The role of Chief Innovation Officer in law firms
The role of Chief Innovation Officer in law firms

Law firms of all shapes and sizes are feeling the pressure to act as seismic shifts in the legal profession make apparent the need for innovation. Whether it is getting trained in a new technology or fundamentally changing a firm’s business model, the experience of change, in what has been – and to a great extent remains – a change-resistant profession, has presented innumerable challenges. That said, the emergence of Chief Innovation Officers (CINOs) in law firms indicates that some organisations, at least, are embracing these challenges in new ways. 

In this article, I draw upon the role, the candidates, and the anticipated achievements of CINOs to come to the somewhat sobering conclusion that CINOs will not only be good for firms (and their clients), but that they will be instrumental to their survival. 

Defining the role

On account of the position of ‘Chief Innovation Officer’ not existing in India – or elsewhere, for that matter – until very recently (the term was only coined in a management text published in 1999), it stands to reason that the roles vary somewhat from firm to firm. That said, there appear to be some common principles and responsibilities around which contemporary roles are oriented. 

The principles relate closely to the concept of innovation itself. CINOs are expected to promote curiosity, encourage problematisation, explore differences, harmonise systems, and seek optimisation in whatever they do. In a more tangible sense, this translates to a set of core tasks that might not be all that familiar to partners in traditional firms. The research of Michele DeStefano, Professor of Law at the University of Miami, has identified these ‘buckets’ of tasks as:

  • Curating innovative ideas (finding, selecting, organising, and executing ideas to facilitate innovation)
  • Assessing available technologies and learning how they can be used to improve experiences across the board
  • Optimising processes to create efficiency and improve service
  • Providing innovation-led inputs into business development activities (pitches, RFPs, etc.)
  • Working with clients to design client-centric processes and outputs
  • Relationship-building with legal innovation communities worldwide

Defining the candidates

Candidates for CINO roles in law firms are drawn from a much more diverse pool of talent than associates and ancillary positions. DeStefano’s research showed that some CINOs are senior partners with many years experience, whereas others are professionals with zero experience in legal practice. 

In this regard, law firm CINOs need not actually be lawyers; the requirement is more that the innovation can be applied successfully to legal service provision. Yet, there are many advocates who believe that having a CINOs with a legal background is beneficial because, amongst other reasons, they are able to understand the day-to-day issues their law firm is facing more deeply. Another reason for the preference for lawyer-CINOs is cultural – that members of the law firm find it easier to accept them.

I, for one, think diversification is encouraging and necessary, not least because it might be the only chance law firms have of shaking off old habits and truly embracing the principles and activities that will help them remain competitive in today’s legal landscape.

Defining achievement in law firm innovation

With roles and candidates defined, it falls to be determined what achievement in this space actually looks like. How do you know when a CINO is doing his or her job effectively?

Again, there is no blueprint here. Rather, achievement in law firm innovation should be assessed against the goals for which the position was designed in the first place. If a firm creates the position specifically to find a competitive edge over DIY legal subscription services, it needs to define a means of knowing when that has been achieved. 

Likewise, if a firm creates the position to encourage more broadly innovation within the firm, there must be a way to measure that. 

In this regard, numerous modes of assessment might come into play in any one firm. Important to note is that innovation can be seen at all levels of the organisation, and at any time. For one firm, innovation might be proven by the company’s annual accounts showing that spend on innovation activities led to a threefold increase in sales in the first year. For another, innovation might manifest in the number of employee suggestions for improving service increasing ten fold within the first week. What is key is that firms define at the outset what success looks like for them, and that they actually support (with confidence and with capital) the work of the CINO in achieving those successes.

While writing this article, I reached out to Komal Gupta, head of Innovation at Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas and a popular name across the world for spearheading Prarambh – India’s first legal tech incubator. She cited a number of criteria on the basis of which success (or failure) should be measured for a CINO: 

Use of LegalTech: You can get real data to see how many lawyers were first aware of the technologies available (versus now). Real-time data will tell you how tech adoption has increased over time. What’s critical here are two things: increase in awareness and increase in adoption by users.

Client solutions: How many people reach out to you with problems, big and small, and seek help from you in finding the solutions to those problems? 

Driving the culture of innovation: How many programs have been launched to take the entire firm along in the innovation journey? Have the ideators increased? Are people showing more interest? Do they call you before a client meeting to understand the innovation initiatives of the firm? Do they understand what you do? Do they see you as a problem solver, as a person who adds value to the way we practice law?

Legal Service Delivery: Have you introduced any new service lines? In how many areas have you been able to introduce a process or technology, or multi-disciplinary professionals to increase efficiencies?

Firm Building: Has the firm gained global recognition for a new initiative? 

Most importantly, all the initiatives that are started, do they reach their logical end or are left half way?

Collaboration with clients and developing solutions for them is a critical part of innovation. Understanding what their issues are through a client satisfaction survey, picking up common issues and addressing them first, then working on specific issues is the way to complete the cycle of innovation. We have to keep the clients first.

Where next for the Chief Innovation Officer in law firms? 

What the emergence of CINOs in law firms has indicated is that legal innovation continues to creep further and further into the very foundations of the lawyer’s house. While resistance is to be expected, lawyers need to remember that ultimately, innovation is not just about driving efficiencies within business processes; it is about improving services for clients. 

Innovative firms are significantly more likely to deliver expedient, accurate, and valuable legal services than those that continue to be hampered by the chains of their predecessors’ thinking. And that, in turn, will make all the difference in the game of which firms thrive and which barely survive in coming years.

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