What do lawyers and Pakistani factory workers have in common? More than you think. Especially when it comes to innovation.
Columbia University researchers looked at how innovation spreads in a seemingly simple area — the manufacture of soccer balls. They identified a far more efficient way to cut out the fake leather used to make the balls. This basic design improvement increases profits by 12 percent at factories that use it.
To help spread this innovation to factories in Pakistan, the researchers provided the design and specific instructions to more than 100 soccer ball factories. A year later, only six had actually implemented the change. Why was the number so low?
The factories were all in favor of this clear improvement in the process, but the factory workers were highly resistant. A factory in Siakot, Pakistan, for example, pays workers for each piece of leather they cut. Learning the new process meant they would have to slow down in the short term, so they resisted. It seems very shortsighted, but the truth is the goals of the bosses weren't in line with the workers' goals. At other factories, however, managers gave bonuses to the workers willing to learn the new process, or provided some other incentive.
What does this have to do with lawyers and law firms? For more than two decades, law firms have had opportunities to benefit from major innovations in project management that would drastically reduce the costs and increase the effectiveness of litigation, yet most still haven't adopted these practices. More recently, new customer-relationship management software can exponentially increase the value of the combined networks of law firms, yet most lawyers either don't share their contacts or are unwilling to take the time to learn the power of the tool.
Take a look at LinkedIn and other social media — finally, every member of a firm can take control of his or her own business development, but at most firms fewer than 5 percent of the lawyers actively use social media.
In short, firms preach the benefits of these practices, but almost none of them ties compensation to their use. The message sounds a little like this: "Please use all these new innovations, but we will only reward you for doing things the old way."
Law firms are filled with workers who instead of getting paid by the piece are getting paid by the hour. Where is the motivation to provide better service, more efficiently, at a lower cost? It isn't there, and until firms provide a carrot in the form of compensation, lawyers will keep cranking out the hours. Innovation isn't easy, but firms that make it a priority can make more money and provide superior service. That should be all the incentive they need.