An innovative approach to innovation? Dechert tries a new tack

(Reuters) - "Innovation" has become one of Big Law's trendiest buzzwords, with dozens of firms in recent years adding chief innovation officers, innovation task forces and innovation committees.

But pinning down exactly what innovation means in the law firm context can be tricky. Something about new technology and efficiency and improved client satisfaction?

Sure, that sounds good.

Let's just say my initial reaction was a big yawn when I saw a press release from Dechert touting its new innovation program.

What caught my attention, though, was who the 975-lawyer firm is partnering with: design company Ideo.

Dubbed "Silicon Valley's most influential design firm," by Fast Company, Ideo's credits include creating the first usable mouse for Apple computers. (Previous versions were too expensive, unreliable and difficult to produce.)

So, er, what are they doing with Dechert?

Ideo doesn't just design products. The 700-employee company applies its "human-centered" design approach to offer management consulting and organizational services, tackling projects such as designing an entire K-12 network of schools in Peru or working with hotels, food banks, foundations and entrepreneurs to reduce the 1.3 billion tons of food wasted every year.

Dechert says it's the first law firm to partner with Ideo on a full-fledged innovation program, though the design company previously worked with Hogan Lovells, for example, to revamp its annual employee review process.

"Legal teams today face mounting challenges from the fast pace of change in their organizations, shifts in regulatory landscapes, and pressures toward operational efficiency," Rochael Adranly, Ideo's chief legal officer and the co-creator of the legal design and innovation practice, said in a statement.

"Learning to approach these challenges with a creative mindset can provide a huge breakthrough that benefits not only the organization's capacity for problem-solving, but the experiences of their clients and employees," she added.

That's very nice, but what does it actually mean for Dechert?

I spoke with partner Ben Barnett, a member of the firm's innovation task force, and Lucia Elizalde-Bulanti, who is Dechert's legal innovation manager, about what the new innovation program will look like.

They're starting small. Only 40 people – a mix of lawyers and business services professionals – will participate in the inaugural session, which will run from June to November. Announced on Monday, it's already over-subscribed, Elizalde-Bulanti said, though they have yet to determine who'll be admitted.

The firm plans to expand the program next year.

For participants, it's a fairly significant time commitment, with 48 hours of classroom instruction, plus an equal amount of time spent on independent work, nearly 100 hours total.

"We're really looking for people who want to invest themselves in the program," Barnett said, with the hope that they'll spread the word going forward and "sell it to others internally."

It strikes me that the firm is wise not to foist it on everyone all at once.

Law firms are generally not known for their embrace of cutting-edge business management techniques, trailing far behind corporate American over the years in trying out programs such as Lean Six Sigma and Total Quality Management with mixed success.

Elizalde-Bulanti said a basic goal is to change Dechert's culture and ingrained habits, giving the people who work there "the power to be bold and experiment," and to better understand client perspectives.

The innovation program is divided into four modules. The first two, taught online by Ideo, will cover creative problem-solving and client-centric service delivery.

Guest lecturers will contribute to the latter two on effective pricing and matter management techniques, and digital literacy.

Participants will be expected to develop a creative solution to a real-life client or business challenge.

I pressed Barnett and Elizalde-Bulanti for specific examples of what this might look like. They hedged, saying that they expect program participants will come up with their own, to-be-determined projects.

Still, it's not entirely clear to me how much scope for creativity there is in challenging, say, reporting requirements for derivatives clearing organizations or ERISA benefit decisions. Not all legal work strikes me as equally suited to the Ideo approach.

In a broader sense, I also wondered, "How do you teach creativity?"

"Everyone is capable of being creative and innovative," said Barnett, a litigator and e-discovery expert. The program is about giving them the tools to do so.

"Some people leave creativity behind when they come to work. They feel like there's no space to be creative," he said. "But we don't have to do things the way we've always done them. Change can be liberating."

Barnett and Elizalde-Bulanti certainly come across as converts to the gospel of Ideo, and their enthusiasm is contagious.

But will the program be as transformative as they hope? They're optimistic, but only time will tell. They promised me an update a year from now.

In the meantime, kudos to Dechert for trying what amounts to an innovative approach to innovation.

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Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at