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The Art of the Possible

June 13, 2024 6 min read

There is an interesting dynamic at play in legal right now. I see and feel it in all parts of the ecosystem. It seems to be just in the background of every meeting, every conversation.

There’s this idea that legal is on the verge of massive change and reinvention. That new AI capabilities and shifting economic pressures will finally be enough to disrupt long-static parts of our industry.

Some people are excited about this perceived new era. Others are fearful and worried about how it will impact them. But few deny that something big is coming.

That’s no small thing. As anyone who has worked for a while in legal operations and innovation knows, getting people to accept that the world is changing around them is not a given. And now, for the very first time in my career, just about everyone I speak with expects the industry to go through extreme transformation.

So of course, the question becomes: What will we do about it?

Staying still when we need to move forward

Because when I talk with leaders and their teams across the industry, I see relatively few that are ready for extreme change. And by that I don’t primarily mean that they haven’t built the right technology strategy, or rationalized their data, or done any of the other many smart things that teams might do to modernize and scale.

I mean that they don’t view themselves as leading that change. They’re more watching and waiting, playing more of a passenger role than a driver of the change. Perhaps they don’t feel empowered to challenge the status quo. Perhaps they don’t believe that they can take risks and fail. Perhaps they’re hoping it only changes around the edges while they’re still in seat. They view the coming transformation as threat and burden, not as opportunity.

As an industry, we’ve always been heavily slanted towards orthodoxy and tradition, not innovation. So while legal has some of the smartest and most talented people you could find anywhere, it isn’t the first place you would go looking for change agents. I’ve been in and around kegal teams in the heart of Silicon Valley, where disruption and ideas like “fail fast!” are venerated, and even they are reluctant to break new ground.

Why are we this way? We are all products of our training, our experiences, and the culture that exists in our industry. There are no classes called “Legal Department Reinvention” or “Legal Services Delivery Innovation” taught in law school. In fact, law schools are not even meeting internally to rethink their curriculum. Somehow “Legal Writing and Drafting” and “Legal Research” are still core curriculum, even though anyone paying attention would argue that these basic skills are well on their way to becoming obsolete.

Relatively few employers in firms or even in-house reward and celebrate those who take risks. Early on in our careers, we get the clear signal that what is valued is performing the work the way that others do it, not tearing up the rulebook and coming up with something new.

Let’s get real and stop holding back

I recently sat down with some law firm associates to talk about AI tools. After a demo, they said they would love to have something like this, that it would eliminate all the busy work that was going to take them the next 6 hours of their day to do. I said great, you should start using it! Only to have them tell me that their firm would never allow it. Why? Because the firm does not want associates doing things faster (or even differently) because the business model does not support efficiency.

I had another Chief Innovation Officer tell me that he bought AI tools just so they could issue a press release and say publicly that they’re innovating, but internally, they only had a handful of seat licenses and were not allowing associates to have access. Instead, they want to wait and see what all the other firms are going to do. You have to lead.

And yet that is EXACTLY what is now required! And it isn’t all due to the rise of AI in the last year, either… for years, legal has been dealing with change at scale. We’ve been asked to take on new roles within our companies, to make use of powerful new technologies, to manage disruptive macro conditions and events. And CEOs and other corporate leaders have made it clear that what they care more about than anything is reinvention, modernization, and transformation.

There is so much appetite at the senior levels for progress, innovation, new ideas, better ways of running things. The CEOs I talk to, and most of the GCs, are desperate for help understanding and planning for the rapidly changing world and competitive landscape.

They realize that the costs of inaction are actually greater now than the risks of taking action.

We need more leaders and risk-takers

One of the issues we face now is that we simply have too few changemakers and innovators. Many are so used to looking backwards and living in conservativism, so desperate to avoid failure, that they are unwilling to try something new.

So when they get the message from their leadership that they need to change, they “innovate” the way they know how. They hire someone who comes from a recognized leader, someone who has implemented practices and made changes that seemed to work. And they essentially ask them to repeat that performance for their company. But what was transformative 10 years ago is already stale. Companies now have the opportunity to think bigger and leapfrog beyond where pioneering companies of yesterday are. But to do that, you have to look elsewhere or jump without looking at all.

This helps create a dynamic within our industry where the leadership, the best work, and the most impressive results are coming from people who have previously worked at one of a small number of “exceptional” companies and firms. This is the same reason that I generally shy away from things like benchmarking or best practices in an industry as nascent as ours. We’re learning from each other’s early work, initial mistakes, replicating what was best at some transitional moment in time before things changed over and over.

There are two big challenges with this. First, much of what passes for “breakthrough results” right now are not really new, but rather methods and ideas that have been used for years at more progressive companies. So we’re not really pushing the state of the industry forward as much as we are helping others catch up. Many of these “cutting-edge” ideas are a decade or more old. Instead, we should be using the incredible potential of AI and other new technology to leap forward,

The second and probably more critical problem is that we’re not elevating and empowering a new class of leaders. We’re not finding bright, open-minded people and trusting them to try brand new things.

Some of the most transformative and progressive GCs are those who came from leading companies… but even they aren’t always thinking big enough. We lack education in our field about what is possible, about why things that seem great are actually broken, and about what the future can look like because we lack that imagination and creativity. We are not an industry that has often looked beyond our own walls.

In my experience, the GCs who have the best mindsets and are eager to embrace possibilities are those who have come from another company that already had a legal ops team. When they are hired as GC into a new company, they are quick to see how things were operating better in their old environments and eager to start implementing those changes. And while that is already rare and commendable, we can and need to do better yet.

We need a new spirit of possibility

As an industry, we need to discover the “art of the possible.” There are so many new things coming our way that simply don’t connect to anything any of us have experienced. What will law firms look like in the future? How should law schools be training our future young associates? How should in-house teams get organized and redeploy their resources when AI can do 70% of the manual work that they were doing? How do we help shift our workplace culture?

We need to take on the problems that matter most. Not just trying to get more efficient, but raising our sights. We should take on huge challenges, even if we have no idea how to get there.

No one is going to tap you to do this, no one will instruct you to even think about it. But someone needs to step up to the plate and while everyone else is waiting around to see what everyone else does, why shouldn’t that be you? As I said at CLOC many years ago, go first. The legal ops role has changed. The GC role has changed. Every part of the legal ecosystem has changed. We need to take the reins and step into these new leadership roles and define them ourselves.

No one expects you to know this stuff. You aren’t supposed to have the answers already. This is just about being clear-eyed enough to spot the problems, and courageous and optimistic enough to engage with them. And stop asking for the playbook or the guide or for someone to tell you the best use cases for AI. Go figure it out! No one has that magic book. Why can’t it be you who creates it?

We need a collective shift in the way we think about risk, problem-solving, and experimentation. And we need to look beyond the same familiar names and give a chance to new people. It certainly won’t be easy, but it will be worthwhile.

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Mary Shen O’Carroll is Ironclad’s Chief Community Officer. Previously, she was the Director of Legal Operations at Google, as well as the President of the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC). In her early career, she served as the Profitability Manager for Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP and was an investment banker and strategic management consultant. Mary is also a passionate leader pushing forward disruptive technology and processes designed to change the future of the legal industry.