Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM

In the latest sign that Big Law firms are working to embrace innovation, Reed Smith is rolling out a new program that lets lawyers earn billable hour credits for time they spend promoting advances in legal technology and operations.

The firm launched a pilot version of the “Innovation Hours” program last year, with 17 lawyers dedicating 364 hours to six selected projects. This year, the firm will sign off on even more projects, while also flagging five particular client-facing endeavors for added support.

“We had a lot of people wanting to engage in new technologies, process improvement, and new ways of working,” said Reed Smith chief knowledge officer Lucy Dillon. “Being able to give people billing credit was the breakthrough way to say to people, ‘We really value your ideas and we want you to have the time and to be rewarded for the time to think things through.’”

The move comes as firms are competing for talent with the rising tech sector and legal industry disrupters, and looking to make their practice appealing to millennials. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, for example, has established its own innovation contest encouraging associates to pitch new business ideas, but Reed Smith’s version is open to lawyers at all levels.

For the inaugural effort last year, Dillon and Innovation Hub manager Alex Smith, who are both based in London, culled six ideas from a total of 30 submissions. Each lawyer involved was encouraged to put up to 50 “innovation hours” towards their billing targets.

Kari Larsen, global co-head of Reed Smith’s fintech practice, brought together a team of attorneys for one project: the production of an authoritative white paper on blockchain. U.S. attorneys were joined by lawyers from Singapore, Beijing, Hong Kong and the U.K. in drafting the report, which takes on subjects including data privacy, insurance and capital markets. 

“With having the hours, we were able to recruit various experts in the fields from around the firm,” she said.

Another project led to the successful launch of the firm’s new Breach RespondeRS app, a free tool that simplifies the application of the patchwork of U.S. state laws to let companies focus on protecting data.

Other efforts involved teams in the United States, Europe and Asia working on the automation of contracts and documents; a review of databases of previous cases and outcomes to identify trends in the managed care industry; and work with a fintech startup on a new technology model.

Dillon said she was pleased with the seriousness and maturity with which all participants—who included associates, partners and of counsel—handled the work. There was no overbilling or wasted hours.

“They came, put a business case forward and had to articulate what they hoped to achieve,” she said. “It was very well-managed.”

For 2018, there’s no cap on the number of projects that will be approved, but Dillon will prioritize certain ideas and work closely with practice group leaders to ensure they work.

“I want to make sure there’s rigor around the projects that we support,” she said.

Five projects that have direct impact on the firm’s clients will get special attention. They’ll be part of a fast-track, 12-week program where an extra level of support will come from Smith and consulting firm Janders Dean.

The announcement comes on the heels of Reed Smith’s establishment of a legal technology program for select summer associates in both the United States and the U.K. Five law school students—three in the United States and two in the U.K.—will spend part of their summers developing projects that use tech to improve legal services.

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