It’s Time for a Law Firm Hackathon

Yahoo! Hack Day In the world of law firm blogging there is Bruce MacEwen…and then there are the rest of us. Writing as Adam Smith Esq., Bruce has just completed an extraordinary series of posts entitled “Growth is Dead.” In his final installment, The S-Curve, Bruce says that if law firms wish to survive the current economic headwinds, it’s critical that they identify the next S-Curve and jump on it. The problem is that for all the hand-wringing we’ve seen since 2008 (usually accompanied by dire mutterings about the “New Normal”), there don’t appear to be many well-considered, internally coherent proposals for that new S-Curve.

For those of you coming to the conversation late, S-Curves illustrate, among other things, life cycles (of technology, for instance) and the diffusion of innovation. Clayton Christensen showed us in The Innovator’s Dilemma how upstarts can enter an industry with disruptive innovation that creates a new S-Curve and lets them eat the lunch of more established players in their vertical. The challenge for those more established players is to innovate sufficiently so that they don’t become footnotes in history.

If only innovation were that easy.

In reality, innovation can be extremely hard work. To begin with, organizations are too often rather hostile towards innovation. Further, individuals within those organizations sometimes lack the right mindset for change. (If you’re interested in learning more, read Why Innovation Fails.)

So how do you work around these problems in order to find the disruptive innovation that is right for your organization? As far as the legal industry is concerned, we don’t have the luxury of waiting until the stars are aligned. We need answers fast. It’s time for a Law Firm Hackathon.

What’s a Hackathon?

Hackathon is a portmanteau of hack + marathon, and is used to describe a brief, intense period of hands-on collaboration to solve a specific problem. Invented in the world of software development, hackathons initially were used to develop usable code by pooling the efforts of many over the course of a short period (e.g., a day, a weekend, or a week). Since then, hackathons have been used to re-imagine everything from a better New York City government website to social justice in Africa to the world’s sanitation crisis to improved management practices and reinventing business itself.

Here are some key elements of a hackathon:

  • Issue an open invitation so that you involve people who might otherwise be trapped in organizational silos — this event has to be more than the same old folks talking about the same old things
  • Frame the problem clearly at the beginning of the hackathon
  • Be sure to provide for creature comforts — food, drink and work space

The critical thing is to move past brainstorming to creating a workable prototype within the time period of the hackathon. The result need not be a final product. However, it should be something tangible or concrete on which you can build.

How to do a Law Firm Hackathon

  • Read Late Night Pizza: Extending Hackathons Beyond Technology (see the “hackathon-in-a-box” materials)
  • Recruit widely from across the firm, but ensure that the firm’s senior leadership participates fully
  • Follow the good advice from the Mix Management Hackathon:
    • Be radical — the hack should make a discernible difference in your firm
    • Be practical — the hack should be easy to implement
    • Be simple — if the hack is too complicated, it won’t gain traction
  • When the hackathon is over, don’t waste time before you implement the winning hacks. In the words of Frans Johansson, the key is to “start with the smallest executable step.”

Start planning your law firm hackathon now. Time is running out. As Bruce MacEwen says: “We have no idea yet what BigLaw will look like in the future, and the only way to find out is to invent that future.”


Here is some additional reading regarding hackathons:

[Photo Credit: Scott Beale]


Frans Johansson Keynote #ILTA12

Frans Johansson is an innovation expert and author of The Medici Effect. As CEO of The Medici Group, he leads a team which helps clients improve their innovation efforts through an approach they call Intersectional Thinking:

Your best chance to innovate is at The Intersection. Here, concepts from diverse disciplines, fields, and cultures collide to form an explosion of unexpected idea combinations. It is from this large number of possible new combinations that one or two can emerge as high potential innovations.

