How Do You Define Innovation? A Q&A with Lucy Bassli

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

When entrepreneur, author, and advisor Lucy Bassli joined Morgan Lewis Chair Jami McKeon and partner Michelle Pector for a fresh take on innovation in the law, most listeners were not expecting this answer to the question of how you define innovation:

“Find what you love to do, and then do it a little bit better each time.”

But that’s exactly what Lucy¾former assistant general counsel of legal operations and contracting at Microsoft¾shared from her experience and extensive research, writing, and speaking about the buzzword that is “innovation.”

“Innovation is now defined as anything you do differently in how you deliver legal services, manage your workload, or interact with your colleagues and clients,” said Lucy. “Innovation really means improvement.”

We share more highlights from Lucy and Michelle’s discussion below.

What does innovation mean?

Innovation is about the how, not the what. Practicing lawyers are trained to practice law. Most of us don’t have the luxury to ponder innovation and how we do our day job, because we are busy with the core work. We aren’t taught the “how” aspect in our practice. But that is changing as corporate law departments are asking and sometimes demanding external law firms to show how they innovate and use technology. That forcing mechanism has created increased activity to define innovation.

I focus on innovation at the personal level. I ask everyone I work with to figure out what floats their boat. What do you love? To write? To work with numbers in an Excel spreadsheet? Do you get energized by client interaction? Usually, attorneys can identify one key bucket that excites them. I advise them to hone in on that, and ask, what can I do differently? That is innovation.

So innovation isn’t wrapped up in artificial intelligence or the mastery of apps?

Innovation does not necessarily equal cutting-edge technology. You don’t have to be a tech wizard to be innovative in your practice. Technology is an enabler to do “things” faster, but the “things” have to come from you.

The reason we get hooked on technology is because it solves a problem. AI should be used in the right places, for the right purposes. But if you rush to push AI into a process that doesn’t need it, it’s a recipe for failure. Focus on identifying the problem and then AI might be the right solution. But it isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be yet.

If technology isn’t the answer, what can a lawyer bring to the table as an innovative solution?

I was called a “unicorn lawyer” at Microsoft, and that was a compliment. I had a pragmatic, business-minded approach to all legal counsel I gave. I looked at the law through the lens of the business goal and the business outcome, and I get to that in the most pragmatic way. We sometimes get lost in the art because we love the content of the law. But recipients need action. That isn’t as obvious to many lawyers, so it becomes innovative.

What led you to be that kind of lawyer?

We are an immigrant family, and it was instilled in me from an early age that hard work will get you far. My parents demonstrated being courageous in how they approached the new lives they were building for us. That is part of my DNA.

I have learned to have courage and conviction in what I’m trying to accomplish. Sometimes it’s hard to do the right thing and inspire change. That courage comes from within, but it’s directly connected to a purpose. Sometimes women don’t take all the opportunities they can, so they need to have a little extra courage to use their voice.

How can women get away from that imposter syndrome to share their voice?

It’s not about who is the smartest in the room, it’s about having conviction and confidence about what you know and what you’re good at. So many women I work with started their conversation with me by saying, “I’m not an expert at …” They start with already reducing themselves, and that is what we need to get away from.

When I look back at some of the women who came before us, whose shoulders we now stand on, it’s easy to see a pattern with what they accomplished. Historically, each amazing woman is relentless. She has conviction that sees no boundaries. They aren’t fighting for the sake of being a woman doing something, they are fighting for what they are doing. There is an authenticity there. There is a genuine passion for the work.

Taking that same action and being intentional about sharing your voice, ideas, and lifting up others is so important. And it always has been.