Business // October 2023 The Creation of Innovation
From nice-to-have to essential: How innovation has become a strategic pillar at Gilbert + Tobin.

What’s Driving the Need for Innovation in Law?

Technological and competitive disruption in the law business is difficult to overstate. In perhaps what is viewed as the most traditional of professions, a major change is underway. With the advent of new technologies, generative AI, processes, and ways of professional thinking comes unprecedented levels of disruption.

Law firms must move with, or even ahead of, the times or risk being impacted by entrepreneurial specialist entrants, new technologies and the haemorrhage of top talent to other firms and corporates. Leading corporate in-house legal departments need much more than top-tier legal expertise; they require a class of providers with an ability to integrate legal, business and technological expertise backed by a seamless infrastructure to tackle sophisticated, high-value business challenges.

Recognising that we must continue to evolve, senior leadership at Gilbert + Tobin (G+T) have focused on revisioning the business model. The legal operations area of the firm quickly shifted from being considered support (an overhead) to an essential and ‘expected’ part of high value legal services, with the potential to generate its own revenue stream. Innovation is no longer an ancillary function or ‘nice-to-have’ but something vital to the business. To support this, we have focussed on building and structuring a strong, multi-disciplinary team that embraces and nurtures diverse competencies and skills; and constructed a business model to demonstrate how innovation could be prioritised.

The Leadership Spark: A Catalyst for Change

G+T prides itself on being a forward-thinking organisation and it embraces its legacy as a disruptor. Over the years, G+T has identified new and emerging industries and practices and it was now critical for the sustainability of G+T to have a strong legal service delivery team.

In my role as Chief Knowledge and Innovation Officer at G+T, I established the Legal Service Innovation team in 2018, bringing together existing teams and unifying individuals who had been focusing on process improvement, knowledge, legal technology and analytics within G+T. The team’s mandate is to identify opportunities to optimise and innovate the firm’s legal services, whether through re-inventing or re-imagining legal process, developing in-house technologies, adapting and customising third-party software to automate a legal process, or creating new partnerships for legal services. This team embraces technological disruption – it’s this disruption that will have a significant and inevitable impact on traditional legal practice.

Collaboration sits at the heart of the culture, and everyone had to embrace innovation. Alongside our Chief Operating Officer (now CEO), I had to get the partners to believe in the vision for legal innovation and understand the potential impact of growing the team. They needed to be confident that the investment in the team and associated legal technology would result in a suitable ROI from both realising efficiencies and generating incremental revenue.

We argued that all partners have been and will continue to be impacted in some way by the adapting legal landscape and highlighted the questions they all continued to battle with: How do I differentiate G+T from competitors? How can I manage matters more efficiently to reduce margin pressure? How can technology make matters more efficient and speed up the due diligence process? Clients had also started to request assistance from G+T to enhance the productivity of their internal legal functions.

One of our greatest strengths is an open-minded partnership willing to embrace change. The willingness of partners to embrace the Legal Service Innovation team was evident by their endorsement of my promotion to equity partner. As a non-practicing lawyer, my promotion disrupted the traditional legal model and challenged the assumption that value is only derived from direct legal revenue. G+T continues to build an innovation culture by pioneering the practice of providing graduate lawyers and summer clerks the option of undertaking a rotation in the Legal Service Innovation team, which develop the skills that go beyond traditional practice methods and prepare lawyers for an increasingly diverse and technology-driven marketplace.

Legal Service Innovation: The Evolution of the Team

I am often asked, ‘how do I take a pool of graduates, accomplished partners and a group of lawyers with eclectic digital skills, and create a culture of collaboration, integration, and inclusion to deliver legal innovation?’ Surely this is an impossible task considering lawyer skills and attributes often oppose those found in innovative cultures and the starting point for each group of lawyers is considerably different? We achieved it with a clear vision and purpose. Our purpose is for our lawyers to be ahead of the curve.

To do so, we transformed the mindset and the capabilities of our lawyers to use new processes and data that further enhance the quality and efficiency of their decision-making and service delivery. Investing in capability, improved process and technology, we developed underlying lawyer competencies and tools that enable G+T to pre-emptively pivot as the market evolves, thereby future-proofing the firm. Just last year, a firm-wide ‘Ways of Working’ training program in current best practice was implemented. This initiative centred on the newly developed G+T WOW model, which targeted four key growth areas – project planning, leadership and collaboration, technology and self/team development. A series of workshops, alongside an intensive internal campaign, over a period of 6 months created a new WOW language and culture.

Another example of putting this strategy into action was ensuring that our senior lawyer cohort is accredited in project management. We audaciously designed a first-to-market course that achieved accreditation, and we are the first Australian law firm to provide senior lawyers with independent certification by the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM). We are also the first law firm to offer AIPM-endorsed training in Legal Project Management (LPM) for our clients.

The Legal Service Innovation team has grown to over 60 people since 2018, supporting and cultivating a transformational mindset within G+T. The team does not work in isolation. They approach projects and matters hand in hand with lawyers and collaborate with them to deliver legal work. For example, when leveraging AI on matters, this team supports our lawyers in understanding the technology, its applications and helps them interpret results. The legal transformation specialist understands the AI, but also has a background in law and can speak the lawyer’s language. These varied skill sets are what gives the Legal Service Innovation team the edge. We see it as the left arm supporting the right.

Building our team and achieving the support of leadership would not have been possible without a cohesive drive to instil a culture of innovation, as opposed to a function of innovation. This has been our differentiator and key to success. We’ve proven to the G+T partnership that we can create an innovation culture that permeates the entire firm and build a team that has the capacity and capability to be truly leading edge. Innovation now drives tangible results in the form of products, technologies, services and measurable efficiencies. We will always have a way to go, but the foundations are very real. We have truly come full-circle.

Caryn Sandler
Partner + Chief Knowledge and Innovation Officer and leader of the Gilbert + Tobin Legal Service Innovation Team and G+T Innovate

Gilbert + Tobin
Level 25, 101 Collins

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