[These are my notes from the International Legal Technology Association’s 2012 Conference. Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]

NOTES: Act Collaborate to Drive Change

  • What Drives Innovation?. We innovate best when we connect with others and share new ideas/perspectives. The key is to connect across our differences.
  • Why is it necessary to innovate quickly?. If you want to keep your competitive advantage, you have to keep innovating because there has been a stunning drop in the amount of time it takes for your competitors to catch up with you.
  • Why is it so hard to innovate?. (1) As an organization gets larger, it moves more slowly. (How do you create a small firm for yourself? Buy a big company…and wait.) (2) We tend to use logic when planning innovation. However, since our competitors are doing the same thing, we’re likely to converge in the middle with eerily similar offerings, thus eliminating that which makes us distinctive. (3) Because change is hard (and threatening), we tend to settle for tweaking things around the edges rather than making a wholesale change. The impact of this is adding more widgets to a Yahoo portal page until the clutter is overcome by the spare and elegant design of a Google search page.
  • His Working Understanding. (1) Most truly stunning innovations result from combination two different ideas. (2) People that change the world try FAR more ideas. The greater the number of ideas that you generate and implement, the greater your chance of a breakthrough. You need to try many things because humans are very bad at predicting what will work. The key is to keep trying until you perfect your execution. When your first idea doesn’t work, you have to try again. (3) Diverse teams can unleash an explosion of new ideas. (He says this is a mathematical argument. He illustrates this by showing the number of combinations possible in rock music and classical music and then what happens when you start combining across these disciplines. You end up with an exponential increase in new ideas that leads to more opportunities for innovation. (e.g., He uses the example of “Tubular Bells,” which was huge crossover between rock and classical music.)
  • Create the Environment Necessary to Foster Innovation.. We can help organize our firms to foster innvation. This ranges from seating people within your department in such a way that they can’t help be exposed to new ideas and new ways of working. Individually, you also can ensure that you personally make connections with people within the firm who are in different disciplines or from different backgrounds or have different interests.
  • Use Technology to Drive (not just serve) New Business Models. Start by making it easier to collaborate internally and externally. Baker Donelson has a technology toolkit that made it possible for the client to work differently with its external counsel. The client liked it so well that they moved all their business to Baker Donelson. Goodwin Proctor collaborates with PBWorks to build wikis that help collaboration with clients and co-counsel.
  • The Pit StopTeam Exercise. Frans Johansson asked the audience members to team up with the person next to them to ask how they could apply example of the pit stop team to law firm life? Here are some suggestions that came from the audience: (1) have the IT team observe lawyers in their natural habitat and then ask what IT could do to help them. Rinse. Repeat. (2) Rather than having IT working in the background, waiting for instructions from the client-facing lawyers, find ways to put allow IT access to the lawyer team AND the clients so that you reduce the translation errors and give IT a better chance to sense the client needs.
  • What’s the Most Effecitve Way to Execute?. Start with a good idea. And then act on it. Johansson calls this the smallest executable step. It’s not about going directly to the desired Big Hairy Audacious Goal. Rather, execute the first step; adjust based on results; execute again. The key is to iterate your way to success.

Curiosity Has Landed

Curiosity has landed on Mars!

I must admit that I love the fact that NASA called the Mars rover “Curiosity.”  To me curiosity is more than a danger to cats, it’s the driving force for innovation.

NASA has made available some wonderful video of the landing.  I watched several times the brief clip below of the mission team in the control room observing the landing. The tension is palpable, as is the relief and exhilaration when it is clear the rover has landed safely.

