After a lull for in-person events over the pandemic years, one law firm is killing two birds with one stone as the industry re-enters the workplace physically: office engagement and design thinking.

Global law firm Mayer Brown has had innovation-focused workshops for several years, even through the remote work period, with webinars and virtual meetings. However, while most workshops have been focused on a particular problem, involving a particular team to solve it, the firm’s most recent two-day workshop, called “Embrace Innovation” was a unique exercise.

The Embrace Innovation workshops, which took place in its Los Angeles and Washington offices on May 4 and May 10, respectively, broke participants off into small groups. Teams were asked to identify specific challenges within themes of client collaboration, increasing proportion of billable work and a general improvement of insights into the firm’s caseload. By the end of this week, a panel of judges, which consists of managing partners, will choose the strongest idea and give them a prize, an Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality system.

The workshops focused on design thinking, the idea that a problem should be solved by “zooming in and zooming out” of a situation, asking “whys” to get to the root of it, has been around for a few years but is still a fairly new concept for law firm innovation. Previously, Legaltech News covered Reed Smith’s innovation workshop that brought in design thinking as well.

Amol Bargaje, chief innovation officer at Mayer Brown, said the focus of this particular workshop crystallized when the innovation team attempted to brainstorm ways to engage every single team—managing partners, client-facing ones, associates, and back-end—in the firm and came to design-thinking as one of the few common strategies.

Workshop engagement had dipped over the remote-work years at the firm, and involving every team of the office in their next innovation workshop was a “corollary of having the ability to interact after such a long period of pandemic working,” Bargaje said.

“[Traditionally], mostly corporations have gravitated towards design thinking, and law firms are not particularly focused on it but it’s such an important concept,” Bargaje said. “Lawyers are very solution-oriented and even we, working with them, can get solution-oriented. It’s a human tendency to start thinking of the solution before you finish explaining the problem. What design-thinking does is it makes you pause and ask the ‘five whys’ [a methodology to ask 'why' until reaching the root cause] as we’re trying to understand your customer—focus on the underlying problem, don’t try to solve the symptom.”

Bargaje said on the workshop was divided into locating the “root cause” of a problem on the first day, and on finding a solution on the second and final day. When it came to finding solutions, Bargaje said he could see “lightbulbs going off” in peoples’ heads about why an approach that investigates a client’s problem from a human-centered, or design-thinking perspective, can be so helpful. While most of the solutions do not focus on technology, a handful do, Bargaje said.

“It was such a high energy affair. We were able to have icebreaker dinners, cocktail parties and everybody is abuzz with activity [waiting on the prizes] asking each other, ‘Hey what did you do with that option?’ ‘What happened with that [solution]?’” he added. “The engagement from all levels of the office was fantastic. We are very excited to take [it] to the other offices.”

In spite of the success and excitement, Bargaje added the firm has a long way to go in terms of design thinking. He noted that some firms already have “design thinking partners,” focused on that sort of an approach to solutions, but “we are not there yet.”

“It doesn’t mean [design thinking] is the holy grail to solutions,” he said. “But it is something that is taking root in my mind in the law firm industry, and the mileage will vary based on the culture of the firm and based on what the priorities are. It’s [still] new, and it’s yet to be seen how it flourishes in the legal market.”

“Reprinted with permission from the May 20, 2022 edition of LegalTech News © 2022 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.”