One Person at a Time: Transforming Legal Work at K&L Gates

Topics: Artificial Intelligence, Business Development & Marketing Blog Posts, Client Relations, Data Analytics, Efficiency, Law Firm Profitability, Law Firms, Leadership, Legal Innovation, Q&A Interviews

legal work

This is the age of the grand innovation initiative, as many law firms install innovation czars with titles such as Chief Innovation Officer. Certainly, that kind of focus on innovation strategy and the big picture is critical for law firms working to meet the challenges of a changing industry.

It’s just as important to recognize, however, that sometimes change and innovation in organizations comes one person at a time, through a “coalition of the willing” in a more grassroots fashion. That’s how Melissa Speidel, the Director of the Business Transformation Office at K&L Gates, puts it.

When Speidel describes the firm’s innovation initiatives, her first instinct is to highlight the work of the lawyers in the firm who have taken the initiative on their own to contribute diverse interests and backgrounds to the many flavors of change going on in the firm.

Speidel also leads a Client Innovation Team comprised of representatives from the lawyers, IT, library staff, matter planning, knowledge management, and other groups. The team has a process for surfacing new products, evaluating them, and looking at them from different perspectives. “We have a governance process that a lot of law firms don’t have,” says Speidel. “So, when we see a product, we see an opportunity, we say, ‘Okay, here — let’s get this moving.’ And we can do that pretty quickly now.”

Legal Executive Institute recently spoke with Speidel and four key innovation evangelists at K&L Gates. The four are leading innovation not through a series of grand schemes, but rather by incrementally bringing new practices to the work and to their teams. The common thread that binds them all together is a focus on the people, process, and products that improve workflows, efficiency, and quality of work. Another important common thread is that these innovation leaders all have backgrounds and skill sets that draw from disciplines beyond the legal industry.

Charlie Carter, Partner, Seattle: Innovation Born of Impatience

With a college degree in philosophy and a clerkship in a New York federal court, Charlie Carter wasn’t particularly technology-oriented when he returned to Seattle to begin practicing law. That practice, however, involved representing technology start-ups on corporate matters, an exposure that left him “steeped in technology.” Another factor that drove his interest in technology? His general impatience. “I think I’m just a fairly impatient person who honestly struggles with manual processes,” Carter says. “I’m constantly looking for ways to streamline and automate processes. That’s where the interest in tech comes from — not from some sort of technical background, but from a frustration and boredom with routine tasks.”

legal work

One of the first innovations Carter pursued was something as simple as streamlining transactions by turning to an electronic signature solution. “In the rest of the world, this feels like it’s not all that novel,” he says. “But in the legal world, it’s only in the last 12 to 24 months that I’m starting to see DocuSign and other e-signature solutions used in business deals on a regular basis.” Another example came from his startup practice, when Carter “stumbled into” a solution called eShares (now Carta) that can get clients’ records out of spreadsheets and into a centrally accessible cloud-based platform that provides a single system of record accessible by any team member on any device. “In the rearview mirror, it looks obvious, but at the time, there were not a ton of people adopting this.”

The fact that these relatively simple efficiency tools are even seen as innovations, says Carter, is the result of the incentive structures that have dominated the legal industry until recently. “When you are getting paid by the hour, you don’t have an incentive to be constantly on the learning curve to think about being more efficient,” he explains, adding that because of his startup practice experience, he had come to that realization before most lawyers. Now, however, he sees the whole market moving in that direction. He mentions one significant client for whom the firm simply sets up a quarterly budget, ending the process of hourly billing for that client. “When your client effectively puts you on a retainer, your incentives to innovate and be more efficient shift 180 degrees.”

Shiau Yen Chin-Dennis and Brendan Gutierrez McDonnell, Partners, Portland: Lessons from Other Industries and Disciplines

For Portland partners ShiauYen Chin-Dennis and Brendan Guitierrez McDonnell, previous career roles gave them an approach to change and innovate that was quite different from most of their law firm peers.

Chin-Dennis came most recently from an in-house role at SAS Institute; and she realized quickly that the technology company mindset was quite different from what she saw on the law firm side. “When I first came to the firm, I know I was quite frustrated,” Chin-Dennis says. “At SAS, we thought in terms of turnkey solutions, and I was quite used to constantly thinking about innovation and re-thinking the way we delivered services to customers. But that way of thinking was lacking here.” In the seven years since, however, the firm has moved forward in terms of providing solutions and adding value to our customers, she says.

