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Opinion: How to make innovation-based change work for lawyers

25 May 2021

Embracing design thinking is a start, but incorporating behavioural science and data science has to be next on the agenda.

The way law firms and in-house legal departments deliver their services is evolving. There is a palpable and growing appetite to embrace the opportunities presented by innovation-based change.

In recent years, a steadily rising number of in-house teams and law firms have begun to introduce technology and new ways of working in order to find smarter, more effective and efficient operating models.

A significant driving force behind some of this change is the growing popularity of user-centred design, or design thinking as it is more commonly known.

Design thinking is a structured process to surface and define problems, gather ideas, and prototype solutions, with feedback from stakeholders being used to iterate and improve designs.

But despite its undoubted potential as a catalytic force, design thinking alone is not the silver bullet that some have come to believe it is.

Design thinking is certainly part of a wider framework for change, but post-its and workshops are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to adopting new approaches to enhance the way legal services are delivered.

Moreover, focusing on a singular approach risks missing out on other, valuable techniques that should be used in conjunction with design thinking to harness creativity and bring about effective and sustainable user-centred change.

Getting user buy-in

The legal profession is not generally known for its appetite for change and innovation. In truth, law firms and in-house legal departments alike often have challenges in embedding new working practices and fostering adoption of technology.

Design thinking techniques may help to address some of these challenges by surfacing user pain points (ie problems, moans and gripes with the existing way of doing things). The leadership and project teams of the organisation may then use these findings to invest in new technology, or to devise a process improvement.

But even if the new approach is more effective, adoption by lawyers may not follow. The teams, who have worked so hard on the idea, are left collectively scratching their heads, struggling to understand the seemingly irrational behaviour of their people who reject, or at least fail to adopt, what may seem like an objectively useful improvement.

The best way to avoid this typical type of outcome is to complement design thinking with other techniques, such as behavioural science and data science that are coming of age in professional services. A combination of these disciplines can, in my view, help to identify and address user adoption issues before change is introduced.

Behavioural science

Behavioural science in this context is a cross-disciplinary, open-minded science of understanding how people behave. Taking insights from a variety of fields, including cognitive psychology, behavioural economics and decision-making, it helps to describe how people actually do think and act, rather than how they might be expected to. Popular works such as “Thinking Fast and Slow” and “Nudge” have widened interest in the field in recent years.

In the legal space, there are myriad applications of principles from the field. For example, once you appreciate that losses (maybe of a precious Word template) loom larger than gains in the minds of the average user, and that individuals value the present more than the future, suddenly potential issues with adoption no longer seem intractable.

On the former, reframing the new way of working, or spreading out the rewards associated with new technology, could change how the initiative is viewed. On the latter, point-in-time training may be a more suitable option. Individuals are likely to want technological assistance when a transaction is kicking off, not months in advance when they have other things to worry about. Speed of delivery is crucial to generating trust and psychological safety for lawyers interacting with a new approach for the first time.

Behavioural science is already transforming other industries – just look at how TikTok used behavioural research to combat fake news and how are re-imagining travel. If there is hesitancy around how complicated and technical this all sounds, pioneers such as Coglode are working to translate behavioural science research to make it accessible to a wide range of sectors.

Data science

Data science is another cross-disciplinary field which uses theories drawn from a range of subjects such as statistics, computer science and information science to extract meaningful insights from data.

Not all professional services firms are the same, but statistical analysis can surface trends. Coming back to our core problem of adoption, using statistical models can help to identify root barriers to adoption. These may differ across areas of the business, and so data science can provide the evidence for a tailored approach to change management.

Lawyers will have to embrace and engage with data, despite the (often stereotyped) fear that supposedly even the simplest of spreadsheets strikes in their hearts. It is much more of a scientific mind-set than most businesses generally like to take – it means accepting that you can be shown to be objectively wrong. More than that, it means being OK with not knowing everything, and gathering information methodically to inform decision making. If you are doing it right, you are gathering data about actual behaviours, revealing what people are doing, rather than what they say (or think) they are doing.

Benefits of a blended approach

The promise of innovation-based change is exciting. Combining the complementary disciplines of design thinking with behavioural science and data science can help to deliver that promise.

Design thinking helps to surface the context. Behavioural science surfaces potential explanations for why people behave as they do. Data science provides the empirical basis to test and evaluate approaches.

Working together, these disciplines bring change management to the fore, a natural consideration arising from the methodology rather than an afterthought.

Case study: Mindful Business Charter

In implementing the principles of the Mindful Business Charter, firms (including elements of my own) have resorted to a mass of emails proselytising the need for change. Using the tools described above, we have been working on a novel approach.

First, using user-centred design-inspired workshops to surface sources of stress, cognisant that many of the behaviours will be unique to our firm culture.

Next, we used statistical analysis to divine root causes of stress-inducing behaviour, accounting for variance between groups and picking issues that genuinely affect the majority of people.

We then moved back to user-centred design to collect ideas, and finally used principles from behavioural science to design a series of interventions for organic, sustained behavioural change. In doing so, we focused on just two small items that the data told us were particularly salient for our population, devoting our energy to resolving those points before moving on. Not trying to do everything at once helps.

The results from a series of pilots are trickling in – some positives and some elements to improve. And people are talking about our approach, engaging with it. It is certainly a start.

Case study: Culture Benchmark Tool

In our work, the same methodology applies. The innovation team that I lead in A&O worked with our Consulting practice to create the Culture Benchmark Tool, a product that allows organisations to take a pulse from their staff on grey areas around culture and conduct. The data from the tool can be analysed to allow organisations to pinpoint areas of concern and to take informed decisions about next steps. Any intervention is then informed by behavioural principles, for example, considering how behavioural biases and heuristics may affect the likelihood of whistleblowing. Financial services companies are certainly starting to understand this approach.

There have already been some huge steps in rethinking the business of law, but there is plenty more to explore on the road to change. Design thinking, behavioural science and data science are just some of the disciplines from which the industry can draw inspiration, techniques and a new energy for driving sustainable improvements in how lawyers work and interact with each other and clients.

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