Since a reasonably creative person can almost always find a “knowledge management angle” to most things, I offer the following KM observations:

  • In watching the video, I was struck by the fact that in their moment of elation the members of the team sought physical contact with each other. Whether it was a “high five” or a bear hug, in every case it was real and tangible — not remote or virtual. From a KM perspective, it’s a useful reminder that despite the huge efficiencies brought about by computerization and automation, we should not forget that face to face interaction can be the most valuable medium for knowledge sharing. Virtual or remote service can achieve a great deal (especially for the do-it-yourselfer or the person working outside regular business hours).  However, sometimes nothing beats the ability to sit elbow to elbow with someone as you work through a problem together. It’s one of the oldest and most reliable ways of transmitting tacit knowledge.
  • Our poetry and prose are filled with lots of inspiring images of peak experiences. However, when it came to landing the rover, the scientific team chose the low elevation Gale Crater rather than higher terrain. Why this crater?  According to the NASA website: “The ideal landing site will have clear evidence of a past or present habitable environment. The site will have a favorable geologic record, such as layers of rock that are preserved and exposed at the surface, making them accessible to exploration, as well as evidence of past water.”  Clearly  you don’t have to be on a mountaintop to succeed. Sometimes low terrain contains more than enough valuable information. This is worth remembering when you are trudging through a plateau in the development of your KM system. If you keep your eyes open and your curiosity primed, you can learn something useful.
  • The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory is impressive, but in this day and age not even this organization can do everything by itself. As a result, the mission to Mars includes the contributions of international partners such as the Canadian Space Agency and Russia’s Federal Space Agency. As you plan your KM effort, consider whether a strategic alliance with another department within your organization might help reduce your costs or increase your access to creative solutions. For example, there are natural alliances between KM and professional development or KM and Marketing.  There may even be groups within your organization that were historically hostile towards KM, but are now ripe for a change of view. Seek them out and find ways to cooperate. After all if the Russians and Americans can cooperate in space, why can’t KM establish and build productive relationships with other departments?
  • Mars is not a pleasant place. It’s cold and dusty. Its thin atmosphere cannot support liquid water over large regions. The planet currently does not appear to be habitable. Clearly, it is not a congenial place. But even here Curiosity is already proving valuable and productive.  I’m willing to bet that even your organization is not nearly as uncongenial as Mars. What might you uncover if you allowed curiosity to land there? Conducting controlled experiments in a safe-fail environment can be the best way to learn and to establish the path to innovation. What experiments is your KM group tackling? Where is your curiosity leading you?

Curiosity has landed on Mars. Has it landed in your organization?


What’s Going Right?

4 Faces Buddha Lawyers have many special gifts, but one of the most vexing is the ability to “issue spot.” They are trained to take a proposition in both hands and then turn it upside down and inside out until they have identified all the potential problems.  This is hugely helpful to a client who is trying to weigh the risks and benefits of a proposed business transaction.  However, this tendency can be hugely challenging for IT and knowledge management personnel who are trying to persuade a lawyer to adopt a new tool or a new way of working.

Now don’t get me wrong — some of my best friends are lawyers.  In fact, I’m a lawyer. Even so, I must admit that lawyers can be a little negative from time to time.

But lawyers are not the only ones.  Tony Schwartz has observed that the negativity bias is something that all humans share and it can lead us to wallow in the slough of despond:

Because human beings have a strong “negativity bias,” we pay more attention to our bad feelings than to our good ones. It once clearly served our survival to be vigilant about what might go wrong and that instinct persists. Today, it may serve to buffer us from disappointment, but it also promotes disproportionate and destructive discontent. The simple question “What’s going right?” provides ballast in tough times.

So What’s Going Right?

This can be the best question to ask when you are seeking feedback on new technology or a new law firm knowledge management initiative.  It can change the energy in the room and draw out the truly constructive comments.  Best of all, it encourages the lawyers involved to use their considerable brainpower to focus on opportunities for growth rather than obsessing about potential problems that may (or may not) stop a project dead in its tracks.

Focusing on the positive is not intended to sidestep reality or allow you to bury your head in the sand.  Its purpose is not denial.  Rather, its purpose is to elicit feedback at an early stage — before the tool or resource is so fully baked that it cannot be adjusted.  Asking about what’s going right can help the anxious stop obsessing about the impossible goal of perfection and start focusing on what’s necessary and possible.

If you want to be agile, if you want to innovate, start asking about what’s going right.  You might be pleasantly surprised by what you learn.

