.
How can law firms be practically innovative?
What can we learn from this example. I think there are three simple steps law firms can take.
If law firms give lawyers, particularly digitally native lawyers, hands-on access to different technologies, then many ideas on using them to benefit both clients and the firm will come quickly. It is hard for lawyers to conceive these ideas in a vacuum - the technology experience helps them understand what is possible for their clients. If the technologies are too difficult for your lawyers to use or understand, they are the wrong technologies.
The technology is available to bring those ideas to reality quickly, but it requires time from legal professionals who understand the problems. Given a choice between a lawyer spending an hour developing an innovative new way to serve a client and billing an hour to the same client, almost all law firms will pick the latter. Law firms should value time spent developing new ways to serve clients in a similar way they value CPD, as the essential non-billable time required to deliver a better professional service. Until they do, progress will inevitably be limited.
Finally bringing those ideas to reality will require a broader team of analysts, technologists and designers. These are the teams which provide specific expertise to bring lawyers ideas to practical delivery to clients.
After four years of spending a lot of time talking to law firms, my view is that many firms are now investing in the third of these steps, but neglecting the first two. Law firms that want to deliver better value to clients through real-world, practical innovation will need to value the time and effort which goes into these improvements in an equally tangible way.
How are Burges Salmon delivering real innovation?
Each year Burges Salmon stages "B-innovative", a week of events, training and thought leadership to encourage positive change. This year, Autto has teamed up with the firm's innovation team to replicate Alex's experience on a larger scale. Thirty-seven of the firm's trainees have divided into teams, and we have given them full access to Autto. The firm has challenged each group to deliver a prototype automation or app that could be of value to a client in the next three weeks.
The goal is to challenge trainees to think how best to meet client needs and help Burges Salmon better understand how lawyers can be involved with new technological developments. Importantly the goal is not just the idea but the actual delivery of a working prototype. It is an exercise in practical innovation.
As senior innovation lead Emma Sorrell, who is running the challenge told me: "Burges Salmon knows the clients we serve are digitising, and technologies like Autto are giving us the tools to adapt and keep up. But we are still exploring the right mix of skills to bring these new client services to market. When and how to combine the skills and experience of our solicitors, our business professionals and our technologists. This year's Autto challenge is an opportunity to explore that further."
We will report back here in a couple of weeks on how the trainees got on.
By engaging their trainees with technology directly Burges Salmon are taking an important step to delivering better legal services to their clients with technology.