Disruptive by Design: Thoughts from Eimear McCann

Explore the intersection of law and innovation. Learn how creativity transforms legal practice and why client-centricity is the future of legal disruption.
December 19, 2023
Last updated:
December 19, 2023

There is nothing that appeals to me more than learning. It could be anything - a random fact, a language, or a completely new subject matter. In a sense, tech is all about learning. A fast-paced and evolving space that pushes boundaries and asks us why we do things the way that we do. And the best kind of learning though often comes in the form of simple human interaction, when people change your thinking.

I ran a workshop last week with Law South. The session aimed to create a discussion about the need for law firms to adapt to change. I wanted to dispel a few myths and buzzwords, and get a conversation started about what innovation could look like in real life.

In retrospect, I expected some friction between traditional beliefs and the need to innovate and adapt. I also anticipated some resistance to the exploration of new concepts within law, such as human-centred design and creative thinking. I had given thought to the reasons around why creativity is so important within legal, and how this creativity could impact the practice of law.

What I did not expect was to find a group of lawyers who were already practising what I had intended to preach. From the outset, lawyers spoke about encouraging their colleagues to think differently, to take time out from law and look at other industries. One lawyer was asking himself how differently would his firm operate and think if it was a tech company?

And what a fantastic question! What could law firms learn from tech companies? Moreover, what could law firms learn from other sectors generally?

I only recently came across the term ‘cross-pollination’, which Tom Kelley, partner at IDEO, describes as “a kind of alchemy of innovation”. The thinking is simple – look at other industries and see what they’re doing. Inspiration can often come from places we least expect. How innovative are we going to be in legal if we only have lawyers advising others on growth and change? We can learn from other lawyers if those lawyers have an open mindset and a real desire to do things differently. But crucially, where does this open mindset come from in the first place?

Why do we need creativity?

There is something very liberating about removing restrictions and diversifying your thinking. And there is a tangible shift in energy when this happens in a group setting. This is where creativity comes into play. Our workshop was a great example of this.

We are all wired to create. Neuroscientists discovered that the whole brain becomes involved in a complex creative process, with interaction between the conscious and unconscious cognitive systems and our emotions. And brain plasticity is a thing. Our brains evolve and change as we grow. We never stop learning, even though we may not always have the time or resources to pursue this as much as we would like.

I firmly believe that lawyers are creative, and I talk about this a lot. Creativity is not an abstract concept. It leads to a freedom of expression and an abundance mentality, which leads to new ideas, drives innovation, and makes people and business more resilient.

What about structure?

If we can shift our mindset, then we are really onto something. From open thinking, ideas will start to emerge, but there is still a need for structure. Creativity and structure are not mutually exclusive concepts; they need each other. A novel would not exist without it, and arguably, the lines between art and graffiti blur if we remove social and behavioural structures.

Interestingly, members of the Law South group were already looking at how they could create a tangible structure to foster the generation of new ideas; recognising that it was worth the effort in the longer term. The curiosity mindset was already there, so the next question centred on the “how”. How can we foster creativity in our legal setting? How can we strike a balance between the fundamental legal work and enabling change through creative thinking?

We talked about providing staff with time each week to pursue a creative passion. There was recognition that this small snapshot of time could significantly pay off. One idea or initiative could have a dramatic impact across the whole business? The shift, we all agreed, could be fundamental.

In its simplest form, innovation is about trying something new. It’s about taking those creative thoughts and putting something into action. It doesn’t need to be a huge project or a transformation piece. In its simplest packaging, it’s about identifying what you’re trying to change. It is recognising that failure is part of that journey. This is often the trickiest part, but as lawyers, we are used to failing. We lose a big client and we lose cases, but we are trained to be resilient, so we pick ourselves up and get on with the next matter.

In practice, lawyers are constantly researching, ideating, and prototyping. As lawyers, we try different approaches regularly, and we do learn to trust our intuition. A lot of the time, we land in the middle of a case that we have never had to navigate before. We learn as we go, and we adapt to it.

Where should change come from?

If this is the case, why are we still fed the narrative that law is slow to change? This is a massive question, and the answer is complex and layered. Law is a traditional sector and when you have a lucrative model that works, many ask whether we need to change at all.

One contentious issue is how much of this change is client-driven, and how much is coming from within. We hear a lot about client-centricity, and we can feel a tangible push externally for doing things differently. There is a tension between the internal and the external, as well as a tension between the traditional approach and the “innovative” ones.

The question of client-centricity is a critical one. What does the client want? Once again, not a simple answer. A client could be a GC for an FTSE 100 company, or the founder of a tech start-up, but a client could also be a vulnerable patient or a first-time homeowner. Will the client’s specific needs always be the same? Of course not. Will your client really care whether you have the best tech tools internally, or whether you have your own in-house legal designer? Perhaps. Ultimately, a client will come to you with a problem and will want to know how you are going to solve it and how much it will cost. Moreover, they are going to really value personal care, in whatever form that takes.

Connecting the dots between innovating and making the client experience better is what we really want to talk about. The client may not need to hear about your great contract review tool, but they’ll be happy if you work quicker, and you cost less. They may not have any interest in your design thinking process, but they’ll love their clearly worded agreement.

Listening to clients is key and this does not mean carrying out long-winded surveys or market research. It can be as simple as using your imagination, by putting yourself in their shoes. Tuning into shifts in thinking and culture will always help; for example, how important are ethical concerns to your client? This takes some creative thought, which brings us right back to the starting point – awareness.

Breaking it into pieces

If we look at this year, we have seen shifts in behaviour globally. We can use terms like ‘unprecedented’ and take a global picture, and we can start to break it down into little pieces. Take this example; why did NHS clinical negligence claims fall in 2020? Was this based on improvements within the NHS, or due to a shortage of medical experts (and court bottlenecks) due to COVID? Or, in fact, does this decline relate more to a deeper emotional connection to the work of our health services and a reticence to bring, or pursue, negligence claims? Perhaps the latter is purely media speculation, but this can feed into collective behaviours.

Another example is the role of tech, which has seen a huge surge in the past 12 months. There has been a move away from investments in “out of the box” tools and a focus on tools that solve specific problems. Customers are seeking out a very tailored solution. Many legal teams have also been forced to examine existing applications and seek out ways to drive efficiency. Predicted trends and mindsets have shifted in tandem.

Legal is unique in many ways, but we are no less impacted by these behavioural and cultural shifts than any other sector. Our world is changing at a fast pace. Tech is here to stay, and digital literacy is both an inevitability and a necessity. However, people and their emotional connections remain as unpredictable as ever, and we must listen. We must tap into our imaginations and come up with solutions that make commercial sense.

I believe that the key to doing this is to shutout the noise and focus on what makes us unique. We have to use that individualism to push beyond the static and design our own disruption.


About the author

Eimear McCann

Eimear practiced as a lawyer for 11 years, focusing on litigation, immigration and public law, before moving into LegalTech with F-lex Legal. She has an LLC and worked at Summize as our Head of Strategy.
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