Patricia King

I recently read an article about law firm innovation promising that by hiring a chief innovation officer (otherwise known as a CINO) a law firm could go so far as to spark delight in the clients by innovating its practice. That really got my attention. Somehow, delight is not a reaction I even remotely expect when thinking about the possible range of reactions from clients. We as lawyers often feel so burdened by our work that we can barely spark delight in ourselves.

The point of the article is that we as a profession so have to change to keep pace with innovations undertaken by our business clients that we have to change in order to survive in the future. We have heard this same constant drumbeat for years from our brothers and sisters who study the future of the legal profession. We also know that lawyers are stodgy and risk-averse. That is the nature of our training; we either prepare clients for the worst, like what is going to happen when the other party breaches the contract, or we deal with the fallout of the worst possible scenario that the client should have anticipated but didn’t. Innovation is risky—not in our playbook.

It turns out this new concept of innovation boils down to really just more effective communication with the clients, more active involvement understanding the context in which their problems arise and understanding the consequences of the possible solutions. Apparently it takes an innovation officer to lead us in this effort, gussied up with concepts like branding and maybe a flashy new logo.

The job of the CINO is to drive the firm towards innovation, to sell the concept first to the lawyers, then to the clients. Lawyers appear to need a lot of hand-holding and encouragement to engage in the concept of innovation. The author of the article relates meetings where lawyers discuss innovation, but cannot bear to do this by including the very same clients who are supposed to be delighted by the cutting-edge improvements in the delivery of legal services.

And so it often falls to the CINOs to be the face of innovation for firms in dealing with clients. The CINO’s job boils down to engaging in personal interactions with the client, asking questions geared toward understanding the client’s business operation, and determining how the firm’s legal services can be more effective in meeting the client’s needs. In an even more daring exercise in meaningful interpersonal communication, the CINO sits with the client after services have been provided to find out how improvements can be made. This is done on the firm’s dime, not the client’s.

The author notes that lawyers lack confidence in this process. Well, it’s no wonder. We learn quickly in law school not to venture beyond our comfort zone of practicing law. We study a very rigid curriculum focused on the thoughts and behavior “reasonable” person, measure our success by the artifice of grades given after one exam, then tie our notion of professional self-worth to class rank and the success we can achieve by landing a job with a prestigious law firm where we toil long hours at work that may spark dread rather than joy. It’s no wonder we are petrified at the thought of innovation. We are not risk-takers. We cannot abide the consequences of failure.

We can leave the luxury of supporting a staff person in charge of innovation to the big law firms that bill corporate clients by the hour. It hardly seems practical for a solo or small firm, where the typical executive title is Chief Cook and Bottle Washer (ChiCoBoWa?), and the typical executive duties include stocking office supplies after making a run to Costco. Is there a way for the ChiCoBoWa “executive” of a small firm servicing people rather than businesses to benefit from the concept of innovation to spark delight in our divorce clients, our criminal clients or our estate-planning clients?

We don’t need a staff person with a fancy title to find out what we are doing right and how the clients would like to see us improve. We all believe that the clients resist paying for our services, but we might be surprised to find out that clients are willing to pay for value. They are willing to pay for a lawyer who will take the time to plumb the depths to understand their particular situation, beyond the limits of the facts necessary to establish the elements of a cause of action or defense. Most importantly, we can make ourselves vulnerable by engaging in personal conversations with clients about how we can be better, how we can improve to produce a more cost effective and valuable service. Vulnerability, and learning from our shortcomings are not on the curriculum of many law schools, nor are they often appreciated in practice. Until they are, it looks like we may need CINOs to assume that risk for us.

Patricia King is a former chief disciplinary counsel for Connecticut, now with Geraghty & Bonnano in New London. She can be reached at Pking@geraghtybonnano.com.