Interview with Wendy Butler Curtis: Meeting client needs through Innovation

True successful innovation is listening to what your clients need and meeting that need
Wendy Butler Curtis

As Orrick’s Chief Innovation Officer, Wendy heads the firm’s efforts to transform the delivery of legal solutions by leveraging people, process and technology, to develop novel services, streamline processes, and consult with clients on tailored solutions.

I caught up with Wendy after delivering an informative and passionate keynote speech as part of the Leading Innovation – Stories of Perspective, Persistence and Patience at ILTACON 2018.

MP: How did you get into the role of Chief Innovation Officer at Orrick?

WBC: I have a career path that really came up out of people, process and technology. I started out as a mass torts lawyer at a time when we were managing national cases with a large number of documents, a large number of cases and a lot of moving pieces.

I learned very early on in my career the importance of people, process and technology. It’s from that passion and from that structure that my career has really evolved.

I left mass torts and started to focus exclusively on e-discovery and then at Orrick – a great place where innovation is really in our DNA  – I was given additional responsibilities.

We have an alternative career path called the Career Associate Program and that became part of my responsibilities. Our innovation team also includes our Orrick Analytics and  Case Stream teams.

All of these pieces really came together and now I’m the Chief Innovation Officer!

MP: You mentioned that Orrick has an innovation culture within the DNA of your firm – was that something that was present at Orrick before you arrived or was that something you had to build within the firm?

WBC: Our Chairman has made innovation part of the core strategy and he really drives it within the firm. We get inspiration from our client base in the three sectors – technology, finance and energy. In these sectors innovation really is a huge part of their business.

MP: How do you maintain an innovation culture and ensure that those with innovative ideas are not afraid to bring them to you?

WBC: I often use the analogy that we have “a thousand little seeds” all across the firm. We have a “start-up culture”. We don’t want things so centralized and managed that people don’t have the opportunity to be creative. We want people to be free to have their own labs, to try things and even to have freedom to fail.

For certain ideas that require a certain number of resources there has to be rigour – we have to determine the idea is consistent with our strategy. That way we are able to thoughtfully allocate people, resources and technology.

We need both – people should be experimenting and thinking of their own ideas but when they rise to a certain level in terms of resources, they come through the Innovation Team to be vetted and prioritised.

MP: During the panel discussion following your keynote you mentioned briefly that it would be great if you could hire new people when you think you spot an opportunity without having to argue a business case straight off. Do you feel like you could do with an unlimited budget to explore new ideas at the moment?

WBC: If I had an unlimited budget the firm would fail! We need to be investing in our primary business, doing the most complex and high value legal work.

What can be challenging is defining the new roles needed and finding the talent to fill those roles. Is it a technologist? Is it someone with a MBA ? is it a lawyer?  or is it a combination of the three? Can you find that unicorn? That’s the line we’ve heard a lot at ILTACON today!

Orrick has been very supportive and as such we have a number of roles that don’t exist in other firms – we have a statistician, we have developers, we have a Practice Management Council and we have a Practice Innovation Council.

MP: What tips do you have for smaller firms that perhaps don’t have an Innovation Officer and where should they start with trying to innovate?

WBC: We heard a lot from the panels about how firms cannot continue to practice the way they practice today. Innovation has to come from senior leadership.  

They need to explain that just because it works today, it is not going to be sustainable going forward and really impart to lawyers that you have to be thinking about this.

It’s listening to your clients – your clients are going to tell you they want to receive legal services in a different way, they’ll tell you that they are being evaluated within their own legal departments about whether or not they’re bringing innovation.

That discussion and that framework makes people more comfortable, rather than simply saying “you need to go find technology”, “you need to do it in a less expensive way”, or “you need to do it faster cheaper better” – that’s not really what innovation is.

True successful innovation is listening to what your clients need and meeting that need.

MP: In your keynote you talked about how you took your team away from the office for an innovation retreat – can you tell me why you did that rather than just booking out the conference room for the day?

WBC: The retreat was not singularly for innovation – we have business unit retreats as part of our culture to get people together to build relationships.

We took our teams away from the office so they were away from distractions. We ran the session on a Saturday so there’s also no competing client demands.

Participants are present in a way that it’s harder to be on the average Wednesday in your office and so that’s where we started. We have built great momentum and we do still run sessions in the office on the average Wednesday!

MP: One of the “complaints” if you will, that we hear about hackathons is that they are great for exploring ideas, and they are currently the vogue thing for firms to say they are doing – but that all too often the great ideas that people come up with are never actually turned into tangible solutions. Have you got some examples you could share from your firm where you have created something as a result of a hackathon?

WBC: At each hackathon we have a winning idea and we strive to implement each of those ideas. At our finance and our energy and infrastructure retreats the winning ideas were document automation and we have since implemented those.

As I talked about in my keynote some of it isn’t necessarily the ideas that come out of the actual hackathon. It’s teaching people to think differently and pushing them to challenge their own assumptions. It’s great if people come up with some ideas through a hackathon but it’s just as important to teach people to think differently.

MP: With your culture of innovation and how it’s changing your firm – what’s the outcome for your the clients?

I’m speaking on a panel this afternoon where I’ll be covering some research that has been carried out around client perceptions of innovative law firms. A research company has found that where a client identifies you as an innovative firm your Net Promoter Score (NPS) almost doubles.

We want to meet client needs in the way that they want us to, not in the way that we think they should receive the legal service. We want to deliver our service in the way that is most supportive for our clients and for their business.

MP: I understand your firm has been involved in some events with the Legal Hackers movement?

WBC: Legal Hackers is an organization that gathers lawyers, policymakers, designers, technologists, academics and concerned citizens to explore and develop creative solutions to some of the most pressing issues at the intersection of law and technology. Through local meetups, hackathons and workshops, Legal Hackers spot issues and opportunities where technology can improve and inform the practice of law and where law, legal practice, and policy can adapt to rapidly changing technology. The organization has chapters in different cities around the world.

Orrick Attorney Zac Padgett is the co-organizer of the Portland, Oregon chapter, Legal Innovation and Technology Lab, and has helped host a number of events, including at Orrick offices. Recently he hosted the Multnomah Bar Hackathon in May 2018. The “reverse pitch” hackathon involved organizations experiencing an access to justice bottleneck, where they pitched their problems to the audience of lawyers and developers who then hacked the problem with tech solutions. Four teams emerged addressing four separate bottlenecks: (1) connecting lawyers to pro bono opportunities, (2) services to help transition homeless individuals to shelters, (3) automated system to assist self-represented litigants at court with legal and non-legal items, and (4) automated system to assist underserved and marginalized community members make their court appearance. 

These meetups and events are great ways to learn more about how technology and law can work better together, and also to meet interesting people and potential clients.


Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Also published on Medium.

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