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How To Get Legal Innovation Off The Ground (Hint: See Delta Airlines)

The legal realm isn’t exactly a hotbed of innovation, but looking to other industries for the inspiration to make changes may be instructive. Example: Delta Airlines’ move to redesign the cabin experience for their passengers.

The legal realm isn’t exactly a hotbed of innovation. There may be a number of good reasons for this, but in today’s quickly morphing landscape there is little doubt that it can be a handicap. Looking to other industries for the inspiration may be instructive to those in legal.

Take the airline industry—Delta Airlines to be specific, which recently won the top prize for cabin innovations with its new Delta One Business class suite. It’s the first business class suite with a door — an innovation previously reserved for a limited number of passengers aboard Singapore Airlines, Emirates, and Etihad. And what motivated Delta’s peers to reward the airline for its new cabins? Delta was able to expand regulatory approval for this luxury by partnering with a design firm who could deliver a new standard. Delta, their seat supplier, and design partners re-wrote FAA rules.

Delta was likely not the first US airline to see the competition’s superior cabin and consider privacy doors for their own fleets, but they were the first to take the innovative risk and realize it at scale. Their efforts gave them first-mover advantage and opened the door for other airlines to develop their own Business Class suites in the future, probably changing the entire airline industry.

It’s a great place for Delta to be — respected, awarded, even profiled by its peers for advancing the status of the industry. Many general counsel and their executive teams would no doubt welcome a similar achievement—if only risk were not associated with the effort.

The owner of the design firm that partnered with the Delta to create their new suites summed up the process that led to their success: “The effort we went through with [the suite’s manufacturer] . . . to get certification approval was considerable, but that’s true of any innovation. It’s the job of certification bodies to challenge innovation, and the job of designers and manufacturers to match those challenges…but it’s not easy.”

Key take away: it’s not easy. In fact, for legal operations managers, the entire general counsel’s office could be considered an ad-hoc certification body! Hard work aside, innovation — or even just deciding to use innovative services — involves risk, and in a risk-averse industry, putting the kibosh unfamiliar ideas simply feels safer. Be that as it may, how can an enterprising general counsel or legal operations manager ignite the process of innovation within a practice, knowing there is likely to be a strong headwind?

First, don’t begin by assuming that all problem-solving begins with a Request for Proposal, especially that RFP template you’ve probably been using forever.  An RFP as it’s used today is mainly a risk-mitigation device, meant to compare similar services among similar providers, prompting a reiteration of what is or what was. It rarely inspires innovation, but rather tempts respondents to provide answers that force fit a framework you’ve already defined. (Perhaps Delta omitted it from their success story, but it seems doubtful they issued a RFP to cabin designers asking if they were willing to challenge current aviation regulations.)

At its heart, innovation is disruption — a violation of current practice. In order to innovate, you need an open mind and others willing to face the challenge of seeking solutions that do not currently exist.

So instead of rushing to ask for proposals, consider the following:

  • Think about your problem or concern and determine if it could be reframed to suggest an innovative or just a different approach. What is at the heart of the need or goal? Can a workflow be modified? Can a technology solution be implemented? Can personnel be shifted? Innovation can be unnerving when it may affect people’s jobs, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they lose them. Roles and tasks may just need to be redefined.
  • Consult with business partners about what other counsel have attempted or dreamed of in their own practice groups. This may be the spark you need to identify how and where to move forward within your own legal operations. Processes like RFP’s that keep business partners at arm’s length impede that collaboration. Throw the door open to suggestions. Your business partners may have new strategies today for achieving tomorrow what wasn’t achievable yesterday. And, by the way, meet those partners in person. This is not an email conversation, which can quickly morph into a marauding RFP — the checkbox menace to innovation.
  • Blur the roles of buyer and seller and just dive into problem-solving so that so you can converse about possibilities free of the limitations of structured hierarchies and formalities. Set confining realities aside long enough to explore edgy ideas—you can always rein them back in when it comes to strategizing about implementation. (And by the way, always have napkins around. All the good stories about innovation start with “the original idea was sketched on a napkin!”)

Innovation is hard work that requires deep collaboration and minds open to possibility. Investing in the relationships necessary to change legal operations and looking forward instead of back may lead to the kind of innovative thinking can give the industry lift and make it as dynamic as it need to be today.



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