Even if you don’t like U2, you likely you have heard at least one of their songs during your life. I happen to love them. They have been around for 40 years. Not many musical groups last that long. Yes, I could go on and on gloating about their accomplishments and their tremendous success. However, the point of talking about U2 is not self-indulgence. Rather, there is something that U2 have done and that allowed them to be successful for such a long time. Innovate.
Before you stop reading thinking that this is yet another article that speaks in broad terms about innovation, but doesn’t dive into what innovating really means, not to worry. Innovation does not equal improvement. It can lead to improvement, but simply trying to change something for the sheer sake of change because of some trend you read about or some new technology claiming to solve all of your problems is not only unhelpful, but often can be more damaging than simply not changing anything at all. That point leads me to pointing a crucial distinction when it comes to innovation: between adaptation and adoption. Let me go back to U2 to illustrate the difference.
U2 has demonstrated what successful innovation can look like. U2 has managed to throughout their career maintain their core musical identity, yet at the same time play with new musical styles, instrumentation, and song structures. Likewise, for the in-house legal function, it is important to stay true to the values and identity of the company, which you represent, partly through becoming experts on existing processes and procedures, but it is also just as crucial to seek out ways to update those processes and procedures, without losing sight of what it is that your department seeks to achieve.
Being an in-housel counsel can be stressful. Multiple competing demands seem to always be placed upon you and your team. As part of the legal function, whenever there is uncertainty that even tangentially touches a potential legal issue, your expertise is called upon. Moreover, the expectation is that you will be responsive and be able to provide a clear and correct answer quickly. Thus, to make your job easier and to be seen as responsive, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of allowing existing processes and procedures to dictate the actions that you take since too often they are perceived as providing a fool-proof guide to getting arriving at the answer that others seek from you.
Yet, as law school makes crystal clear, there is nothing black and white about the law and, similarly, the practice of law is not black and white. Thus, when it comes to processes that help allow the legal function to address a legal concern, whether it be a contract, a corporate governance matter, or something else entirely, even the most dynamic of processes needs to be tinkered with from time to time. That is innovation: improving what already exists. U2 has been incredibly successful because (among a great many other things) they have been incredibly good at innovating through adaptation and not wholesale adoption. To be successful at doing so requires not just being flexible and being creative. Another part of being a successful innovator is accepting that failure is just as much a part, if not the biggest part, of the process as success. Those in-house counsel who are successful innovators succeed manage to stay true to their values and yet are flexible in their mindset and do not fear experimentation and change. Just like U2.