Overcoming Barriers to Law Innovation: Unlocking Performance and Potential to Drive Change in an Era of Disruption

by Deb Baker /

When it comes to innovation, 2018’s most inspiring example was ripped from the headlines—the dramatic rescue of the young Thai soccer team from a cave in Tham Luang.


Elon Musk’s announcement via Twitter that he had invented a kid-sized submarine and was flying it halfway around the globe had all the makings of a summer blockbuster.


Only that’s not what happened. At the end of the day, Musk’s magical mini-sub was a flop.


The real innovation was less flashy but far more inspired. More than 2,000 experts from around the world came together and in a matter of days executed on one of the most remarkable rescues in history.


The result may have lacked Musk’s fanfare, but it was no less innovative—plastic cocoons, floating stretchers, rope lines, and custom-fit masks. Without glitz or glamour, the self-led team combined their insights, brainstormed options, and meticulously but patiently tested their ideas until they came up with a workable solution. It was far from flawless. A Thai Navy Seal lost his life. But the team set out and achieved the goal, saving the lives of 14 children and their coach.


The Thai rescue mission is a reminder that innovation is rarely about bright shiny objects and one-size-fits-all solutions. Rather, the most impactful innovation is about finding new or better solutions to problems that need to be solved.


Nevertheless, this practical and achievable approach to adapting and responding to client needs seems to bedevil some of the best and most sophisticated problem solvers in the world—lawyers.


Over the last decade, while lawyers have become increasingly attuned to the need for innovation, the extent of change has been limited to a handful of organizations. A recent Altman Weil study showed that only 5.6 percent of managing partners have a high degree of confidence in their firm’s ability to innovate. The reason: an inability or unwillingness of lawyers to change.


To better understand the law innovation challenge and identify opportunities to move the needle, professional services industry consultants from GrowthPlay brought together 53 law innovators from law firms, law departments, and alternative service providers for a deep dive into this subject.


We interviewed innovation-minded lawyers and legal professionals from organizations that embrace innovation and those who avoid it, conducted comparative studies to see what we could learn from established innovation research in the B2B world, and leveraged talent analytics to uncover data-based insights to help law firms get smarter when making decisions about how to build higher-performing teams.


We found that, when it comes to innovation, the legal profession’s struggle does not stem from a lack of expertise, business experience, or creativity. Rather, the biggest barrier legal faces is in how they are identifying talent, building collaborative teams, and developing their innovation skills.


The study resulted in three key findings:

  • The DNA of a law innovator has 11 essential elements
  • A lawyer’s ability to sell is highly correlated to a lawyer’s ability to innovate.
  • With data, we can reduce the implicit bias that deters innovation.


Finding #1: The Law Innovator’s DNA


The study uncovered a unique set of innovation competencies needed to accelerate innovation success and overcome the barriers that stymie most innovation inside legal organizations.


Through interviews and research, we compiled two sets of attributes: one identifying factors affiliated with law innovation success and another set tied to competencies needed to overcome common barriers law innovators face.


We then drew upon predictive talent analytics, using the Chally Assessment tool to compare our Innovator Group to an existing database of hundreds of attorneys to uncover differences in natural strengths across 140 statistically valid performance competencies.


The Chally Assessment measures a person’s capacity for skills related to management and sales, as well as motivations around how people approach tasks, influence others, and build relationships. The competencies have been validated using data collected from more than 750,000 participants over more than four decades of research. Because the assessment measures capacity, as opposed to assessing actual performance, it offers an evidence-based approach to predicting the success of individuals in certain roles.


In this case, we mapped the law innovation attributes we compiled to related Chally competencies to create an index of innovation-related capabilities. We then homed in on the attributes where there were meaningful differences between the Innovator Group and the larger database of attorneys and professionals. The result was a set of measurable law innovation competencies making up the Law Innovator’s DNA.


