Baker McKenzie partner, Theo Ling, who founded Whitespace Legal Collab is interviewed about the collaborative approach to innovation.
The internet is amazing. Recently, a guy on LinkedIn proposed the idea that “Legal tech is the 'gym membership' of process improvement”. A gym membership will not get you in shape. Only a change of mindset, dedicated hard work, and actual “implementation” will get you to a better place. The same can be said for legal tech. Subscribing to a new legal tech tool will not make you more innovative if you neglect it and don't change your actual work process or approach to legal service delivery. While legal tech tools are truly important, they can also be used as a crutch to nurse your bad conscience or avoid real change. Changing habits requires consideration of new pricing models, business culture, re-engineered approaches, and even client-engagement strategies.
But how can you do that without jeopardizing what you have already built up? How can you experiment with innovation while maintaining a solid brand as a firm that never makes mistakes? And how can you keep serving all your existing clients who express satisfaction with your service, while also offering new innovative models to stay on top of the market and meet the new demands?
One answer has been the captive ALSP which is defined as an in-house ALSP “that can allow the firm to pitch a wider range of services to clients and offer oversight of the work while keeping cost low.” In this way, a law firm can experiment with new processes, technologies and business models without disrupting the traditional model where there is still profit to be made. As Lisa Hart Shepherd of Acritas says: “By creating a new separate division that was free from the constraints of ‘how things have always been done,’ it meant that they [law firms ed.] could press ahead and try new things.”
One of the true pioneers of the captive ALSP-model is the multinational law firm Baker McKenzie and their partner, Theo Ling, who founded Whitespace Legal Collab in Toronto almost 3 years ago. When the Collab was launched in 2017, it became the world’s first multidisciplinary innovation lab at a global law firm. So it seems fair to have him as our first featured participant in Legal Tech Weekly's new series: Global thought-leaders of legal innovation. Besides playing a key role in launching Whitespace Legal Collab, Ling is a member of Baker McKenzie’s Global Innovation Committee and has been named one of North America's Top 10 Innovative Lawyers by The Financial Times.
According to their website, Whitespace Legal Collab is a leading hub for multidisciplinary collaboration in strategy, law and technology that was founded in order to engage a broader network of professionals, take on challenges with multidisciplinary collaboration and create innovative solutions for Baker McKenzie's clients. From offices in Toronto and other locations around the world, Whitespace Legal Collab engages teams of lawyers, academics, IT-experts, business leaders and clients in order to create better conditions for creative problem solving.
All of that sounds great. But why now? What kind of conditions have reshaped the demand for legal services?
“One common challenge faced by all dynamic companies today is how to manage the growing volume and complexity of laws that govern business operations, not just in isolated markets, but on a world-wide level. When we provide legal support to our global clients, our ability to access, understand and interpret a wide and diverse set of legal considerations is critical but how we present and delivery our advice to clients and how such guidance is consumed and operationalized by the business is becoming increasingly important in a competitive and fast-paced world” says Ling before he picks an example.
“Not long ago, the norm for advisors was to write lengthy legal memos, but now the pace of business and the pressures on lawyers within internal legal departments is such that we have to provide guidance faster even though it is getting more complex, and we have to present it in a way that is much more easily digestible. There is a demand to have external advisors like us provide legal guidance in a way that not only other lawyers can understand but that the business can understand and operationalize,” he elaborates.
It might seem obvious that multidisciplinary collaboration can be used to come up with more innovative solutions to complex challenges. However, historically the legal industry has been reluctant to collaborate with outside disciplines.
These days, most industries are looking to technology to make things more efficient, so traditional lawyers may come up short on expertise to deliver a satisfying legal service:
“We as lawyers, and by we I mean as a collective, don't have that history and training, so we need help and that is why ideas like the Collab are important. You have to start somewhere and create an environment where it is not only okay to bring together folks from different disciplines but where it is actually embraced. I think the excitement around Whitespace Legal Collab partly comes from the realization that everyone is struggling with the same challenges. In-house legal departments are searching for off-the-shelf tools they can plug-and-play but the reality is that most of those tools are not fit for purpose or are designed for specific applications. To truly unleash the potential of emerging technologies the injection of some domain expertise is always valuable, but where do you find that help? Some organizations are trying to build up that capability internally but what we are trying to do with Whitespace Legal Collab and our other innovation initiatives is to bring the relevant stakeholders together and collaborate in order to apply the respective domain expertise and solve these complex challenges,” Ling explains.
And it is not just with specific knowledge, expertise and industry know-how that the non-legal disciplines can contribute. These domain experts bring their own approaches and perspectives to problem-solving. “Usually when you put lawyers together in a room and put forward a problem, everyone jumps in to try and solve that problem right away because that is the nature of lawyers as problem solvers. That is why people come to us; we analyze, apply logic, and draw conclusions. The collaborative environment requires a different process with the concept of design-thinking playing a role, where you spend a lot more time examining different aspects of the problem and finding different perspectives before you try to construct any sort of solution. That is a different type of process than the one lawyers typically adopt when working on their own.
But why did they have to create a setting outside the scope of the normal Baker McKenzie working environment to bring in talent from non-legal disciplines?
“It has a lot to do with changing mindset. It sounds like a funny thing to say but we have observed that people behave differently when meeting in a more open and inviting space versus a conventional law firm meeting room. This is one case where more whiteboards, video conferencing, interactive props, and flexible seating configurations can actually help remove barriers to collaborative engagement. The topic of discussion may be the same but the discourse is very different and the outcomes are often unpredictable and surprising in a positive way” Ling explains.
Baker McKenzie still offers all their traditional services, but this modern take on existing and emerging challenges is in demand. That is why the firm has also co-created Reinvent, which is legal innovation hub in Frankfurt, and are looking to expand the collaborative culture and approach spearheaded by these inaugural innovation hubs across the firm's global footprint: “The legal profession is catching up. None of this is particularly novel or revolutionary. Other disciplines have been doing it for ages. It is just that the legal profession is starting to embrace it,” Ling concludes.