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Innovation now at core of legal profession

From cutting-edge technology to agile work practices, Irish law firms are adopting an ‘innovation agenda’

Successfully adopting innovative practices has the power to bring competitive advantage. Photograph: iStock

Successfully adopting innovative practices has the power to bring competitive advantage. Photograph: iStock


Traditionally viewed as a bastion of conservatism, the legal industry is transforming into one where innovation is at its core. It’s a culture that spans everything from cutting-edge technology to agile work practices.

“There isn’t a single player within the legal industry that is driving innovation. It’s coming about through a number of contributors, including law firms, suppliers such as technology businesses, alternative legal services providers, new entrants in the market wanting to offer something fresh and new, and, of course, our clients,” says Andreas Carney, partner at law firm Pinsent Masons.

“What that means is that there isn’t a single vision of what innovation looks. It also means that there is healthy competition between all of those players, which in turn drives us to examine critically what we do within our businesses, how we do it, and with creative thinking and investment, how we can improve on it.”

Successfully adopting innovative practices has the power to bring competitive advantage, he says.

“We operate in a highly competitive environment and USPs [unique selling points] and points of difference count. While the legal industry may still be viewed by some as conservative, my own experience is that perception is changing. Most firms now have an innovation agenda. 

“When clients are asking us to pitch for work, they often ask us what our innovation credentials are, and want concrete examples of how we’ve implemented them, and ask what that means in terms of value for our clients. Claiming to be innovative isn’t enough – we need to show that we ‘walk the walk’,” he says.

It is now almost 10 years since Pinsent Masons introduced its SmartDelivery programme, which allows the firm to respond flexibly and efficiently to client demand. The programme has evolved significantly over time and is now supported within the practice by a team of technologists, data scientists, forensic accountants, specialist project managers and lawyers. 

‘Culture of innovation’

“Having the right personnel to implement SmartDelivery is vital, of course, but equally important is to have a clear understanding of why we have this mixed skill set within our business, why we need to continue to invest in it, and of course buy-in from our colleagues as a whole. That’s where having a culture of innovation is key, and that culture is part of our firm’s DNA,” says Carney. 

For example, when its financial services clients have had to review huge volumes of contracts for restructuring or regulatory change, Pinsent Masons was able to deliver those projects through using its own teams and technology, built up through years of proofs of concept, development and investment. 

And when its clients have wanted to sort out their day-to-day contracting challenges, it has brought its own teams to bear to map their processes, automate their contracts and deliver integrated contract management systems. 

“The feedback from clients for those implementations of our SmartDelivery has been very positive.

 “How have we managed to do that? Because our people are always encouraged to think differently – to ask themselves ‘how can we solve this problem differently?’ – investing in that thinking and creating time for them to come up with new ways to solve old and new problems,” says Carney. 

Crucially, one way it creates that time is to recognise and give credit for time spent by its lawyers on innovation “so that it doesn’t feel like just an ‘add-on’ to their day job”, he says. 

Developing a culture of innovation is central to the success of A&L Goodbody too. 

“We have a long history of spotting trends and opportunities but what makes us stand out is the way we execute on them,” says Julian Yarr, the law firm’s managing partner.

“Thinking differently is instilled in all our people from the moment they join us. It’s the reason why we’ve been named the FT’s Most Innovative Law Firm in Ireland in four of the last seven years,” he says.

In recent years, it has introduced a unique learning and development programme called the ALG School of Business & Law.

It’s an award-winning integrated programme that aims to develop everyone from trainee right up to partner, and can culminate in an accredited masters qualification through its partnership with UCD Smurfit and Sutherland Schools. Its first masters’ students graduated this year.

“Eighteen months ago, we ran an employee competition looking for ideas to improve our client service using technology. We had dozens of ideas, and implemented the best of them. We have our own client technology team made up of business analysts, project managers and application administrators,” says Yarr.

“We are the first and only law firm to be awarded the Business Working Responsibly mark, which encompasses our environmental projects, community programme and our pro-bono practice. Again, we are leading the market, having been the first firm to introduce a full-time pro-bono lawyer and pro-bono trainee rotation.”

Agile working

A&L Goodbody has invested heavily in agile working too. “Every lawyer and many of our business professionals have laptops with fast, secure access to our network. This means our staff can work at any time in any location. We have a cloud-first policy in implementing new software and applications which enables greater agility and new client-servicing models,” he says.

It has invested in legal technology for a number of years, both to help it perform processes more efficiently, to the benefit of clients, and to allow it provide new services to clients which are revenue-generating.

“We are using machine learning and natural language processing technologies in some of our processes, particularly those that require us to review thousands of legal documents. They decrease risk and are more time- and cost-efficient for our clients,” says Yarr.

One cutting-edge technology it has adopted is RelativityOne, a cloud-based ediscovery platform. “We have not only integrated it into our litigation practice, but also into our data subject access request process. It allows us to review and analyse huge amounts of data and provide real-time information to our clients.”