No matter how large, how famous, or how successful your law firm has been in the past...
...if you want to increase the chances of your law firm still being in business ten years from now, you must have a Chief Innovation Officer.
Sorry, there are no exceptions.
Most law firms are unlikely to collapse overnight. Rather than obsess with the spectacular failures covered so extensively in the legal press over the past ten years, law firm leaders should pay attention instead to the growing number of "zombie law firms" that wander most legal markets. They survive due to good luck, deft financial management, and the persistence of partners — none of which can sustain them indefinitely.
My great-grandmother would have described these firms as "dead, but still walking around to save funeral expenses."
The biggest threat today to the continued survival of any law firm as a profitable business enterprise is a failure to innovate. As the pace of change in the world's legal markets -- even at the local level -- continues to accelerate, every law firm must become even more alert to shifting paradigms in the delivery of legal services which, if not spotted in time, could lead to even a profitable law firm's subsidence into the underworld of the zombies. The whirlpool pulling such firms down into the legal netherworld will become even stronger and swifter than ever before.
I now advise our law firm clients -- regardless of their size, practice specialty, location, or current financial performance -- that perhaps the most important investment that they can make is to designate a Chief Innovation Officer for their firm.
Innovation should be, of course, every lawyer's responsibility, even in the smallest firm. However, the demands of operating a successful practice in today's legal services market require that there should be, in every firm, at least one lawyer who scouts the changing needs and expectations of clients and the emerging competitive forces in the firm's legal market, and who also can be a champion for innovation within the firm.
We also believe that the best candidate for the post of Chief Innovation Office usually is a relatively new associate. With proper support and encouragement from the partners, this can be an excellent opportunity to expose an associate to the firm's clients, as well as to develop a practical understanding of their needs and expectations. These are two essential components for successful innovation.
The strongest argument for having an associate serve as your firm's Chief Innovation Office, however, is that, being relatively new to the legal profession, he or she is less likely to be blinded by the paradigms that currently govern your assumptions about how to practice law successfully. He or she also is less likely to have developed the risk adverseness that over time sometimes becomes a characteristic of the intellectual processes of many older lawyers.
The firm's leaders must be serious about this function, demonstrating that it is more than just a title or an interesting collateral duty. I usually suggest that an associate CIO be required to record at least 10% of his or her required billable hours to the innovation function. This investment will cost the firm billings, to be sure; but it can produce an exponential return on investment, often within one year or less.
Sure, the title "Chief Innovation Officer" sounds a little excessive for an associate in a small or midsize law firm; but the title itself connotes that the CIO is not the only person responsible for innovation. As mentioned above, innovation has become every lawyer's job, and an essential survival skill for every law firm.