A trainee solicitor’s experience of law firm innovation

Reed Smith’s Shannon Diggory reports from the City frontline

With the constant media buzz surrounding the wonders of artificial intelligence (AI) and other disruptive technologies in legal practice, it can often seem that the well-trodden career path of the trainee and junior lawyer is now under threat.

Furthermore, it is unclear how legal education should best harness these technological developments to prepare aspiring trainees for work in law firms and in-house legal teams in the next five years. Future trainees are now asking questions such as, “Should I be able to code, be commercial, be a data scientist and be able to automate myself?”

Conversely, legal jobseekers will be able to take advantage of the new positions heralded by the age of innovation, with fancy job titles like ‘innovation manager’, ‘knowledge engineer’ and ‘product manager’.

What does innovation even mean?

The term innovation is used (and misused) to mean a multitude of things in the legal industry and in our clients’ industries, with no real distinction being made between activity and output. At Reed Smith, we view it as constantly thinking differently about how we do things, while always having the client’s desired outcome in mind. As a trainee, you are perfectly placed to embrace innovation right from the start of your career; you are not yet set in your ways, and you can bring fresh eyes to many problems requiring a solution.

The result of this approach can be small changes or radical proposals, but all are equally valuable. To only consider radical change to be truly innovative is to miss improving things incrementally and fixing the basics.

Getting comfortable with innovation

Reed Smith’s innovation team has focused a significant amount of time in the last 12 months on the issues of future skills and roles, and getting lawyers comfortable with being creative (a harder task than you might imagine!). As trainees, we are encouraged to attend the frequent innovation sessions held in our Innovation Hub (see video below), a space which is a blank canvas for using creative and innovative techniques, and to put forward our ideas for innovation projects.

The Innovation Hub uses service design techniques, and is run by an innovation manager with over a decade of experience building digital legal products using techniques that put the end user or client at the heart of designing the service. Reflective of this client focus is the fact that we have had our clients come to the firm and present to us about how they see innovation benefitting their company and industry sector.

The real boon of this push for innovation in the legal sector is that it is one area in which the playing field is levelled between lawyers of all levels of seniority. When discussing innovation, it is the idea that takes precedence, not the experience of the individual presenting that idea. As such, Reed Smith has created a platform from which trainees and junior lawyers are able to have a real impact on the future of the firm.

This year we also extended this approach to our summer vacation scheme by including in the agenda a three-hour session around innovation.

Playing out a client scenario

To get the summer vacation students into this mindset, we gave them an employment law problem-solving task created by one of our Reed Smith innovation champions. Two teams tackled the task, which required them to consider how to respond to a fictional client (a HR director) on their company’s issues regarding retention of staff and protection of confidential information, in the face of multiple employees moving to competitor companies and a standard employment contract that was not up to scratch. The task was how to use their legal skills, their understanding of the fictional client, and an innovative approach (potentially using digital technology), to ultimately deliver a great solution.

The obvious place to start was the law itself but, using some techniques around personas and putting oneself in the clients’ shoes, it became more about the client and a focus on their world and their pressures, and on the broader issue of retaining and attracting talent to the business and how to best manage a change of contract for the existing employees.

For the teams, this was an exercise in how to be client-centric from the start, and to remember that a perfect legal outcome nonetheless may have unintended practical, commercial and personal ramifications within a business. In that sense, the exercise aimed to demonstrate that innovation is broader than the way in which we work and whether we choose to use disruptive technologies; it begins with the way in which we think as lawyers.

Once the students had cultivated their innovative approach, they also looked at how a digital approach that used automation, AI, and data and collaboration tools could deliver a standout result to the busy HR director and simplify a large-scale roll-out of new or amended employment contracts.

Thinking differently about legal services

The firm received excellent feedback from vacation scheme students who took part in the sessions:

Being able to work in an environment such as the hub enabled me to foster my innovation and push myself in ways I didn’t think were possible! Not only was I able to personally grow, the session enabled me to develop my collaborative skills and get to know those on the scheme in a personal and fun way.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Innovation Hub session. It was a good ice-breaker exercise because it required everyone to work as a team to solve an issue. I am a visual learner, so having the ability to illustrate my ideas on a whiteboard wall helped me identify potential solutions and creatively build on them.

The Innovation Hub session was one of the highlights of my vacation scheme at Reed Smith. I learned that an innovatively designed space can encourage innovative approaches, trigger innovative ideas and thereby lead to innovative solutions. I thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere of creativity and collaboration the Hub breeds.

Reed Smith also recently completed a four-week legal innovation intern programme where, as part of their MA course, two future Reed Smith trainees looked at a real legal service delivery project using legal technology, and applied product development and service design approaches to establish what a future service could look like.

The students worked in an agile approach with the innovation manager and the practice team to design this service and evaluate the legal technologies against the needs. The team also went out to a legal engineering team to learn how tech companies build products to get an external view.

Innovation as an opportunity

Innovation is here to stay, and instead of seeing it as a threat, trainees and junior lawyers should embrace the new platform which it affords them. Every day as a trainee you deal with issues which are completely new to you, and you become used to someone telling you to think differently about something or to come at a problem from a different angle, which does not happen as frequently when you become more senior.

When reviewing your progress, instead of always focusing on the answer you came to, think hard about all the ways you tried to reach that solution. Capitalise on the inventive approaches that inexperience fosters and you will already be using innovation to your advantage.

Shannon Diggory is a trainee solicitor at Reed Smith in London.

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