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The Client is the Center of the Universe … And Other Legal Innovation Lessons from Copernicus

By Brendan W. Miller.


As I am writing this, a local news story getting plenty of attention is the upcoming solar eclipse expected to pass through North America in early April.  I am fortunate to live in the projected path of totality for the eclipse.


This should be a unique experience, and it got me thinking about how our understanding of events like this eclipse have evolved over time—and completely changed perspectives on what is, and what is possible.

 

When something big and new enters our space, it tends to draw attention and force consideration of preconceived conceptions.  Certainly, AI reached a tipping point over the last year, dominating discussion and activity in the legal and business world.  AI is here to stay and it will have profound impacts on the way business gets done for the foreseeable future.  Other transformative innovations will most assuredly materialize on our horizon which will compel us to adapt, integrate, and reimagine how we do business.

 

In the face of such significant change, law firms and legal departments need strategic guideposts to navigate and maximize the potential for innovations to have a positive impact on the delivery and consumption of legal services.  As is so often true, history offers advice, if we look for it.


THE COPERNICAN REVOLUTION TURNED THE WORLD ON ITS HEAD—LITERALLY

In the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus postulated a startling scientific theory: the Earth and other observed planets revolve around the sun; the sun—not the Earth—was the center of our universe; i.e. the heliocentric model.  This controversial proposal went directly against the prevailing accepted geocentric model of the prior 1,500 years that placed the Earth solidly at the center of the universe.  To put it lightly, this riled up opposition within scientific and religious communities at the time. 

 

The Copernicus model was not immediately accepted, but sparked what is known as the “Copernican Revolution,” as his work was refined by Johannes Kepler and others, and a century later started to gain traction and broader acceptance through the confirming work of Gallileo Galilei.  This Copernican Revolution marked the start of the broader Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, marked by so many foundational discoveries and developments, including Isaac Newton’s well-known laws of motion and gravity.  This revolution forever changed the way we view our world and its place in the universe.  With this backdrop, below are five lessons the Copernican Revolution offers for embracing and enabling innovation in legal services delivery.

 

LESSON 1: THE CLIENT IS THE CENTER OF THE SERVICE UNIVERSE.

The Copernicus model was a massive paradigm shift, and a history-altering catalyst for innovation.  Recognizing the sun as the center of our universe changed perceptions, changed understanding of the relationships between the Earth, the sun and other objects of the cosmos, and spurred novel thinking.  It spawned new ways of “doing business” for the scientific community, as the Scientific Revolution crystallized the scientific method as the most valid research method for systematic experimentation, and led to key inventions like the telescope, microscope, and thermometer.


A promising parallel exists for innovation in the legal industry.  Keeping the client at the center of all service efforts—not as just a recipient of the results of the service provider’s labors—can produce energy, incentive, and relationships that facilitate and encourage progress within the industry.  With the client as the focus, legal service providers are naturally inclined to find and implement practical enhancements to service delivery, to address clients’ needs and satisfy clients’ expectations in a complex and evolving world.  This client focus helps prioritize where we spend our time and energy. This mindset can also change the way legal service providers perceive risks associated with trying new service models and tools.  “Quick fails” that help a provider learn and get better at providing service are an investment in the client rather than dismissed as lost time or money.


The notion of keeping the client at the center is not really rocket science.  Lawyers and other legal professionals know that clients are essential to their business model.  But we sometimes fail to recognize or align innovation efforts as a key methodology to enable keeping clients at the center and serving them with excellence.  In Thomson Reuters’ 2022 State of the Legal Market, a survey asked lawyers to rate various practice-related activities along two different dimensions: popularity (of lawyers engaging in the activity) versus firm need (proportion of lawyers who have the activity among their current responsibilities).  See Figure 2.  Think “Wants” versus “Needs.”  The survey showed “client relationships” as being the highest in both popularity and firm need.  “Innovation,” “tech implementation,” and “alternative delivery models,” however, scored on the other end of the continuum—among the lowest in both popularity and firm need. 


The lesson from the Copernicus model, here, may be more about harnessing the power that comes with this central client focus to propel the industry forward and innovate how services are delivered.  Moving beyond talking about being innovative and partnering with clients to shape the future of service delivery.


LESSON 2: PROGRESS IS IN THE EYES OF THE BEHOLDER.

When the Earth was thought to be the center of the universe, sky observers thought that planets around the Earth would sometimes stop and move backward across the sky—a phenomenon known as the retrograde motion of planets.  Understanding of this phenomenon completely changed, though, with the emergence of the Copernicus model.  Once we understood Earth’s position relative to those other planets, the planets were actually observed travelling along differently shaped orbits, and they just appeared to be stopping and moving backwards.  What was the difference?  A change in perspective.


Innovation in the legal industry is shaped by perspective, just as in other industries.  The well-known Gartner Hype Cycle (see Fig. 3) is alive and well.  As futurist Roy Amara stated, in what has become known as Amara’s Law, “we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”



Because of this dynamic and typical perceptions about the speed and trajectory of change, when moving change efforts forward, it is essential to keep key stakeholders—including internal and external clients—engaged and informed on progress.  These are the individuals that can either champion an initiative to keep moving forward—even when the going gets tough—or they can kill the initiative in its tracks.  

 

Progress, as it turns out, is always in the eyes of the beholder, and progress can look different depending on your perspective.  An analogue to the Gartner Hype Cycle is the J-Curve which can be instructive in describing the discrepancy between the usual track of change (Amara’s Law/ Gartner Hype Cycle) and stakeholders’ expectations.  See Figure 4. 

