Innovation can be a loaded word in the legal industry, but broken down simply, it really means just introducing new things or methods to improve an established practice or process.
It’s a definition that Marcia Burris, Director of Research and Knowledge Management at Nexsen Pruet, knows well and has applied throughout the many phases of her career. Always centered around library services, Burris began her professional path as a legal entrepreneur and then as an internal library services manager at an Am Law 200 firm. She also supported law firms as a consultant, helping them optimize research and information services.
Burris joined Nexsen Pruet — a major regional commercial law firm with more than 180 attorneys in eight offices throughout the Carolinas — about two years ago. She immediately set out to innovate the firm’s research and library services and ultimately drive efficiencies in attorney workflow by identifying and removing barriers to information access.
In addition to expanding legal research training and resource awareness programs, Burris worked with firm leadership to revamp the firm’s approach to online costs so that attorneys could conduct research without concerns about these potential costs to their clients. To make online access more seamless for users, she also worked with vendors to remove client matter entry screens and implement a single sign-on to eliminate the need for passwords.
These changes have spurred growth in use of online tools, enabling the firm to cut print materials and save administrative time on cost recovery efforts.
On the knowledge management side, Burris said she is seeking to enhance access to internal firm knowledge and determine how the firm can do the same for clients. Internally, Burris launched a new intranet platform that integrates financial data dashboards and organizes other common information sets, paving the way for future enhancements and team collaboration sites. Externally, the firm is adding portals to facilitate client access to work products and case management information, and creating virtual deal rooms to add efficiency to those transactions. These sites help to strengthen client relationships through added practical efficiencies and partnership with clients.
Burris’s approach in creating collaboration platforms, both internal and external, is to start small with one or two targeted projects for a small group of users. This “first step” allows her to learn from each user group and incorporate that as she rolls out collaborative platforms to new user groups.
In the external client project, Burris is creating client-facing sites with basic functionality like file sharing and then enhancing the sites based on what the clients want. “It’s not just about the technology,” Burris says. “We’re trying to be strategic to have conversations with the firm’s attorneys and their clients and make sure we are providing content that is going to help them manage their legal matters.” This client-centric approach is enhanced through use of user-friendly tools over which attorneys have significant control.
This approach has worked well. When a seasoned attorney, who was piloting the tool for firm-client collaboration, built his own homepage with no formal training other than Burris opening up the tool and giving him a quick tour, she knew the platform would work well for attorneys throughout the firm.
Influencing & persistence are key
Through her entrepreneurial background and experience in her own business development, Burris learned early the value of framing the pitch to focus on the audience member or stakeholder to determine what is the one thing that will get them to Yes. Burris keeps that in mind in her current role as she focuses on the benefit to end-users of each new tool the firm introduces. For example, during the implementation of the new intranet (which occurred before the pandemic), Burris provided each individual a tour of all of the information they now had at their fingertips, personalizing the tour to highlight features which would benefit them specifically. And in order to deliver information users needed, the firm integrated many different data sets, such as those from billing and collections, configured into easy-to-access-and-read dashboards and an enhanced employee directory that was merged with timekeeper details.
Yet, in promoting any new tool or innovation for firm-wide adoption, the value of stakeholder support and good user word of mouth cannot be overlooked, Burris explains. Even with good influencing, the new intranet ultimately had to be easy to use and provide the promised efficiencies in order to be widely adopted. Burris knew the project would be successful during preview tours when staff members asked her to make the site their new homepage.
While the new intranet was easily adopted, other changes can be more difficult to implement. In those projects, Burris values the perspective gained from her prior business experience that “No” from a new user or prospect may simply mean “not right now” or “not until I have more information”. Understanding this has allowed Burris to continue working through stakeholder and user concerns and help get projects over the finish line.
Impact of pandemic on innovation
During the current pandemic, Burris has observed a positive element in her work — a silver lining of sorts in an otherwise overall difficult situation. Though she characterized the culture of Nexsen Pruet as one that is open to innovation, Burris says she also knows that all organizations have those individuals who are slower to adopt new tools and technology.
Despite this, she has found that many lawyers and staff are showing an increasing willingness to new technology and change in general because of the dramatic nature of the impact of the pandemic on workflow. “I think the situation has opened people’s eyes and created more openness to trying new things because the status quo really has been upset,” Burris says.
Unlike previous business interruptions where the impact may have been more short term, Burris explains that she expects the changed outcomes in practices to be permanent once the pandemic wanes. “This time the change really feels real,” she says. “We find that attorneys who hadn’t done certain tasks online in the past, or who might have thought they could make it to retirement without changing their work processes, are increasingly doing more work online.”
And once these individuals discover that they can be successful in leveraging newer technologies, they are naturally more open to additional new ways of thinking about their work processes, she adds. “Change begets more change.”