[Photo Credit: Manuel Bahamondez]



A Sadie Hawkins Proposal

February 29 is leap year day, an odd day marked by odd customs intend to underline just how unnatural the day really is.  Take for example the conflation of Li’l Abner’s Sadie Hawkins Day with some older customs that upset the “natural order” by putting women in charge.  So we have a day when women are allowed to propose marriage to men <gasp!> and we have events at which women are allowed to invite men to dance <gasp!>.

While those traditions may be shocking in some quarters, I’d like to propose a gender-neutral alternative for celebrating Sadie Hawkins Day:  Look for constructive ways to upset the natural order. What do I mean by this? Here are some suggestions:

  • Before you do something the same way for the 99th time, ask yourself if there is another, better way of doing it.
  • Before you do anything, consider whether it needs to be done at all or whether it can be delegated.
  • When you see everything sitting neatly in its place, ask yourself whether a little disorder around the edges might in fact energize things.
  • If you’re used to working in a top-down, command-and-control fashion, look for ways to loosen the reins and let things flow bottom-up.
  • If your professional life is focused on managing knowledge stocks, consider what it would mean to facilitate knowledge flows instead.
  • Imagine what else might be possible if you decided to give up Just One Thing.

This isn’t about change for change’s sake. Rather it’s about giving yourself permission to break out of your rut and discover a new perspective.  Some of the experiments might fail, but I guarantee that you will learn something of value if you approach this in the spirit of exploration and intellectual honesty.

While Sadie Hawkins events traditionally promised romance to the lovelorn, I’m afraid my approach won’t deliver a heartthrob. However, I suspect that you might discover something nearly as wonderful — innovation and insight.  That’s not a bad return for one odd day.


KM and Law Firm Innovation

Innovation The Financial Times recently published an interesting report entitled, US Innovative Lawyers 2011.  I encourage you to read that report in its entirety soon.  In the meantime, here are some highlights and observations.

According to the report, FT’s researchers received 272 submissions (including from 53 AmLaw 200 firms) and interviewed more than 300 lawyers and clients to identify the most outstanding innovations.  Each submission was scored in terms of (1) originality , (2) the rationale behind the work, and (3) the impact of the work on the client, the industry or on business more broadly.

At the end of the day, which firms made the cut?  FT identified 26 firms in the US as truly innovative:

  • Davis Polk & Wardwell
  • Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom
  • Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton
  • Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe
  • Latham & Watkins
  • Cravath, Swaine & Moore
  • Paul Hastings
  • Sullivan & Cromwell
  • Seyfarth Shaw
  • Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison
  • Kirkland & Ellis
  • Dewey & LeBoeuf // Mayer Brown
  • Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher // White & Case
  • Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft
  • Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld
  • Dechert
  • Morrison & Foerster // Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz
  • Simpson Thacher & Bartlett
  • Jones Day // Weil, Gotshal & Manges
  • Fulbright & Jaworski
  • Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer // Proskauer Rose

What made these firms stand-out?  These firms say they rely on their culture and human capital to innovate.  In particular, they hire smart people who like to find new and better ways of solving problems for clients. One firm pointed to its lockstep compensation model, but since plenty of non-lockstep firms made the grade, that most likely is not the decisive factor. According to the FT report, the factors that distinguished the firms on the list from the others were “their commitment, their ability to adapt and to work together in the best interests of business to unusual and important effect.”

How can law firm knowledge management help?

While I don’t know the extent to which each of these firms relied on their knowledge management resources to foster innovation, the innovations reported suggest that KM can help make a firm and its lawyers more innovative in the following ways:

  • Much innovation arises from making small changes to what came before. In legal practice, this means we need to give our lawyers easy access to precedents and practice guides so that they have a solid foundation from which to innovate.
  • Innovation can go beyond specific matters to providing online information and advice on a subscription basis.  KM and library services can play an important role here in gathering the data for the client-facing resource.
  • Innovation with respect to the business of law can have a huge impact as well.  Seyfarth Shaw’s Lean Six Sigma efforts put the firm on FT’s list.
  • KM personnel and practices can help support alternative fee arrangements and project management efforts.
  • Jeffrey Carr, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, FMC Technologies, is a well-known advocate of changes in the legal industry.  Among other things, his in-house legal department has created a wiki to share legal advice internally and is developing M&A process maps.  Are you doing anything similar?

