Guest post: Staying ahead of the disruption curve with R&D at Clifford Chance

In 2021, Clifford Chance established a dedicated research and development function to ‘explore the future of legal services’.  But what does that mean in practice and why is it important?  April Brousseau, director of research and development at Clifford Chance, discusses the role of R&D within the legal industry and the crucial role that the client voice plays.

There are many moving parts in a successful innovation function and one of those parts is preparing for radical change that can impact our clients and the legal industry. That change happens at the periphery and is not immediately obvious. For any major change there are points of inflection that suggest the trajectory of the change, but which are only visible if you are looking for them.  At Clifford Chance we are looking for those points of inflection and we are doing so with our clients. There are many ways we do that: we monitor market trends and developments, explore and experiment with new ways of working and engage with emerging technology. But perhaps the most important thing we do is foster spaces for our clients to collaborate with us and with each other. One of my favourite Clayton Christensen quotes says that “almost always great new ideas don’t emerge from within a single person or function, but at the intersection of functions or people that have never met before.”

Active Legal 2025:  Defining Tomorrow’s Legal Function Through its Relationships

Diversity of perspective is critical to engaging effectively with innovation and change.  You need to ‘get out of the building’ and expose yourself to change unfolding outside of your direct experience.  One of the ways we do that is by collaborating with others including our clients and industry influencers.  This year we partnered with RSGi to facilitate conversations with leading in-house counsel teams on how they see the future of their functions.  Partnering with the RSGi team enabled us, and our clients, to look at that future through a unique lens which hadn’t been used in legal before: that of relationships.

The research identified eight key relationships that will shape the legal team of the future: employees, stakeholders, knowledge, data and technology, business, the legal function, external advisers, and risk management.  These topics were, and now continue to be, debated across sectors and geographies with some very different and interesting points of view considered.  For example, there is a notable diversity in views on the role that in house legal teams have with respect to employees.  At one end of the spectrum, in house counsel have an important role to play in communicating on key socio-political issues to employees and making the company a better place to work.  At the other end of the spectrum, in house counsel have a professional duty to the company first which limits the nature of the relationship they have with the company’s employees.

While there is no one correct answer to the correct nature of any of these relationships, creating the space for clients to share and debate their views has started the dialogue and pushed the conversation forward.  This creates insights for them and the wider industry.  But what is particularly insightful is the relationships that our clients were able to develop with each other.  The feedback we received is that there are not many opportunities for clients to have open dialogue with each other within and across industry. Bringing them together not only allowed us to hear first-hand the changes that they are seeing but has started conversations and created relationships that are going to directly influence those changes. One of the clients said:

“I really enjoyed reading your thought leadership report – the relationship model is a smart way to think about and organise the diverse set of challenges/opportunities we face as an in-house team. I was reassured that many of the themes mentioned by other GCs resonate with our own experiences and thankful that we have the privilege to address/discuss many of these with our various stakeholders, both within and outside of [my organisation].”

You can download a full copy of the report here.

 Seeing Around Corners

Change is happening all the time across our industry and our professional social media channels are currently rife with predictions for the coming year. Only time will tell how many of these predictions will come to pass but, in the present, it is important to keep an eye on those changes brewing on the periphery. The recent weather in the UK reminded me of something we know well where I grew up in Canada: snow melts from the edges.  Transformative change is similar.  To anticipate it, you need to keep watching those edges for the points of inflection that signal real and impending shifts in business models, delivery, and expectation.  Staying ahead of the disruption curve is a constant endeavour with no single methodology for success. However, there are some key lessons I have learned about doing it well:

  1. Expose yourself to diverse views and different ways of thinking – get yourself out of the building and seek out the opinions of people not in your direct line of sight.
  2. Bring as many diverse views together as you can to see where there are shared experience and where there are anomalies.
  3. Challenge assumptions and never ever stop asking questions of yourself, your colleagues and, most importantly, your clients.
  4. Remember that transformative change is slow, not fast and respond to the change you think you see with an appropriate balance of optimism and scepticism.
  5. Align your efforts to the strategic priorities of your clients and bring them along the journey to ensure maximum value and impact.

April Brousseau took over the role of director of research and development at Clifford Chance in May 2021. The R&D hub brings together product research, design and development. It is intended to accelerate and scale the development of digital products and help transform the magic circle firm’s operations. 

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1 thought on “Guest post: Staying ahead of the disruption curve with R&D at Clifford Chance”

  1. I love these lines: snow melts at the edges, transformative change is similar. It is so true, we look for signs that something is going to change at the edge, and then when a mainstream firm or team adopts it, we know it’s a trend. For in-house teams, thinking about change in terms of different interconnecting relationships has been very helpful.

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