We’ve labeled these the 11 Essential Elements of Innovation:


  1. Ability to navigate inherent conflicts between operations and innovation
  2. Willingness to take risks when outcomes are uncertain
  3. Natural intellectual curiosity and empathic nature
  4. Orientation toward team success over individual success
  5. Ability to adapt and be flexible to changing circumstances
  6. Attentiveness toward internal politics
  7. Recognition of the ongoing need to adapt and change
  8. Focus on outcomes/results over productivity
  9. Awareness of and ability to anticipate and navigate obstacles
  10. Positive and optimistic disposition
  11. Collaborative decision-making style


The Law Innovator’s DNA provides an objective set of criteria to identify and develop teams with the essential skills needed to overcome barriers and accelerate innovation and change. Moreover, using talent analytics, it provides a measurable way to find these high-potential innovators inside an organization.


Finding #2: Innovation is Sales


A second finding came from a more focused look at the most talked about barrier to innovation—resistance to change.


In his book To Sell is Human, Daniel Pink talks about how everyone sells—whether as a professional seller or as a “non-sales” seller—where at least 40 percent of time is spent persuading others to do something you want them to do. The inability to persuade others to change, simply put, is a failure to sell.


So, we got curious about the sales capacities of our Innovator Group.


We matched our study participants to a set of sales role profiles GrowthPlay has validated specifically for professionals, like lawyers, whose jobs require them both to deliver services and generate business from clients (aka “doer-sellers”). The five “doer-seller” profiles are:


  • The Account Manager whose strength is building trust and loyalty.
  • The Lead Generator whose strength is uncovering needs and building interest.
  • The Educator whose strength is in using insight and wisdom.
  • The Inventor whose strength is finding new ways to help buyers respond to trends and changes in market conditions.
  • The Architect whose strength is adapting existing solutions to solve problems in different ways.


GrowthPlay’s existing data on attorneys tells us that almost every lawyer—more than 98 percent—has natural strengths in at least one “doer-seller” sales profile. However, only a handful—less than 16 percent—are a match across all five roles.


In comparison, we found that more than 30 percent of the Innovator Group are a fit in five of five sales roles, indicating a strong correlation between an ability to sell and innovation-mindedness.


The results suggest that identifying and developing sales-related skills will have the dual benefit of supporting revenue growth and accelerating innovation effectiveness.


That brings us to our final and unexpected finding: With data, we can reduce the implicit bias that can deter innovation.


Finding #3: The Intersection of Innovation and Inclusion


Research shows that innovation is more likely when specialists team up. Yet teams comprised of legal and business experts alone are not moving the needle on law innovation. This, in large part, is because there is no guarantee that a person with subject matter expertise also has strengths in the traits identified by the Law Innovator’s DNA. Teams might get lucky, but without data, “gut feel” ends up being the primary decision-making criteria.


It also misses the mark in another important way. Teams become subject to implicit bias when they rely on overt traits such as pedigree, performance and personality to build their innovation teams. This is significant in any context but particularly with innovation because inherent, acquired, and gender diversity have all been shown to contribute to innovation success.


The Law Innovator’s DNA provides organizations the evidence they need to identify and develop innovation talent. And, using talent analytics that identify capacity rather than performance, law organizations now have a powerful opportunity to uncover hidden potential and promote more inclusivity within innovation teams and across law organizations more generally.


This unanticipated finding presents a color-and-credential-blind tool to broaden the talent ecosystem and move the needle on law innovation.


The Law Innovation Opportunity


To be sure, the Law Innovation Challenge is complex. GrowthPlay hopes these findings will provide an important step forward in helping lawyers improve their confidence and success in adapting and responding to changing client needs in a profession under disruption.


Among the opportunities presented by the findings:


  1. Increase awareness about the essential skills to overcome the most common barriers to innovation.
  2. Provide insight into what those skills are and how to develop them to build more effective innovation teams.
  3. Enable firms to be more proactive in uncovering and developing high-potential talent using talent analytics rather than gut feel to predict success.


Perhaps what’s most exciting is that the findings provide an evidence-based approach for unlocking hidden innovation potential to reframe the way lawyers approach, build, and develop their innovation talent.


Click here to download the complete Law Innovation Study.