As I said at the beginning of this post, it’s worth your time to read the report in its entirety. While the specifics of each legal matter may not resonate for you, focus on how what you do (or should be doing) could help your firm get on that list and stay on that list.  The KM principles we espouse and the information we handle daily  can help bring about the innovation to which our firms should be aspiring.



How High the Moon?

Les Paul 93rd Birthday Concert I’m not easily impressed, but today Google impressed me.  How?  They put an extraordinary “Google Doodle” on their search page in honor of the June 9 birthday of the legendary guitarist, Les Paul. (See video below.)

One of the great benefits of living in New York City is that we have access to amazing performers.  Nearly everyone who is anyone comes to New York to strut their stuff.  And Les Paul was no exception.  In fact, well into his 90s, he had a regular gig on Monday nights at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City.  I was fortunate enough to experience the magic. There he would sit with his trio and make the most astonishing music with his iconic electric guitar.  Over the course of the evening, he played many of his greatest hits for a highly appreciative audience — an audience that went wild when he launched into a famously fast rendition of How High the Moon.  Inevitably, a listener was left open-mouthed, wondering how he produced such fantastic sounds from his instrument.

In a similar fashion, even this jaded New Yorker was left open-mouthed when I realized that the Les Paul Google Doodle was interactive.  (See the video below.) By moving my cursor over the strings of the guitar image, I could produce the sound of an electric guitar.  Amazing!

You may be less easily impressed and feel that I ought get out and see the world more often, but that’s really not the point.  The beauty of this playable guitar on a Google search page is that it reminds us that we haven’t yet reached the limits of what’s possible using online media.  In some ways many of us have until now merely moved our old print or telephonic or face-to-face communications to our computers, and we haven’t looked for much more than improved speed and some hyperlinks. Google’s guitar points to a much wider range of possibilities — allowing us to co-create, allowing us to experience new things — all through the computer.

Keep this in mind when you return to the daily grind of your office.  We have tools on our desks that are grossly underutilized.  While we may not have access to Google’s talented designers, I bet there’s a great deal more we could do with our existing computing power if only we thought outside the (music) box.

In honor of the innovative musician, Les Paul, take this Google Doodle to heart and to work tomorrow. Push your systems, your designs and your imagination a little harder, a little further.  Just start by asking the classic Les Paul and Mary Ford question:  How High the Moon?


This video captures the Les Paul Google Doodle in Action:

Here’s a video of an older Les Paul, playing How High the Moon while doing astonishing things with his guitar (please excuse the quality of the recording):

Here are Mary Ford and Les Paul performing How High the Moon:

[Photo Credit: PiscesBlue81]


What Are You Waiting For?

is flickr an addiction?Some say that the legal profession has raised caution to a high art form. Even so,  it is possible to find in every walk of life people whose favorite course of action is to adopt a wait and see strategy. But is this a wise course? Some recent writing about the human tendency to avoid making a commitment and taking a decision suggests that the temporary reprieve provided by a deferred decision may be extremely costly.  Consider the following:

