Dedicated to Innovation

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“Innovation” seems to be a buzzword in every industry, but relatively few law firms have made innovation a full-time job. 

Bloomberg Law reported last year that 57 of the top 200 law firms by revenue had added chief innovation officer roles as of 2019, but the publication noted that “firms don’t always agree” whether the positions should be held by partners who maintain legal practices or filled with non-lawyer professionals. 

Law Week spoke to full-time innovation experts based in Colorado to find out what their roles entail, what law firms can gain by having a dedicated innovation team and the tech tools and trends they’ve been following.


Holland & Hart’s Innovation Lab is a team of tech wizards, but it isn’t the place to turn when the printer stops working. 

“What I think is kind of interesting [and] effective about the group that we have at Holland & Hart is our Innovation Lab is actually a separate department from IT operations,” said Jason Adaska, director of software development and the firm’s Boulder-based Innovation Lab. 

The separation allows Adaska’s team to focus on the future and the big picture while bringing together technologists with a different skill set than one might see in a typical IT department.

It includes developers as well as staff with expertise in areas such as design, data science and machine learning. 

The lnnovation Lab officially launched in 2017, but unofficially sprouted within the firm’s IP practice in the years prior. Much of the group’s work involves developing tools and systems from scratch to improve efficiency across the firm, help certain practice groups automate routine tasks and address specific client needs and challenges. 

Examples include tools to help the firm’s attorneys keep track of their time efficiently and an automation suite that uses machine learning techniques to help quickly generate correspondence related to patent applications.

The firm is using machine learning to develop a system that will let attorneys and staff train it to perform complex tasks. “You’ve got a law firm and a lot of people who are doing very specialized tasks,” Adaska said. “Imagine you had a system that was busy observing those people doing their tasks and over time learning how to augment those tasks and, in cases where it makes sense, to automate them.”

“That’s the kind of system that we’re able to build at this point. Because we have folks with expertise in data science and machine learning, we can build a very flexible system,” he said, adding the system will help with training new employees and those filling in when paralegals, attorneys or other staff members with specialized knowledge are away from the office. 

While technical expertise allows the team to build sophisticated systems from scratch, communication is key when it comes to understanding attorneys’ needs and new opportunities. Adaska said getting technologists and attorneys to “speak the same language” is one of the biggest challenges in legal tech, but the firm has been good at bridging the communication gap. 

“If you look at the things that people get excited about in the technology world right now, it’s stuff like artificial intelligence, learning things from data,” he said. “All of these are about technologies that essentially remove people from processes to scale better to make things more efficient.” 

That enthusiasm for automation and taking people out of the picture can be hard to translate to professional services like the legal industry, where people and their expertise are the core product. But close relationships and communication within the firm help the Innovation Lab team explain the advantages of technology to attorneys and clients. 

Adaska said recent trends in legal tech include a growing adoption of automation and “greater pressure from clients to not want to spend money on things that could be automated,” which have been driving adoption of tools for document generation and other tasks that machines can do. 

And while Adaska says he and his team are still wrapping their heads around what the long-term effects of COVID-19 will be on technology in the legal industry, he expects it to accelerate some of the existing trends like automation and using machine learning to capture institutional knowledge.

“The legal space is really interesting for technologists just because there’s so much opportunity,” Adaska said. “I think all of the workflow changes that are coming because of COVID are really highlighted. So while this is a rough time for a lot of people, it’s also a time of opportunity to rethink how technology can be used.”


The role of chief innovation officer at a global law firm is “about as big as you are capable of making it,” says Katie DeBord, who holds that title at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner. 

Denver-based DeBord leads the firm’s global innovation strategy, which she describes as having two major components: improving the client experience and innovating how the firm and its attorneys practice. 

One of the firm’s biggest moves in client-focused innovation has been the 2019 launch of BCLP Cubed, the firm’s legal services arm that, in DeBord’s words, “leverages technology, process engineering, lower-cost people and the expertise of our attorneys to deliver high-value legal work” for day-to-day, high volume tasks.  One big focus for Cubed is contract review and management.

The firm uses data analytics to improve the client experience and to help clients use their own data to better understand their business or save on costs, DeBord said. This might mean analyzing past negotiations to recommend a starting position for future deals, she said, or it could mean looking at which types of claims are most likely to increase litigation costs. 

“Data analytics is all about having clean data to look at and having enough of it to be able to see trends and patterns and create meaningful statistics out of it,” DeBord said. 

While there are lots of tech tools that can help with these tasks, the “underbelly” of data analytics is making sure the firm’s information is organized to begin with, a job overseen by BCLP’s Chief Information Officer Constance Hoffman, and making sure there are good systems in place for data collection, which is the role of Chief Knowledge Officer Judy Mackenzie Stuart.

Assessing and adopting new technology, such as machine learning, automation and collaboration tools, is an important part of innovating firm and attorney practices, the second prong of the firm’s strategy. But DeBord said there’s not one game-changing legal technology. “Everyone’s always looking for that. I personally don’t think that’s really what it’s all about,” she said. 

“It’s about what technology is out there that integrates easily with other technology, that doesn’t interrupt the workflow, and that really enhances the way the lawyer is working,” DeBord said, adding that attorneys don’t want to have to log in to a bunch of different programs in order to do their work. 

Some of the tools the firm uses include Kira Systems for machine learning document review, Neota Logic for automated decision-making and the HighQ project management and collaboration platform. According to DeBord, the “common denominator” between these tech tools and others the firm uses is they’re able to integrate with one another.

DeBord leads a multidisciplinary team that includes three directors — two in London and one in the U.S. — with expertise in the law as well as data science and process engineering. The team also includes a product development team for BCLP Cubed, an innovation solutions team that identifies, tests and develops new technology tools for the firm, and a program manager, a role she says is “absolutely critical” to making sure the team is executing its ideas.

One of the biggest benefits of a dedicated innovation officer or team is it gives someone the “brain space and bandwidth to horizon-scan and help inform strategy,” DeBord said. It’s hard for practicing attorneys to step back from client work and focus on big-picture strategy and innovation. Having a budget also helps, she added, but it’s not just big firms with big budgets that can gain from focusing on innovation.

“There’s so much that smaller firms can do just by stepping back, applying some multidisciplinary skills to their practice areas and really redesigning how they deliver legal work.”

—Jessica Folker

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