Innovations Fresh Thoughts For Managing

Amp Up Your Innovation: How to “Think Different” About Your Firm’s Business

A few years ago, I was asked to lead an Innovation Task Force (ITF) at a major Philadelphia law firm. Our mission was to generate ideas for improving internal processes, leveraging new technology and producing higher-quality marketing materials. To prepare myself for this challenge, I drew from my experience as a professional jazz musician for over 35 years.

Michael Brenner, E<span style="text-transform: lowercase;">d</span>D

In a jazz band, players continually navigate the tension between the freedom to play virtually anything they wish “in the moment” and the well-defined structures that underpin the song being performed, i.e., its chord changes. I believe it’s an apt metaphor for law firms seeking to amp up their innovation.

The ITF and I started with four creativity-boosting principles drawn from jazz that help uncover new possibilities without requiring a drastic renovation of the existing business:

  • Audacity
  • Curiosity
  • Simplicity
  • Spontaneity

Audacity is the willingness to take bold risks and challenge the way things have always been done. My favorite jazz musicians embrace audacity by pushing the music in new directions; they possess little desire to repeat what they’ve already done. While law firms are not jazz bands, the need for audacious thinking within the limits of what is permissible is still paramount.

Many law firms (including my client) are introducing new models that change the way work has historically been accomplished: opening legal tech and consulting subsidiaries, alternative fee arrangements, lean and agile multidisciplinary teams, and the increasing use of high-tech tools and social media. If your firm is stuck in a “we’ve always done it this way” mindset, it runs the risk of getting left behind. Consider creating your own ITF and giving members free rein to question every process and practice.


By remaining open and receptive to the ever-changing dynamics of the music, jazz musicians invigorate it with a sense of energy and animation. The opposite is true for those who react to new ideas with so-called “killer phrases” — statements that stifle creativity rather than fuel it. Such sentiments originate from our comfort with the status quo and ambivalence about change. But as the late American composer John Cage said, “I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”

Simplicity is not something commonly associated with the practice of law. When it comes to innovation, though, being simple has its advantages.

Innovative law firms create an environment that fosters exploration, encourage dialogue and stimulate creative thinking. I saw firsthand with the ITF how avoiding the impulse to shoot down ideas can yield truly inventive solutions — so much so that I now urge my clients to eliminate killer phrases entirely. Consider instituting a similar ban within your team. Of course, not every idea will be implemented, but one great suggestion can make a huge difference.


Legendary jazz bassist Charles Mingus said, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple — that’s creativity.” By simple, Mingus didn’t mean dumbed-down; rather, he meant succinct, laser-focused and easily understood. Simple concepts stripped of excess cut through mental clutter and “stick” with us. I’m reminded of the brilliant three-word phrase “Jaws in space” used to describe the 1979 blockbuster Alien to studio execs. Now that’s awesomely simple!

The ITF and I focused on simple ideas that could be implemented with relative ease and potentially yield outsized results. We also recognized that making these ideas stick with senior leadership would require precision in our messaging. Consequently, the team created a PowerPoint deck that only utilized bullet points and simple graphics. While I did not attend the final presentation, I later learned the firm’s leaders were impressed. I attribute this favorable outcome both to the quality of the ideas and their elegant simplicity.

Simplicity is not something commonly associated with the practice of law. When it comes to innovation, though, being simple has its advantages.


Jazz musicians revel in the act of improvisation because the joy of spontaneous creative expression is exhilarating. While familiar patterns and routine behaviors bring order and structure to our daily lives, they can also quash innovation. Creativity involves making unusual connections and seeing things from different angles. Habitual positions and viewpoints, though comforting, can stifle those processes.

The meticulous nature of legal work may seem antithetical to spontaneous creative thinking. To be clear, I’m not suggesting you turn your firm into an unruly free-for-all. But experiencing moments of spontaneity can be beneficial and enjoyable. Start small — a brief innovation challenge to kick off your next meeting or off-site, for instance. Explain its purpose, encourage everyone to participate (there will be a few cynics), and discuss how the activity connects to the firm’s core operations. I think you’ll find the lessons that emerge worth the time investment.

Steve Jobs once said, “Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity — not a threat.” As the legal landscape continues to evolve, now is the time for law firms to heed Apple’s iconic ad campaign — think different.