“I look at the legal profession and see an industry that has struggled with change. But coming from the Valley and from a situation where if you didn’t change, things we’re not going to go well for your company, I just embraced it.”

— Brendan Gutierrez McDonnell

Gutierrez McDonnell similarly came to legal with a business background. He was an undergraduate accounting major and cut his teeth at a Silicon Valley law firm where he had a front-row seat to watch the way change and disruption was roiling technology companies. “I look at the legal profession and see an industry that has struggled with change,” Gutierrez McDonnell says. “But coming from the Valley and from a situation where if you didn’t change, things we’re not going to go well for your company, I just embraced it.”

Given their backgrounds, both partners are “totally wired in business” and approach legal practice as they would other businesses, Chin-Dennis explains. “We always have that DNA and it drives the way we practice law, whether it’s people, process, or product.”

Another key element of the firm’s approach is a focus on metrics, says Chin-Dennis, pointing out that both she and Gutierrez McDonnell come from a background where numbers are important. “You can say that you want to change and do this or include this, but at the end of the day you have to show results,” she says.

One manifestation of this solutions-based approach is the way allied professionals on Speidel’s team like Chin-Dennis and Guitierrez McDonnell, are integrated into the firm’s solutions. This has allowed Speidel to take part in RFP pitches to underscore that the technologies and processes — and the people behind them — are as much a part of the solution as the legal talent.

“Much of this is about how you manage people,” Guiterrez McDonnell adds. “We treat everyone in this office as if they’re all in the team — they just have a different role. And as our team has grown, it’s really about applying all the principles we’ve mentioned: people, products, and process.”

Bethany Knoblauch, Associate Director, Matter Planning, Pittsburgh: The Front Lines of Legal Process

Bethany Knoblauch leads a matter planning team that leverages the strengths of its team’s legal skills (she herself is a former litigator) and legal process management best practices. The team is focused on pricing and helping the firm’s lawyers plan and manage matters once they are won. The team is also engaged in the evaluation of outside technology.

“We have a governance process that a lot of law firms don’t have. So, when we see a product, we see an opportunity, we say, ‘Okay, here — let’s get this moving.’ And we can do that pretty quickly now.”

— Melissa Speidel

Two tools are key to the team’s operations: data and legal project/process management (LPM) skills. On the data side, the team is constantly looking for metrics that can help them break down matters to understand how long they should take and what resources they will require. Much of what they need is in the firm’s financial metrics, but the challenge lies in extracting data from matter management systems, to more precisely identify the nature of a matter and they types of work involved. She expects that AI will be able to automate some of this classification work, particularly by analyzing free-form time-entry notations. “This data management role is key — this will become an area for growth for us,” says Knoblauch.

On the process side, the team has a core staff (some lawyers, some not) that are certified in LPM techniques. Their approach is to work with the people in the firm to build their own LPM skills, rather than deploying an army of LPM specialists. They’ve recently gone through a training program that will certify 45 of the firm’s lawyers and staff in LPM. In this way, they are trying to “embed LPM in the firm” and make it part of the culture, rather than keeping it as a separate discipline only practiced by a few.

Knoblauch sees progress in how her team is viewed by the firm’s lawyers . “Some lawyers really see the value of the team’s contributions and techniques, some don’t at all, and most are in the middle,” she says, adding that more importantly, an increasing number of the legal staff are starting to see her team not as overhead, but as part of the overall solution and value-add they can deliver to clients.

One Person at a Time

Recalling Speidel’s remark that the firm is building an innovation culture “one person at a time,” these discussions demonstrate that there certainly is a sense that the firm is involved in a marathon, not a sprint, in regard to innovation.

Guiterrez McDonnell recalled that Speidel had organized an “Innovation Avenue” — an exhibit of technologies and practices that had been deployed at the firm — for a recent partnership meeting. “It was sort of an afterthought going into the retreat, but it became the most important part,” he says. “The partners now see that the marketplace is changing rapidly,” Guiterrez McDonnell explains, adding that now, he doesn’t have to speak as loudly or jump up and down as much to get partners’ attention on this subject. “I feel like it’s moving in our direction and that gives us a bigger voice.”