Saul Ewing asks 'why not?' after firmwide innovation contest

The logo of law firm Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr is seen at their legal offices in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., June 10, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

(Reuters) - Suggestion boxes -- think a cardboard container covered in butcher block paper with a slot on top -- are about as avant-garde as fax machines in today’s workplace.

But the idea behind them, of asking employees to brainstorm ways to improve their organization, is perennially sound.

Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr came up with what strikes me as a high-tech suggestion box, turning ideas for innovating policies and procedures into a firmwide contest that attracted 271 participants split evenly between lawyers and staff.

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The winning ideas were unveiled at a town hall earlier this month and have been or will soon be implemented.

To be clear, we’re not talking about revolutionizing the practice of law. But small things can make a big difference in people’s satisfaction with their jobs, especially as firms return to in-person work and the war for talent rages on.

The contest was dubbed SAULutions. (I’ve got to pause a moment and applaud the firm for recognizing that having “Saul” in its name opens the door to a world of puns, not to mention “Breaking Bad” references. Sometimes – just ask Morrison & Foerster a.k.a. MoFo – you might as well own it.)

“We wanted to create a forum for everyone in the firm to contribute their thoughts on innovative ways to improve” it, said Jason St. John, who was elected managing partner of 375-lawyer Saul Ewing in late January. He replaced Barry Levin, who led the firm for nine years and has returned to his corporate practice as a partner.

“Rather than doing this by addressing pain points, we wanted people to problem-solve,” St. John told me.

Saul Ewing's contest comes at a time of unparalleled lateral movement in the legal industry and a job market where employees hold much of the power in establishing work-life balance.

It follows on the heels of the firm's recently announced "Four Plus Four" plan, where all lawyers are asked to work in person on Wednesdays as well as four other days a month, whether at one of the firm's 16 offices, visiting a client or elsewhere.

As a bonus, Wednesdays are designated as "Zoom free," so lawyers and staff can interact in person rather than on screens.

Saul Ewing isn’t the first firm to solicit ideas from its lawyers and staff. Blank Rome, for example, holds an annual innovation challenge where attorneys and staff suggest ways to enhance client services and firm efficiency.

But Saul Ewing put its own spin on the process.

The firm's innovation contest kicked off on Jan. 31. Lawyers and staff formed 62 teams, with a 10-person max per team. In all, 135 lawyers and 136 staff out of 803 total employees opted to participate.

The teams came up with 88 suggestions (sorry, I mean SAULutions) that St. John said fell into five general categories: knowledge management; technology; inclusive community building; expressing kudos and gratitude; and ESG, or environmental, social and governance policies.

So, did anyone suggest that the firm take everyone on a six-month cruise around the world or install a golden retriever in each office or pay all wages in lottery tickets?

Nope. “Everyone took it really seriously,” St. John said. “There wasn’t anything off-the-wall.”

A panel of judges representing cross sections of the firm (with the exception of the executive committee, because they can already set policy) picked six finalists.

Each team of finalists then made a short video to pitch their idea, a process that St. John likened to “one of those reality TV shows.”

The videos were uploaded to the firm’s new internal app, where employees viewed them and ranked their favorite ideas from one to six.

The top two winning ideas were unveiled at a town-hall meeting on April 7.

The first, which will begin Memorial Day weekend, will allow business professionals and staff to leave early on Friday afternoons, assuming their work is done.

St. John noted that many businesses, including multiple firm clients, have similar policies in place.

“We thought ‘Why not?’ It’s an easy thing to do,” he said.

The other winner is dubbed “Ask Saul,” perhaps because “Better Call Saul” was already taken. It’s described as “a dedicated knowledge desk to help address questions from HR to billing to staffing in a central location.”

The idea is that if someone has a question but doesn’t quite know who to ask -- for example, “Who do I talk to about going on parental leave?” or “How can I get a copy of an old W-2?” or “Could we add my favorite Sharpie Gel pens to our office supply order?” -- they can simply email Ask Saul.

A group of in-the-know people will monitor the inbox and provide answers or action.

Legal consultant Lisa Smith of Fairfax Associates said firms can benefit from providing a way for all members to offer suggestions. People "often have very good ideas about what they see as areas that could use improvement but don't always have a forum to share them," she told me.

That can especially be true at the staff level, where such initiatives may aid in retention. "We're seeing competition for talent not just at the lawyer level but at all levels of the firm," Smith said. "Firms are recognizing the value of business professionals -- and realizing that they're not fungible or easy to replace."

St. John told me Saul Ewing is also acting on other proposed suggestions, such as helping firm members who share common interests come together by forming book clubs, cooking clubs and fitness groups.

The SAULutions “really exceeded our expectations,” he said. “It’s all about having a seat at the table.”

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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