In 2021, global law firm DLA Piper was named the Most Innovative Law Firm in Europe by the Financial Times in recognition of their innovative approach to client engagement and their work in building a uniquely client-focused, inclusive culture across the firm.

At the heart of their transformation effort have been the principles of human-centered design such as leading with empathy, client co-creation, ideation with diverse teams, rapid prototyping, and experimentation.

As innovators, we know that implementing these practices can be challenging for any organization, regardless of industry. So, what happens when they're introduced into the delivery-driven culture of legal services where precision, risk aversion, and "having the right answer" are typically paramount?

At our recent Innov8rs London conference, Jana Blount (DLA Piper’s Lead Change Maker) and Adam Billing (Founder of Treehouse Innovation) explored the forces that compelled DLA Piper to pursue this Radical Change initiative, the strategies and tactics they've used, as well as some of the successes and lessons learned along the way that can benefit anyone seeking to create a more innovative culture in their organization, regardless of industry.

Here's a summary of what they shared.

Why Design Thinking?

Like many industries, the legal sector is facing a variety of disruptive challenges- from digital transformation to ever changing client expectations.

It's never easy to bring in rapid prototyping, or leading with empathy, or experimentation- in short, all that is fundamentally different from the business as usual. And that’s even more true for law firms as they are highly risk-averse, and their delivery-driven culture is all about getting things done and having the right answer.

However, DLA Piper saw an opportunity not only to address these disruptive challenges head-on, but to capitalize on them by rolling out design thinking to shift the internal mindset and build stronger and more innovative relationships with clients. The result is the organization-wide Radical Change program, designed to change the way DLA Piper tackles unique business challenges for themselves and their clients.

This transformation didn’t happen overnight. Three specific pillars have made it successful: having engaged leaders, building awareness and capability across the organization, and focusing on real work outcomes.

1. Engaged Leaders: Modeling Behaviors and Creating the Space for Design Thinking to Flourish

The genesis of the Radical Change journey at DLA Piper started with Simon Levine, the global co-CEO, who wrote a manifesto about change on his reelection as the managing partner. “As the Change Maker, I soon realized that we would never come up with ‘radical’ change ideas if we used our same old ways of working. And so we brought in design thinking techniques to see if it took our thinking in a different direction”, says Jana.

They saw great results, and everyone in the leadership team really enjoyed those preliminary sessions. Through this process, they experienced an aha moment: they all noticed it had been quite uncomfortable. That approach deeply challenged their mindsets and how they usually do things- but that's precisely the point of introducing design thinking.

If everyone across DLA Piper could experience this moment, could ask better questions, could think about the “why”, and could be more creative, only then would that be the radical change the organization was seeking.

The drive to shift mindsets and participate in the radical change agenda came directly from the top and, throughout the entire three-and-a-half-year journey to embed design thinking across the firm, that consistent messaging from leadership has kept people interested and thinking about how they can apply design thinking to their day-to-day job.

"Regardless of the organization or the industry, when you're asking people to do something that's different from the thing that they're most comfortable with and confident in, you're asking them to take a risk. And if you don't have that leadership engagement and support to try things out to take some of those risks, a radical change is unlikely to take place. Ultimately, engaged leaders allow the momentum to keep moving”.

The other thing DLA Piper has learned is that even leaders need a safe space when it comes to radical changes. That might sound a little contradictory, but it’s fair to suppose that also Partners might not know the answer or be experts in this new scenario. Accordingly, DLA Piper developed a program that would allow everyone within the firm to learn, experience, and practice design thinking in a ‘safe’ way.

2. Awareness and Capability: Spreading Understanding and Knowledge Throughout the Organization

Along with engaged leaders, you also need people broadly across the organization to know what it’s happening, why it's happening, and why it’s important to effectively drive this transformation.

“It doesn't mean that everyone needs to be a frontline innovator- but you definitely don't want the rest of the organization becoming white blood cells that identify the thing that's different and attack it”.

Creating that broad awareness is essential. But how to get people skilled in using design thinking framework and tools?

DLA Piper created a customized global rollout plan to provide each of their 90 offices in 40 countries around the world with a 30-minute training session on what design thinking is and why it matters.

They realized that just using a design thinking framework or courses that already exist is not the appropriate way to help people across the firm see how design thinking could help them provide a better service for clients. Maybe this holds true for law firms in particular, but words are crucial. “Lawyers love words. Words can change the whole meaning of a contract. Our lives and our livelihoods depend on words”, says Jana.

Basically, the words used to explain the change must resonate and make sense, and everyone in the company must feel comfortable using those same words with and for clients.

So, after a long time spent making sure that they had the right words and the right kind of framework, DLA Piper and Treehouse as a joint team came up with a bespoke Methodology Framework: DLA Design. This framework comprises three main phases: understand, create, and implement. The underlying methodology encourages questions and provides tools to broaden thinking around possible solutions, with a fail-fast approach through experimentation and prototypes.

3. Real Work Outcomes: Capturing Everyday Improvements to Make Change Relatable

Radical Change at DLA Piper is ongoing and keeping momentum is vital. That primarily involves ongoing communication around the benefits the firm is seeing from DLA Design. It's great to have leaders engaged and supportive. And it's wonderful to have everyone aware. But unless you start getting (and sharing) some outcomes, these initiatives tend to stall out or, even worse, fail.

“It's fabulous to hear of all the great stories of human-centered design from Google and other companies. But unless those stories start coming from your organization, it starts to feel a little bit empty. So capturing those real work outcomes is critical to keep this virtuous cycle flowing. And it doesn't have to be the big, disruptive solutions. Some of the small little improvements that people have been able to make will suffice”.

Through the “Design your day” campaign, DLA Piper has helped people to make that connection between design thinking techniques and their day-to-day jobs even stronger by simply collecting and sharing (small) successful stories. These stories are about how colleagues have been using the DLA Design to tackle problems, approach challenges, ask new questions, and interact with internal and external clients.

Simple, relatable, inspiring day-to-day stories that make it real. They are the fuel that keeps validating and driving that momentum- even for those who may not be engaged immediately.

Take-Home Message

To initiate a radical change in culture, you first and foremost need to understand your audience and make that change safe for them. Having senior leaders engaged as well as capturing stories to make progress visible are other pieces of this big puzzle.

However, the gravitational pull to the business-as-usual won’t disappear on the spot. It’s likely to always stay along the way, trying to push against the radical transformation. And yes, stories are great fuel, but none of the major lenses we’ve discussed – engaged leaders, awareness and capability, and real work outcomes – is a self-rotating wheel.

There have to be dedicated resources. It would help if you had someone who's going out capturing those stories, making sure that they get shared, making sure that people who might have a desire to take a bigger role are found, identified, and given opportunities to learn and do more. Having that core dedicated effort to keep everything moving is another essential piece of the puzzle that has to be there.