  • While many prefer to make only reversible decisions (or avoid hard decisions altogether), psychologists tell us that this approach can lead to more unhappiness and poorer performance.  According to their studies, our unwillingness to commit to a decision causes us to waste energy worrying about that decision after the fact. This in turn leaves us with less energy to act in such a way as to ensure a good outcome.  In other words, the lack of commitment can lead to a bad result.  For more information on this phenomenon, read Heidi Grant Halvorson’s post Why Keeping Your Options Open Is A Really, Really Bad Idea.
  • The wait and see strategy is particularly problematic when facing innovation.  It takes courage (and what sometimes seems like a touch of insanity) to be a first mover, yet the benefits of being first can be very rewarding.  Bruce MacEwen reminds us of this when talking about the slow pace of innovation in his favorite location — “lawland.”  In his post, Be Innovative? Who, Me?, he looks at the European and US car industries.  As he tells it, the European automakers seized a key competitive advantage by committing early to innovation. Thus, by the time the US stragglers finally admitted that the European innovations were worthwhile, the Europeans had time to refine those innovations and move on to the next thing. McEwen suggests that lawyers can draw a lesson from the automakers.
  • In her recent commencement address at Barnard College, Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook’s COO) spoke about the costs of failing to commit to a career.  In her view, this failure to commit over time leads to the kind of career from which too many women are willing to walk away.  Andrew McAfee describes her remarks as a “graduation speech for the ages.” While you may not agree with everything she says, it’s worth thinking about her comments on the dangers of failing to commit.  In particular, she urges the listening graduates to “lean in” to their careers:  “Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.”  (I’ve posted a video of her speech below for those of you who would like to hear more from her.)

So there you have it — three different instances in which failing to commit, to decide, to act can have painful consequences.  In light of this, what are you waiting for?

Sheryl Sandberg’s Speech:

[Photo Credit: Crashcandy]


Teamwork Not Genius

Houston, we have a problem.

For years the legal profession has encouraged individual excellence and rewarded individual productivity.  In fact, we’ve come to admire those outstanding lawyers who define the best of the legal profession.  Every firm has its legendary lawyer — the person who defied odds to win an unwinnable case or found a solution to a seemingly intractable corporate problem.   We may even believe that some of these men (and they almost always were men back in the day) were geniuses. And so we aspire to be brilliant, just like them.

But what happens when the challenges are too big for one person to handle alone? While he doesn’t mean to diminish in any way the accomplishment represented by the theory of gravity or the theory of evolution, Jonah Lehrer reports that things are more challenging now than they were in the times of Newton and Darwin:

…our modern problems have gotten so hard – so damn intractable, complicated and multi-disciplinary – that we can no longer solve them by ourselves. … But the complexity of our 21st century problems (clean coal, hydrogen cars, everything in neuroscience, string theory, etc.) has not just led to a postponement in peak creativity. It has also lessened the importance of the individual. …teams have become a far more important part of intellectual production.

…the era of the lone genius is coming to an end. If our current lists of global thinkers seem paltry, it’s because the best thinkers no longer exist by themselves, toiling away in a vacuum. Instead, they require the constant feedback and knowledge of others. We live in a world of such complexity that our problems increasingly exceed the possibilities of the individual mind. Collaboration is no longer an option.

And here we find our problem.  If the path to innovation and progress lies in teamwork and collaboration, what are lawyers going to do?  Psychological studies of lawyers indicate that they score low with respect to the personality traits most useful for harmonious and productive teamwork.  Furthermore, Lehrer describes the best environment for innovation as one with constant feedback, knowledge sharing and transparency.  Does this sound like your law firm?

As I said earlier, Houston — we have a problem.

[Photo Credit: MsAnthea]


Got the T-Shirt

Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

I’m sure you’ve heard this expression before — usually from the mouth of someone who has made a fine art of boredom.  However, the person with the t-shirt is rarely looking for the thrill of adventure or the excitement of discovery. Rather, they are most likely trying to shut down someone else’s effort to innovate.

The reality is that it is a rare instance when history repeats itself exactly. So chances are that the t-shirt person has not actually experienced this particular set of circumstances before. There may be variation around the edges that a person fixated on their prior experience has failed to notice.  Of course, it is in that variation that opportunity lurks. Yet there are none so blind as those who will not see.  Is it any wonder that innovation is so challenging?

So tell me:  how big is your t-shirt collection?