Innovation thrives on trial and error—an almost inconceivable concept in the risk adverse legal industry. Amol Bargaje, Mayer Brown’s first ever global chief innovation officer discusses how he bridges that wide chasm—and why he can’t do it alone. 

Innovation never happens in a vacuum. And that’s perhaps nowhere more true than in law firms, where it depends not just on internal talent and resources, but also the maturity of client relationships and getting everyone on the same about what innovation actually means.

Making sure all these variables align just right can be a full-time job. Just ask Amol Bargaje, who recently became Mayer Brown’s first ever global chief innovation officer after joining the firm three years ago as its global director of IT practice and client solutions.

Bargaje, who prior to Mayer Brown served as Sullivan & Cromwell’s chief innovation officer and Jenner & Block’s CIO and worked at Oracle, caught up with Legaltech News to discuss the nuanced demands of developing client solutions. Below, he touches on why client relationships are key to legal innovation, how a competitive job market poses problems and opportunities to firm innovation efforts, and why “doing the right thing” is vital when developing technology.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Legaltech News: What does the global chief innovation officer role entail?

Amol Bargaje: Mayer Brown started on its innovation journey about three years ago ... by creating an innovation initiative called Embrio. And the way this was conceived, it’s a combination of our legal process improvement, our knowledge management, and our IT practice and client solutions, with myself as the IT leg if you will.

What this new chief innovation role is, in my eyes, the formalization of the firm’s innovation process; what we’re doing here now is crystallizing this team.

It’s the same trifecta, which is working more closely together, and we are basically going to be going in the same direction more cohesively. So the plan is now to implement the innovation plan we have talked about, [as well as] the governance that goes with it, the selection and prioritization of projects, things like that.

What is the most frustrating part of developing innovative solutions for clients?

I can say overall the process of innovation requires some sort of resiliency and appetite for risk and failure, you have to be willing to fall and get up ... [but] overall lawyers are trained and ingrained to be risk adverse. They always strive for excellence, and nobody—not just lawyers—wants to look bad in front of their clients. So you have to have a very good, solid and secure client relationship in order to have a discussion about innovation, to have your business professionals be at the table, if you will. I wouldn’t call it frustrating, [but] that’s a challenge, that’s an uphill task.

[That’s why one of our focuses is] helping our lawyers connect with the right people on the both sides—the client side and the law firm side—and this comes from having a good read of the personalities and the maturity of relationship between law firm and client.

I would add one more thing that sometimes is also interesting and challenging to understand: What does the law firm client mean by innovation? Innovation doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody, so trying to understand how we can have a mutually beneficial collaboration is also a challenge sometimes.

Given the risk and need for trial and error, is it hard for law firms to realize ROI within their innovation functions?

The R&D function has been around a long time, and if you skimp on R&D you will be fine for the short term, but in the long term you going to feel the impact of it.

The ROI is difficult to measure, but you get that in the long run, it is a strategy for the long haul. [But] even in the short term ... our lawyers and business development folks, they once said to us [that a client] told them the reason [the firm] won [their] matter is because we proposed an innovative solution which was pulled together by the Embrio team. And that one matter could lead to other matters. So it is exponential, it is indirect. But that’s how you keep the firm relevant, keep the clients happy, and deliver better experiences for the client.

In a contributed article ( last year you noted that, in regards to legal innovation, “Doing the right thing is as important—if not more important—than doing the thing right.” What is the “right thing”?

So everybody has ideas about what innovation can be and should be, and any law firm or any organization has limited resources—time, people, funding, etc. So you can only do so many of these things, and what I meant by that comment in that article is that it has to be something that judiciously balances all these limited resources. So identifying and prioritizing the right opportunities by making sure it’s aligned with overall firm strategy, our innovations strategy, our prioritization criteria. [And] you have relationships—innovation depends on how the client is, it depends on how the relationship with the main partner or main lawyer is.

Is it becoming harder for firms to find talent for their innovation teams given that such skills are in high demand by in-house counsel, ALSPs, and the broader legal tech industry?

Yes and partially no is the answer in a sense. It’s primarily a yes because everyone is looking for the same talent or similar talent and everybody is looking for the unicorn—the person who has a background in legal preferably, who has a strong affinity for technology, and has some good grounding in process improvement or knowledge management. And they’re looking at a combination of all these trades, and you have to be good at communication to be able to interface at various levels.

But given that there is so much demand, there are success stories [about those] who have made it big, who have left their law firm and created products, or went over from a product company to an ALSP and charted their own path. People are getting bolder and trying new things, so in that sense it is good that there are more people who are experimenting.


Reprinted with permission from the February 16, 2021 edition of Legaltech News © 2021 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.