A Partner’s Perspective on How to Cultivate and Leverage Tech Innovation

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This blog is part one of a series focusing on how tech is reshaping the legal world, told from the perspective of different positions within a firm. Read the associate view here.

After starting off her career as an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Katie DeBord decided to pursue a more exciting track: law school.

She rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a litigation partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP (BCLP) and taking a position on the firm’s innovation committee. However, she felt the committee struggled to have a meaningful impact on the firm’s innovation strategy when its members spent so much time trying cases. In conversations with the chair of the committee, she noted that clients, who often had a chief innovation officer position, are constantly having to innovate for their customers — and wondered when these clients were going to start demanding the same of the firm. 

Thus, DeBord innovated herself into a new position at the firm: Chief Innovation Officer.  

Based on her broad experience in litigation and legal technology implementation, DeBord shared her point of view on advice for partners looking to reduce blockers in technology transformation, how technology affects talent recruitment, and the need to change the mentality surrounding the perception of failure at law firms.

Innovation is great…but where do you start? 

For examples of how innovation comes into play, DeBord recommends checking out the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) and Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC). “Clients are constantly talking about where they can insert technology into processes and better utilize technology,” says DeBord. “When lawyers hear clients talking about technology in this context their eyes sort of pop out and they realize that this isn't just a bunch of innovation geeks on the side saying technology should be used in a better way.” 

For firms, DeBord recommends finding one technology platform for each of the practice areas that brings meaningful value to the business and focus on getting big wins with that piece of technology. This might mean leaning on other teams — data analysts, pricing experts, or technologists — who can help create best practices and quantify results. 

Katie’s advice: Sometimes the lawyer has to lose a little bit of control of the client relationship because other team members might know better than the lawyer where and when technology can be used to improve the client experience and create more stickiness in the client relationship. Utilize and treat these team members not as support staff, but as equals.

Focus on profit to remove blockers to transformation

Although firms may be hesitant to make the leap to implement new technology, they can be easily swayed by hard data — specifically, numbers on cost savings, margin improvement, and realization, as well as repeat work. When looking into these numbers, DeBord advises asking questions like: 

  • How many people will use the solution?
  • How many people will be freed up to focus on other things? 
  • Will it improve the client experience directly or indirectly?
  • Will it decrease transaction cycle times?

Katie’s advice: In addition to the cost of implementation (payment to the vendor), don’t neglect the costs in terms of internal time to implement, support, and scale the software. The more that lawyers can be self-sufficient with technology, the better it is for the law firm.

Technology provides an advantage in talent wars

Clients aren’t the only ones expecting law firms to be innovative with state-of-the-art technology. New associates have an expectation that their firms have best-in-class tech and that they will be enabled, and not hampered by, technology. “I would be surprised if Am Law firms in the war for talent don’t cite their technology package as one of the things that they offer that differentiate them from other law firms,” says DeBord. 

That technology package could include everything from sleek laptops to cloud-based systems to the infrastructure and support system (including support from the vendor) to ensure these tools are working smoothly and efficiently. 

(Interestingly, DeBord doesn’t see a high bar for tech skills that partners look for when hiring associates.)

Katie’s advice: Lawyers should look beyond which firms offer the newest iPad and really examine the firm’s approach to technology and innovation as a whole: If you are a lawyer who is enabled correctly and has the right package of technology and technology support, you're going to look awesome to your client.

Final advice: don’t be afraid to “fail”

While many tech companies promote a culture of “failing fast,” risk-averse law firms are anxious about failure and continue to create a culture with the attitude that if you fail, you’re bad. However, DeBord believes creating a genuine culture where failures contribute to lessons learned can be beneficial for innovation. In other words, a certain element of failure is a necessary part of growth. A law firm culture that punishes failure is not going to innovate, will drive a culture that is fearful of change, and ultimately will lose to law firms that embrace it. 

After over six years as Chief Innovation Officer at BCLP, DeBord decided she wanted to see the other side of legal tech and innovation and made yet another career pivot, joining DISCO as Vice President of Product Strategy, where she focuses on transforming the practice of law at scale through technology. Over the course of a career defined by innovation, DeBord felt that she has been rewarded for seeing the way things can change for the better, speaking up, and working to actually execute that change — and she encourages people at all levels to work towards a clear and creative innovation strategy with curiosity and intention.

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