Inside out: How to Become a Legal Intrapreneur

Law firms no longer just care about who bills the most hours: they want people who can provide new lucrative opportunities for the firm

Young lawyers take note: law firms no longer just care about who bills the most hours, says Dirk Hartung, executive director of legal technology at Bucerius Law School in Germany: they want people who can provide new lucrative opportunities for the firm. 

These innovative lawyers are known as ‘intrapreneurs’. Unlike entrepreneurs, they create new businesses within established corporations. 

And they are invaluable to law firms, which face their own digital revolution, in addition to the demands of clients for solutions to their tech challenges. “Providing new business opportunities may go a long way to making you a hot candidate for becoming partner one day,” says Hartung. 

Innovation is a hot topic for mainstream legal services. That means the opportunities for LL.M. graduates to drive entrepreneurship within established firms are growing. 

Joanne Atkinson, director of postgraduate programs at Portsmouth Law School in the UK, says there are two main areas of opportunity. The first is in streamlining the firm's internal processes, making them more efficient and effective. 

The other key area is in the delivery of legal services to clients. “While there are already some proprietary legaltech products in the marketplace, innovative lawyers and firms are getting ahead of the competition by designing and implementing their own,” says Atkinson. 

These intrapreneur roles are often found in research and development (R&D) teams, and specialist units dedicated entirely to creating new and innovative legal services, law schools say. Intrapreneurship has been adopted by a host of Big Law firms including Hogan Lovells, Allen & Overy, and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. 

The key factor driving the trend is increasing legal complexity, which means that clients’ problems can no longer be solved by staffing more lawyers to the problem, says Hartung.

Risk-averse law firms

Yet many law firms have kept innovation at arm’s length, with a risk-averse culture still prevalent, he says. “It is a lawyer’s job to detect and mitigate risk; this is the system working as intended. Still, it hinders entrepreneurial ventures.” 

That’s why a good intrapreneur program needs attention and support from the decision-makers, sufficient financial resources, and access to real problems, Hartung says. For instance, some law firms have established so-called “skunkworks”, small units that have breathing room for innovation, often within “innovation spaces”. 

One example is ReInvent Law in Frankfurt, which was initiated by Baker McKenzie last year. It aims to bring lawyers and digital experts from academia and industry together to create solutions to digital challenges. 

But as well as a healthy appetite for risk, what other skills do lawyers need to be a true innovator?

Dr Adam Wyner, director of the LL.M. in LegalTech program at Swansea University in Wales, says this requires a “special blend” of law and legal processes knowledge; technological awareness; organizational sensitivity; the spirit of adventure and creativity. 

They also need advanced skills in data analysis along with deep knowledge of a business sector to identify novel opportunities, he says. 

And they must be able to galvanize others to follow the path of innovation. “Intrapreneurship can itself be problematic within an existing organizational structure,” says Wyner, noting that lawyers are trained to know and abide by norms. “[This is] in tension with the culture of intrapreneurship, which is fundamentally risk-willing and norm-breaking.” 

Can an LL.M. teach entrepreneurship?

A growing number of law schools are creating LL.M. courses in legaltech. But can they really teach entrepreneurial thinking? Hartung at Bucerius believes so. He says entrepreneurial thinking has two key components: spotting opportunities where others don’t, and acting on those ideas. 

“We believe in applying this knowledge — by writing case studies, building prototypes, presenting them to and discussing with experts from the field,” he says. He also advocates for broadening horizons by looking at innovations in other industries, for example attending innovation meetups or reading news sites like the accelerator Y Combinator’s Hacker News. 

On the LegalTech LL.M. at Swansea, students learn about key issues related to setting up and running a legal services technology company. This includes identifying, critically analyzing, and solving some of the legal challenges that startups typically face, such as incorporation, intellectual property, and raising finance.

Portsmouth takes a multidisciplinary approach to entrepreneurial teaching, with the university’s law and computing schools teaming up. “In the classroom, students are encouraged to think outside the box with discussion, questioning and analysis strongly encouraged,” says Atkinson. 

In addition, the university offers a wealth of support to budding entrepreneurs, from free office space to entrepreneur networks. The Entrepreneurs in Residence program, for example, gives students direct access to a panel of entrepreneur mentors who offer advice and guidance on planning, business development, funding and marketing.

Yet technology could be a double-edged sword for lawyers: untold economists have warned that law is near the top of the list of professions most likely to be automated by intelligent algorithms. 

Already, law firms are using artificial intelligence to perform mundane tasks like reviewing documents or quicker, cheaper and more accurate due diligence. Could the intrapreneur be at risk from being displaced by his or her own creations? 

“Legaltech does not replace the human element of legal practice or the human judgement of what level of risk is acceptable. But it can allow lawyers to harness the power of technology to run their business more effectively and to better serve their clients,” Atkinson concludes. 

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