Mark Karbownik is the Practice Systems Information Specialist at Barnes & Thornburg LLP, a business law firm and lobbying group headquartered in Indianapolis with 20 offices across the country.
In his role, Karbownik focuses on scouting innovative practices outside of the legal industry in order to bring better practices to Barnes & Thornburg. We spoke with him as part of our Member Spotlight series.
What is the focus of your work at Barnes & Thornburg?
[My work] revolves around the notion that there is a lot of legal work that is extremely rote — things like contract reviews. So there [are] always opportunities to make the process of the work itself easier and more accurate. You want to offer better value for clients, as well as, internally minimize write-offs in case something got botched in some fashion. The other impetus here is the notion of alternative legal service providers (ALSPs) and the Big Four public accounting firms — because, essentially, [when] there are competitors who are entering the legal services space, one needs to be mindful about the kinds of things that they’re doing.
Does your position exist at competitors’ firms?
Yes, basically — they may call it something else, because everyone’s at a different level of maturity.
Bill Henderson, who is a law professor at Indiana University down in Bloomington, likens the legal tech field to the automotive industry in America at the turn of the last century. At the beginning of the last century, there were over 20 different companies building what they called cars, more or less. Clearly, over time, that shook out into the Big Three domestic auto companies. So legal tech is very much the same — rather open, wild west, lots of startups, lots of activity and excitement. But it’s not exactly clear who’s going to emerge from all of that, which makes it really interesting.
Do you have any advice to make sure that innovation activities are getting the right attention from senior leadership?
Absolutely. Because professional services firms, like public accounting firms and law firms, are typically not structured as corporations where you have top-down leadership — somebody at the top says, “make it so,” and it happens. It is very much a collection of individual business people with their own practices or their own businesses who choose to share office space to camp out under a label. So it’s very important in this particular case — since you can’t necessarily dictate from the top down — to make the connections and to offer immediate value. It’s about building credibility. Because at least in the legal profession, in my experience, it’s all about building credit. If you establish that rapport, establish that trust, you’re basically golden, but it can be very difficult to do.
Conceptually, the innovation everybody would like to be creating is home runs all the time. But the reality is, especially in professional services, you have to show immediate value.
Is there anything that you know about innovation now that you wish you knew when you first started in this role?
The notion of the baseball analogy of getting “quick hits” versus “home runs.” Conceptually, the innovation everybody would like to be creating is home runs all the time. But the reality is, especially in professional services, you have to show immediate value. So even if it’s something relatively small in scope, as long as it’s valuable too, that helps to build up credibility. I think that’s a particular feature of the professional services world.
Is there someone you especially admire as a role model creator, inventor, innovator? Why?
I think Amazon takes the cake because it’s all about giving people what they want, when they want it. That’s the kind of thing that I’d like to see in legal services —the notion that you don’t really care what it takes to produce it behind the scenes. You simply can request a particular product or service, and it’s delivered in a modality that works for you on a timely basis. I think [Amazon] really [is] the gold standard in terms of doing that kind of stuff.