So, how do we reconcile differences in expectations and reality for sustained and productive progress on innovation efforts?  Stakeholders are understandably interested in Return on Investment (ROI), but ROI can be measured in various ways.  Early on in a change initiative, it may be more important—and may help stakeholders to stay engaged and see progress—by reporting on different metrics than what are likely to be the focus of longer-term ROI analyses.  For example, early metrics may focus more on qualitative measures of operational changes, cross-functional alignment, insights/ lessons learned, and narrative stories of success.  The key is looking at the project or initiative from the stakeholder’s vantage point, homing in on metrics that are relevant to those stakeholders, and evolving those metrics with the stakeholders… so stakeholders are in position to see and shape the progress.

 

LESSON 3: INNOVATION IS NOT THE RESULT OF RANDOM TRIAL AND ERROR.

One of the foundational Scientific Revolution achievements taken for granted today is the development and institution of the scientific method.  This cornerstone of scientific work is a process for acquiring knowledge including now well-known concepts: observation, question, hypothesis, experiment, data analysis, and conclusion.  The key characteristic of the scientific method is capturing new knowledge from systematic experimentation and iteration—not just random one-and-done trials.  As we saw through the Scientific Revolution, developments like the scientific method led to an explosion of progress, as it focused efforts for gaining knowledge and innovating.


Given the efficacy of the scientific method for supporting, encouraging, and fueling innovation, perhaps it is not surprising that law firms and legal departments more and more have been embracing and institutionalizing efforts that reflect disciplined, iterative investigation and experimentation geared toward enhancing knowledge and innovating the tools, processes, and craft of delivering legal services.  Knowledge Management, Data Analytics/ Data Science and Business Intelligence, Legal Project Management, Design Thinking and Agile Methodologies, Legal Technology development and integration, and other emerging areas of focus all reflect elements of a disciplined, scientific method.  And the prevalence of these functions in law firms, legal departments, alternative legal services providers, and corollary services demonstrate the perceived value of these efforts for clients.


The lesson here may be to keep on keeping on. Legal service providers interested in innovation should be encouraged to continue investing thoughtfully—directly, and/or through partners—in people, process, technology, infrastructure, time and attention that facilitate disciplined experimentation and learning.  These efforts should emphasize opportunities to ideate, engage stakeholders, plan, execute, evaluate, and churn feedback loops for ongoing development and innovation of legal services delivery.


LESSON 4: SIMPLIFICATION CAN ENABLE BIG LEAPS.

Placing the sun in its rightful place at the center of the universe created a greatly simplified and more accurate description of the universe.  Before the Copernicus model, complicated mathematical devices were needed to account for and explain various observed phenomena, such as the retrograde motion of planets referenced above.


Complexity beget more complexity.  This made it more difficult to build on knowledge, as newly observed phenomena would have to be accounted for based on—as now understood—inaccurate models and complex machinations.


Copernicus offered an alternative that was the epitome of Occam’s Razor; i.e. when you have competing hypotheses about the same prediction, you should prefer the hypothesis that requires the fewest assumptions or, stated differently, the simplest explanation is usually the best one.  Observing the sun as the center of the universe enabled a more simplistic and elegant understanding of the universe and provided consistent and accurate explanations for observed phenomena.  And it laid the foundation for modern astronomy and so many other scientific developments that followed.


As applied to legal innovation, there is value to be gained from thinking big, but focusing on the basics.  Whether designing a new process or workflow, developing and integrating new technology, or seeking insights from complex data sets… simpler is better.  Simpler enables better understanding and mitigates the chance of confusion. 


Simpler provides cleaner and more direct access to diverse stakeholder groups.  Simpler is easier and more flexible for building.  Think of the most amazing creations from simple Lego blocks.  (See Fig. 5).


Thinking simple also helps to prioritize and focus on the things that matter most to clients and other stakeholders.  As the saying goes “what we do every day matters more than what we do every once in a while.”  Focusing on basic problems and outcomes that effect our teams’ and our clients’ day-to-day operations and concerns is more likely to have an immediate and lasting impact.  Figure 5 contains an example of a simple Prioritization Matrix used by some legal teams to identify projects that balance the complexity of implementation with the projected return on investment.  This does not mean that big picture, more complex issues cannot or should not be tackled, but striving to boil issues down to their simplest form best positions teams to make leaps in progress over time.


LESSON 5: SHARED LEARNING PROPELS THE INDUSTRY FORWARD.

Nicolaus Copernicus drew on the work of prior ancient Greek astronomers and mathematicians in devising his heliocentric model.  Copernicus pushed theories against major opposition, with substantial risk to his own reputation, livelihood, and otherwise.  Kepler, Gallileo, Newton, and so many others were influenced by Copernicus and took up the mantle to further build on his work, taking their learnings to places Copernicus may never have even imagined.  This is how human knowledge and development has always worked.


Within the legal industry, there is currently quite an open and collegial environment around innovation, among many providers and thought leaders.  AI is perhaps the latest example of development that has created a flashpoint and opportunity to engage in collective learning.  Enabling this environment requires law firms, legal departments, service providers, and clients to be open to engaging in ongoing dialogues, sharing lessons learned and promising developments, and investing in efforts to advance not only individual organizations but the industry as a whole.


I fervently hope and expect this shared learning will continue, as it promises to benefit all in the legal industry and, most importantly, the clients at the center of our service universe.


 

About the Author

Brendan W. Miller, J.D. is a legal innovator: a curious, seasoned former AmLaw 100 litigator and corporate attorney, technologist, strategist, and change agent. To Brendan, legal innovation is about continually being relevant for clients, by making the practice and effects of law easier, better, and more valuable.  Brendan is also a big fan of history and its lessons for the future! #BrendanWMiller #innovation #legal #clients #sharedlearning #simplification

 

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