After 16 years working in the legal world, Amol Bargaje, Global Chief Innovation Officer of Mayer Brown LLP, is intimately familiar with the challenges of innovating in the world of professional services. But he also understands how to overcome them to create meaningful change in big organizations structured as partnerships, as many professional services firms are.
Since 2021, Bargaje has served as the first-ever Global Chief Innovation Officer for the Global 25 firm, which was founded in Chicago in 1881 and employs about 1,900 lawyers and an additional 1,900 professionals across other functions globally. Prior to joining Mayer Brown, Bargaje worked in innovation at a different law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell LLP.
Team and Organizational Structure
Bargaje said a small innovation team reports to him, as does a data analyst in the Americas and a few technical and legal professionals. He said the team is small, but he expects that it will grow in the coming years.
Because of the way professional services firms operate, Bargaje said they often do not have a CEO or CxO for employees to report to. Sometimes, that role is taken on by partners and managing partners. In Mayer Brown’s case, Bargaje said, both exist — so he has a dual reporting structure.
“I report to the COO — my reviews, my bonus, my administrative [functions], everything is managed by the COO,” he said.
However, the firm also has a number of committees, run by its Managing Partner and Chairman. He said among those committees is the Management Committee, which is focused on operational decisions. Within that committee, a firm partner oversees innovation as a strategic priority for the firm.
“[That partner] is my go-to person. I report in a matrix, to a COO who is a business professional, and to a partner; she is part of the MC. I meet with both of them on a regular frequency. Most things innovation are discussed with the partner, and most things administrative [and] budget keeping is generally the COO,” Bargaje explained.
The Challenges that Come with Innovating in Professional Services
Bargaje said he sees three primary challenges for innovators working in professional services.
- Professional services firms are “run as a kingdom of islands.”
Bargaje said because professional services firms are structured differently than corporations, there can be less alignment on specific priorities — innovation being one of them.
“There’s not one rule of the law. In other organizations, if the CEO says, ‘This is how it’s going to run,’ everybody falls in line. In professional service organizations, that’s not the case. … When you go to a different city, when you go to a different office, when you go to a different practice, when you go to a different industry team, everybody interprets [the goal] differently,” he said.
- Perfectionism can limit trial and error.
Another trend Bargaje said he sees in professional services is that personalities and priorities don’t always align.
“We are dealing with lawyers who are, in a good way, perfectionists. Innovation is about making mistakes and trying things and failing,” he said. “Doctors, investment bankers, [lawyers]… they want [perfection]. That goes against the fabric of innovation.”
Of course, he acknowledges that there are exceptions, and part of his job is determining who might be most willing to embrace a particular concept or initiative — whether those people are lawyers or other professionals within the organization.
- Limited access to clients puts up roadblocks.
Bargaje said it can be difficult to get access to the clients a firm serves.
“[People in professional services] don’t want to look bad in front of their clients. It is not in their way of thinking to put innovators in front of the clients until the clients ask for it,” he said.
But Bargaje said exactly that type of request from clients has become increasingly prevalent.
“We’re seeing clients asking about innovation in RFPs. They’re looking for [whether] you have an innovation team. … There is demand happening from the client side. Professional service organizations like to service their clients… If the client asks for it, then the people who are in control are incentivized to promote it,” he said.
Communicating as a Way to Put Innovation Top of Mind
Bargaje said one way to build momentum is to communicate internally.
The key is, you have to win small, showcase your wins, and keep building on that.
He asked his Chief Marketing Officer to assign a member of the business development team to support Bargaje’s innovation team. That person attends the team’s meetings, keeps track of what’s happening inside the team, and helps put out messages about innovation at Mayer Brown.
“The key is, you have to win small, showcase your wins, and keep building on that,” he said.
The business development professional can also help Bargaje identify people that could use help from the innovation team, as well as track what is important to clients and the firm’s lawyers.
‘[She] knows where the leads are coming from, where the deals are going. They know which lawyers are struggling, which lawyers are not. … Have your allies spread out, because innovation is not going to be a [single] department thing,” he said.
Metrics and Measurement
Because Bargaje’s team is relatively new, he said it primarily uses activity metrics to measure its progress and growth.
Those metrics include how many projects are created; how many projects are in flight; how many projects are abandoned; and the number of interactions with internal and external clients, among others.
He said the team has not yet begun to measure how much revenue it has helped to generate, but that revenue-based metrics will be “phase two” metrics that he expects to implement in years three, four, and five.
The team also uses a rubric to determine whether a project is worthwhile to complete — but because the team is still evolving, it does sometimes break its own rules.
“We might do a project which is low ranking because we are trying to get traction in a certain geography,” he said. “You [may choose to] work in areas which are low margin, low cost, but they are more inclined to adopt innovation or automation. … You have to keep trying your luck in every jurisdiction you can,” he said.
2023 Goals and Focuses
Bargaje said he has two major goals for 2023: galvanizing his team and growing the firm’s data footprint.
He said he will be working to facilitate easier operations with his team, which is mostly composed of people he hired over the past several months. In doing that, he said he knows his team has the opportunity to create meaningful contributions on a number of fronts, data among them.
“We track a lot of data in silos, but we don’t connect it together,” he said. “If we harness that, we could do so much with our data for competitive intelligence. … If we are successful with these endeavors, that will require our teams to grow.”
*The interviewee’s views and opinions do not represent those of his firm. They are his own.