Purple law firms

26 07 2010

Not green law firms (sustainability is for another post), but purple law firms. The concept at the heart of Seth Godin’s excellent book “Purple Cow” is about being remarkable. I think that’s a great word, and today’s post is designed to make you think about how your firm, team or law department can be remarkable.

Purple Law Co and one of its remarkable lawyers

To be honest, it’s not a word that is usually associated with lawyers, which is not to detract from the profession. Many lawyers perform quiet miracles on a semi-regular basis; getting deals across the line against all odds, working crazy hours pre-trial to ensure their client wins, and working pro bono to help keep a charity afloat when times are tough. However, as service standards and client expectations rise, these heroics are not enough to be seen as remarkable. Remarkable requires something more, something different.

Perhaps “different” is where the problem lies. How many firms, how many lawyers, want to be different? Being different can be risky. Being different can mean failing. Publicly. But being different can also generate real competitive advantage, and it this intensely competitive world, that’s got to be worth shooting for, right?

Over here in the UK, Eversheds were recently in the legal press for creating an internal competition to reward the best business development idea (see the article here: http://tinyurl.com/2buwmna) and like them or love them, this is a firm that has been prepared to go out on a limb and do things differently over the years. Whether or not the competition will be successful, we’ll have to wait and see, but while the £20,000 prize looks appealing, in the context of the profits that could be generated by a breakthrough idea, it’s small beer.

So why aren’t all firms driving innovation? Indeed, arguably in a true culture of innovation, ideas would be shared freely and there would be an infrastructure to commercialise them quickly and effectively without the need for annual competitions, but in my experience this is far from reality in most law firms. The truth is, for management it’s often easier to cut costs to boost profit than invest time to generate future profits, and the tyranny of the billable hour often shackles junior lawyers.

One of the more unique challenges that law firm face in this context is that they are full of experts (they sell expertise, right?), and as Michalko notes in his creativity reference manual “Thinkertoys”, experts have boundaries around the limits of their expertise. As a result they tend to look for solutions within these boundaries, whereas breakthrough inventions often come from outside these limits.

Michalko goes on to suggest numerous ways of stretching thinking to overcome these limits, but one of my favourites (which is easy to try: throw it in your next department meeting) is a subset of his “Scamper” exercise, called “Magnify”. Here, think about a service your team offers its clients (internal or external). What new features or functions could be added? How could it be made faster or more frequent? Could it be made enormous? (I love that one – what a great question) What else could be changed to add or grow the value it offers? Simple questions, but the answers can be surprising.

Innovation and being remarkable isn’t just about having remarkable products and services. It can also be about the way those products and services are delivered. Everyone in an organisation can, and should, contribute to making it remarkable. How can you help unlock that creativity?


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6 responses

26 07 2010
Matt Meyer

Singapore has been hugely successful at telling its citizens to be entrepreneurial. They have provided education on entrepreneurialism, created a media environment where those choosing an entrepreneurial career are valued and invested in R&D by providing venture funds and R&D space. At one level it has worked. Now they are asking their citizens to be creative and grow the creative industries. It will be interesting to see whether that is a bridge too far in economic engineering terms. Doesn’t real creativity come from somewhere much further back and rely on culture? The same questions arise for law firms trying to be innovative and creative. How far can this be engineered and funded and how much just relies on the one thing law firms have always competed on – unique culture and inexplicable leadership?

26 07 2010
intelligentchallenge

Great comment Matt; a key question you raise is whether innovation is something that can be “implemented” or whether it is some sort of spontaneous process which comes naturally to some people and not others. I certainly think if you have a framework that encourages innovation (and some tools like those in Thinkertoys) then anyone is capable of creativity, but you are absolutely right, the firm culture needs to support creativity and innovation. It’s not enough to simply push out a creativity “toolkit” and hope the firm will be transformed!

26 07 2010
Paul Rutherford

This will sound defeatist but I think there are some environments where innovation will forever be an unwelcome guest.

Aren’t lawyers risk averse by nature? That’s why they went into the law – a place where there are rules and boundaries.

There is an inherent conservatism in the profession. Its role is to conserve and protect. And to maintain its own status quo.

This applies at both the micro level (the firm, with its hierarchy and culture) and the macro (established career paths, the role of law to shape a society).

Of course, there are noticeable exceptions. They leave to do other things 🙂

If “the professions are a conspiracy against the laity” (Bernard Shaw) then once you’ve become a senior member of the crew, who wants to rock the boat?

26 07 2010
intelligentchallenge

Another thought provoking response Paul: the cheque’s in the post. At first sight it seems like being risk averse and being innovative are mutually exclusive. Being innovative means trying new things, not being prepared to fail. Not the sort of behaviour for the risk averse. But, in practice, I don’t think it’s so black and white. For example, take a tough negotiation. The lawyer is there to protect his client’s interests, but that’s not necessarily to minimise risk. As long as the client understands the risks involved, he or she may choose to accept those risks, and its not the lawyer’s job (IMHO) to dictate the client’s tolerance to risk. Critically, even for the risk averse client, negotiations may hit the skids, and it will require an innovative solution to move forward. The solution may not be risky, but it may well require innovation to find it.

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