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“Innovation is as much about relationships as it is about technology.”
Nicky Leitjens (34) isn’t really your old-school lawyer. She loves solving complex problems, and favours taking a step back to take a critical look at the whole picture of the law; the profession and its function. Why do we do what we do and how can we do it better? On the 11th floor of their swanky Amsterdam office, we chat about the legal trade and what innovation means in that sector. Mostly, we discuss her role in it, as a management consultant with a specialty in innovation and customer experience.
First, we begin with a defining moment. When Leijtens was still working at Rechtwijzer, a platform that takes a step by step approach to helping litigants find a solution for their conflict on their own, she knew then, this is the future. She’s constantly working on renewing the way legal services are provided. “So that it’s better for the actual people using the service,” she explains. “I often saw that in court cases, client weren’t understanding exactly what was being said, and mostly at pivotal moments. The platform offered clients more insight into the workings of a legal problem in comprehensive terms. They had more control over what was going on and could better contribute to finding a solution.”
Her way of working back then is comparable to what she’s now busy with, two years later, at NautaDutilh: making legal services clearler, faster and more transparent. Above all, she cares about the happiness of the clients, as they work together. That’s how Leijtens became responsible for the client experience program she initiated, when she was made innovation manager two year earlier. Innovation was so abstract and elusive. “Innovation is a vast concept. One lawyer imagines disruptive ideas like a robot lawyer and another lawyer sees innovation as software that helps you do a better job,” she explains. At NautaDutilh, they made the decision that innovation is primarily about the client, “because thanks to them, our office exists, and even more so, they’re the driving force behind us innovating.” Clients range from large businesses, banks and insurance companies, and the firm assists them with everything from assistance in legal proceedings to mergers and acquisitions, and from financial law to intellectual property.
A deeper relationship
In more concrete terms, this past year, Leijtens has been making sure that innovation finds its physical place in the office. “In Rotterdam, we have an innovation lab that looks different than the usual meeting room,” she says. “It stimulates creative thinking, because everything is flexible and functional. The furniture is modular and there are special boards on which you can draw and stick things.” Furthermore, Leijtens researches trends and changing client needs. Because she talks with a lot of clients, she can quickly assess where improvement is needed. Her team of four was the first to take on the general conditions and engagement letter (cooperation agreement). “They were long, complex and full of legal jargon,” says Leijtens. “We helped reformulate them and make them as short as possible, in simple language and with help from design.
This level of comprehensibility is essential for business clients, Leijtens notes. Which means the way we provide advice has been adapted as well. “Time is in short supply nowadays, and that’s incompatible with heaps of pages of advice, with all sorts of ifs and buts, that you need to read three times before understanding. Good advice is above all practical and brief, and can be read and understood by all stakeholders involved, not just the lawyers. So, easy to read and preferably with visuals. Design helps people in processing information better and faster.
According to Leijtens, innovation is not necessarily about groundbreaking technology. It’s just as much about good relationships. “Of course, new technologies play an important role at the office. We’re digitalizing our way of working more and more, and technology helps in gaining more insight from all the data.” However, for Leijtens, real innovation is more present at the relationship level. “The impact for the client reveals itself in small packages. Like calling clients to tell them about a specific trend that could be advantageous for them. It’s about the attention, trust, and most of all, humanity.”
This last bit was the conclusion of interviews she recently conducted with a number of general counsels, to whom she asked what characteristics should a lawyer of the future have. “What they look for in a lawyer is a proactive partner who thinks with them. Someone who will stand beside them, and not just provide advice. A close working partnership and a deep relationship with lawyers is very important to them.” It’s for that reason that Leijtens trains her lawyer colleagues to work with tools that puts focus on the client, such as persona and customer journey mapping. “As lawyers, you’re in the frontlines because you talk to clients every day. You quickly understand where the pain points really are. In other words, as lawyer, you have to make sure you stay tuned on that level, so that you remain alert.”
A recurring theme in the legal profession, however, is that the sector doesn’t innovative, or if it does, it’s slow at it. According to research by Sdu Publishing, publishers in legal, government, fiscal, IT and B2B sectors, there’s no real sense of urgency as long as the money keeps coming in. How does Leijtens see this? “In some cases, you have to hang in there. If you ask me, it can certainly go faster,” she laughs. “Meanwhile, we’ve made quite some progress in five years. You have to realize that this is a large office with just under 1000 employees. Not everyone is onboard in one go.”
Leijtens does see however, that there are areas in legal services where things can work better, at a faster pace and be more user friendly. “Consumer-focused businesses maintain a high level of transparency. Among other reasons, because you can track an order. You see where your product is and when, and what has to happen.” This kind of transparency is also a must in the legal profession, “and we’re working hard to make it happen.” According to Leijtens, the pressure is more on customers and budgets, while the number of challenges is growing. “Now that our access to data is progressively getting better, we can see concrete results with comparable circumstances, which enable us to better predict how much time and what costs we can invest,” she explains. “More predictability ahead of time ensures that a customer can make good decisions.”
Leijtens is also busy with another way of innovating, more specifically, with the She Breaks The Law Foundation, which she founded with two other people. Her eyes light up while she talks about it. The Foundation was started with two goals in mind. We want to put in the limelight, successful women who are working on innovation in the legal sector. And related to that, we want to highlight that the legal ecosystem no longer only consists of law firms, and that tech companies, consulting firms and other non-traditional service providers are joining in.” This connects Leijtens to a community whose online platform revolves around the same theme: innovation in the legal sector. “We now have a LinkedIn group with almost 2000 women from 27 countries. We’re working on the platform, which has for goal, among others, to facilitate collaboration.
Another testament to her drive for change. And that’s something she gets the chance to do well in the legal profession, says Leijtens. “Being a lawyer is actually very innovative. You’re constantly thinking up solutions to new problems. These current issues are regulars at our office, such as the Urgenda climate case. It takes original and creative thinking that goes way beyond just googling the solution. And that’s essentially innovation. We create new possibilities using the law.”
About Hacking Innovation:
Can you manage innovation? Large Dutch companies seem to think so, judging by the number of innovation managers who have been hired in the past two years. But how do you handle the managing of semi ideas and vague plans whose value has yet to be proven? How do you deal with the torrent of normal-is-best, as seen in traditional companies? Who are these corporate troublemakers? What drives them and what are their biggest challenges? A close encounter with innovation professionals in the Netherlands, in a monthly interview series.
Journalist, Christel Don. Researcher, Marna van Hal, Hike One. Photographer, Frank Poppelaars. Follow the full Hacking Innovation series on Medium.