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Heads of Innovation – Qualified lawyer or Innovator?


Innovation has increasingly become an industry ‘buzzword’ yet the difficulty facing the legal sector is the implementation of a collective definition of what innovation actually is, largely due to differing interpretations and conflicting approaches. Whilst the evasive nature of a united picture of legal innovation may not necessarily be a negative, a challenge facing law firms is how, and at what pace, they should be embracing it. A resultant difficulty facing law firms is what exactly constitutes the requisite experience of the individuals that will be leading these departments.

We have observed a massive increase in the demand for innovation candidates within the legal sector and this is a trajectory that only looks set to continue. Interestingly, there has been a difference in opinion as to the necessary skill set of these candidates.  A recurrent theme we have identified is the request for candidates from a legal background. These requests tend to assume one of two different veins, the first being the ‘qualified lawyer’ candidate profile. A number of firms are seeking practicing solicitors, at Partner or Associate level, to head up their innovation strategy. The justification for such an approach appears to be rooted in the conclusion that no one can better understand the impact of innovation on the legal sector than someone who themselves has been in the position of those that will be directly affected by any changes.

In the most basic terms, innovation within business is the development of a new service, designed with a particular need or requirement in mind. In the case of legal innovation, innovation has emerged in response to changing and increasing client demands and the need to internally streamline processes and save costs for the firm. In order to embrace innovation firms must recognise that internal processes need to change. Before this can effectively occur teams must educate the population of a firm about the benefits of such change. Putting aside the often misguided fear that legal technology (in particular AI) will see employees replaced by ‘robots’, innovation at its heart exists to make life easier for Partners, Associates, Paralegals and Support Staff alike. Lack of internal ‘buy-in’ consistently comes up as one of the main hurdles facing innovation teams and the only way to overcome this is to change perceptions. Here the debate arises – can those who have never practiced law and may never have experienced working within a legal environment, actually convince the risk-averse lawyer. 

Having worked on positions with different requirements for the desirable candidate it is safe to say that I see both sides to the argument. I have spoken to some incredibly inspiring Lawyers who have taken on ‘Head of’ roles after achieving Partnership.

However, I personally feel it is amiss of firms to overlook candidates from outside of the legal sector. Rightly or wrongly, law firms are commonly viewed as traditional, structured and resistant to change. Whether this stereotype is accurate for every firm, it is one that has been hard for the legal sector to shake.  The Partnership model often results in incremental change, rather than the perceived ‘revolutionary approach’ attributed to innovation and the implementation of legal technology. Innovation is all about change and one must ask the question – how can this happen without the introduction of new perceptions? Candidates from outside of legal, for example those looking to move from the ‘Big 4’ or Financial Services, not only bring a refreshed approach but also come equipped with a wealth of knowledge that the industry has yet to be exposed to.

With the traditional conception of a law firm in mind, this may appear too much of a gamble. A compromise and perhaps ‘the best of both worlds’ can be found in focusing on candidates already working within legal innovation. However, given that “Legal Innovation roles” are relatively new and such teams are still ‘under construction,’ the pool of potential candidates, whilst growing, remains small.

The discussion surrounding innovation and its place within the legal sector looks set to continue and firms must act with alacrity in order to capitalise on it. However, for those firms pushing their innovation strategy we have witnessed a real desire for change and heavy investment. As a result, I feel as though innovation is the key to shaking the conservative stereotype that has been attributed to the industry. Yet what must be considered is that the answer may lie outside of Private Practice.

The debate continues - What are your thoughts?


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  • Katie Stearn
  • Consultant
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Prior to joining LAW Absolute Katie studied Politics at Durham University,…

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