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The firm is one year into a program that allows associates to put 50 hours of billing credit towards innovation projects.

By Dan Packel | June 17, 2019 at 05:00 AM | Originally published on The American Lawyer

Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM

Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe has worked to make innovation a fundamental part of its brand in recent years.

It can point to successes along the way: In December, The American Lawyer honored Orrick as an innovation leader at its first industry awards, citing the firm’s legal technology venture Orrick Labs. But in embracing innovation, the firm has been forced to confront the risk-aversion that’s fundamental to the practice of law.

“People are so conservative about what can be done,” said Orrick chief talent officer Siobhan Handley. Advances and breakthroughs tend to require enduring failures and embracing uncertainty—pretty much the opposite of what lawyers strive for.

“We’re rules-following individuals,” Handley said.

One strategy for trying to change the mindset of attorneys across the firm has been a program, launched last June, that allows associates 50 hours of creditable time a year towards innovation projects. Orrick isn’t alone in the idea: Reed Smith piloted a similar project in 2017 for a limited number of associates and removed a cap on the number of projects that would be approved in 2018.

While the Orrick associates interested in participating also have to put together a proposal, chief innovation officer Wendy Curtis emphasized that the bar is not high.

“Sometimes you just have a hunch and need the opportunity to think about that hunch,” she said. “It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it needs to be something that we can track to a client need in the firm.”

The goal is introduce the mindset that innovation—and the “crazy ideas and failures that are not going to get anywhere”—should still be part of the “everyday approach” of all the firm’s lawyers, according to Handley. 

“This is particularly resonating with the millennial generation, which is inherently entrepreneurial and wants this kind of freedom in everything they touch,” she said. 

Curtis acknowledged that they had to tinker with the program on the fly after it was launched.

“A part of having a good innovation culture is a willingness to constantly improve,” she said. “When we did this, we were overwhelmed by the number of ideas. We very quickly had to find a way to vet them.”

As part of that effort, the firm attached a second user interface to its portal, “The Observatory,” which was originally built to provide an overview of the technology tools available in the market. The additional interface offers a look at innovation projects currently underway at the firm—as well as ideas that had been considered and then rejected.

Ideas In Practice

Boston associate Nick Farnsworth received the go-ahead from the firm to take part in developing a readiness tool to aid clients with the California Consumer Privacy Act.

Farnsworth, a member of the firm’s cyber, privacy and data innovation team, recognized that with the number of laws and regulations pertaining to data collection multiplying, there was growing confusion in the marketplace.

“Some people are trying to get fast summaries without digging too deeply into the statutory requirements,” Farnsworth said.

The tool that he helped develop offers clients a dynamic questionnaire that collects the characteristics of their company and provides a detailed description of how they will be affected by the CCPA and how prepared they are. 

“It’s not so much on the legal analysis side, but what the facts are and comparing them with what the facts should be,” he said. 

Farnsworth worked with a team of developers from an early stage to shape the tool. He said that he initially thought it would be necessary to go outside the firm for expertise, but that proved to be unnecessary.

“I didn’t realize how deep our bench was on the tech side,” he said.

Beyond Apps

But Curtis emphasized that innovation does not automatically equal technology, While some associates have been working on apps and similar tools, and some even bring software development backgrounds to the table, others have found different ways to participate in the initiative.

San Francisco senior associate Rebecca Harlow helped put together an “innovation sprint” for in-house litigation attorneys at Chevron Corp., a client of the firm.

“We facilitated the session for them, to help them come up with the craziest ideas they could in 45 minutes to improve how they could do their work and leverage the work,” she said.

The firm also uses a similar approach for its own lawyers and staff, implementing internal hackathons. “Once they start writing down the bad ideas, you will start to see them becoming more comfortable with the good ideas,” Handley said.

Beyond her surprise at how effective the “sprint” model was in particular in generating new ideas, Harlow came away from the experience intrigued about leveraging it for other clients.

“From the business development side, it’s great as an associate to get in front of a client not pitching, but just brainstorming,” she said. “Having done it once, I’d like to do it again externally.”