Defining Innovation at a 225-Year-Old Law Firm
I was recently speaking with a partner at the storied,225- year-old law firm—Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft— where I co-lead the Technology Department. We were discussing the messaging app that uses color codes to indicate when you’re busy, free, or out of office. He said that when he first joined Cadwalader more than two decades ago, the receptionist would flip a switch to light a little bulb at the switchboard when he arrived at the office. When he left, the light would be turned off. He told me bragging rights went to the attorney whose bulb burned out first.
Working for such a distinguished firm, I’ve come to understand the responsibility of taking care of something that has been and will be passed on to future generations. It’s an attitude that is often expressed to me by our attorneys. There is a twist to this, however. As the story above suggests, longevity is not built on the past. It comes from an intense focus on now and on doing. One day you look up and you discover you’ve been doing it a long time.
In our environment, the pure, intellectual churn of daily business challenges impels innovation. (I can’t speak for how the firm’s founders served their clients in 1792, but I suspect it was comparable.) The way I practice Information Technology at Cadwalader is not as the technologist up against staid tradition, but as the leader of a team fully committed to make technology keep pace with our needs.
There’s a simple sign taped on my office door:
(what if we do the wrong things?)
don’t do the wrong things.”
I didn’t make it up (although I did write the words and print the sign). It comes from everywhere in the firm. A global law firm is a busy place. Expectations are immense and the talent is boundless. If we ripped out every wire, screen, computer, gizmo and gadget my group has installed, our lawyers would still find a way to do their work and serve their clients. It’s important for my department to remember this. When I get into discussions about the potential benefits of AI at law firms, sometimes I just have to laugh. Why would I need artificial intelligence when I am surrounded by the real thing? (I’ma proponent of what some of these systems can do, but there needs to be a new name - intelligent they are not.)
In our environment, the pure, intellectual churn of daily business challenges impels innovation
So how do you do technology innovation at a firm in continuous existence since the days of George Washington and what are some examples of successful innovation? You go where the business goes and become part of what the business is doing:
• because lawyers are working everywhere - mobile connectivity (I am editing this on a plane in MS Word on my iPhone)
• because lawyers do research - search tools
• because lawyers are collaborative - document management
• because lawyers are entrusted with their clients’ information - security
• because lawyers are entrepreneurial - financial dashboards
Most important of all, the idea of client service has to animate the technology. It is the only reason things should be plugged in and turned on. We create a local network effect with off-the-shelf and custom-built tools, deal rooms, work flows and discovery platforms so that client and lawyers can connect as seamlessly as friends and family do on social media — but with ISO-certified protocols in place to provide the security that’s required and expected of privileged communication.
I occasionaly think about my counterparts from the eighteenth century. Would they drop their quills in awe at the sight of typed letters flying across bright, dazzling, double-monitor screens powered by a convertible, two-in-one, touch laptop? Probably. But I’m sure they would soon realize we were doing very similar things with different tools. We are a law firm, not a technology department with a law firm attached. Innovation begins with our lawyers and the work they do. In the new millennium we follow their lead, just as we’ve done for three centuries.