The 3-4-5 Method of Innovation in Legal Services for Lawyers

Advances in legal service provision have been almost imperceptible. Although their business model remains viable, law firms need to emphasize collaboration and innovation in legal services if they wish to create value. 

Author: Michele DeStefano, Founder and Executive Director of LawWithoutWalls, Professor of Law at University of Miami, Guest Faculty at Harvard Law School and IE Law School. Author of Legal Upheaval

Law firms once viewed themselves as service providers, but about 20 years ago they began presenting themselves as experts with access to information that wasn´t available to their clients. With the advent of the digital era, things have changed substantially and clients today expect a bit more.

The current transformation, driven by technology, innovation, and collaboration,  translates into the creation of valuable services. Nonetheless, law firms face a challenge: they must adopt a new mindset and acquire a new skill-set more akin to that of innovators who approach problem-solving from a different angle.

Lawyers, like any other professionals, share a series of characteristic traits. Like leaders, lawyers are focused on problem-solving and have a strategic vision. The difference is that lawyers are combative, critical, rules-oriented and their default stance is adversarial. In contrast, leaders are creative, empathetic, collaborative and willing to take risks.

Legal professionals must integrate the mindset of leaders and innovators into their way of working and providing services. Lawyers must be observant, develop relationships, and build networks, while constantly questioning everything in their search for solutions.

Asking the right questions is the key to offering clients the right solution.

Three layers of skills needed to be a lawyer

Legal service providers should have three layers of skills. The first layer consists of specific capacities related to three factors: the organization where the lawyers work or to which they provide their services; the services themselves; and technological factors. This layer includes skills related to project management, leadership, technology, sector-specific knowledge, business knowledge, marketing, communication, public speaking, and mentoring, among others.

The second layer includes what are called “collaborative” skills as well as skills related to creativity, which is essential to finding better solutions. Skills in this layer include empathy, inclusiveness, relationship-building, a growth mindset, multidisciplinarity, diversity, and audacity — to name a few.

When it comes to team-building, diversity is sometimes misunderstood. It is worthwhile to have people of different cultures, races, and beliefs not because of these differences per se, but because of the problem-solving approaches that emerge in diverse groups.

The third layer, consisting of client and service-focused skills, is where true innovation happens. These skills—which are the true source of leadership—are what set legal professionals apart from the rest.

When acquiring the skills needed to be a lawyer, most lawyers have traditionally focused on developing first-layer skills. Little effort has gone into the second layer, and the third layer has been neglected.

Fortunately, there is a methodology that can help law firms integrate innovation into their teams and structures, which in turn fosters the incorporation of second- and third-layer skills—all of which translates into demonstrable innovation in legal services and better service for clients.

The 3-4-5 Method of Innovation  in legal services 

Reflecting on the skills needed to be a lawyer, it’s true not every lawyer wants to learn to innovate or has the time to do so. However, almost every lawyer is asked to collaborate with others on a project whether it is to develop a three-year strategy, a reorganization plan, a response to a pitch request, or a solution for a client. The 3-4-5 Method of Innovation, tested on over 201 teams of lawyers through LawWithoutWalls, makes collaboration more effective for any team project.

The 3-4-5 Method of Innovation that I created can be divided into three phases (a more detailed description can be found in my book, Legal Upheaval: A Guide to Creativity, Collaboration, and Innovation in Law).

Phase 1.  This phase is a brief yet fundamental process of disinhibition that helps team members get to know each other and generate a climate of trust, the absence of which can undermine teamwork.

Phase 2. When collaboration really gets underway, team members are selected, subgroups are created, and roles are precisely defined. With a clear understanding of their functions, team members perform better in their respective roles and contribute more ideas.

Phase 3. In this final phase, participants analyze and measure their successes and failures, leaving the door open to future progress.

The 3-4-5 Method of Innovation also involves five steps.

Step 1 is to explore and investigate the challenge, background and invites team members to look at the big picture. This requires a broad investigation involving other people who can provide information about whether the challenge in question has previously been addressed and whether any solutions have already been developed.

Step 2 is about finding and refining the problem. Background information obtained in Step 1 can be used to whittle down the scope of the challenge. Major projects can be split into several smaller projects and assigned to different teams.

Step 3 involves a task that is fundamental to any teamwork endeavor: defining, understanding, and empathizing with the target audience. Collaboration is impossible if the team members do not share the same vision of the challenge.

Step 4 is for problem-solving and step 5 is to plan, assess, and test by building a business case and pitching the idea.

The ultimate aim is to reach a P.A.C.T., which stands for purpose, agreements, creative cadence, and timing. The key is to understand the project’s purpose and rationale and, on the basis of this essential information, reach a series of agreements on topics such as roles and communication styles, which are especially useful for multidisciplinary teams. With this commitment and creative cadence, participants can provide legal services that are better aligned with the demands of today’s clients.


Michele DeStefano is professor, author, speaker, independent consultant, and facilitator to law firms, corporate legal departments, and legal startups on innovation and technology, culture creation, teaming, and cross-practice, cross-border initiatives. Recognized by the ABA as a Legal Rebel and by the Financial Times Innovative Lawyers (North America) as one of top 20 most innovative lawyers, Michele is a professor of law at the University of Miami, Guest Faculty in Harvard Law School, Executive Education and IE Law school, and the founder of LawWithoutWalls, a multi-disciplinary, international think-tank of over 1000 lawyers, business professionals, entrepreneurs, and law and business students that collaborate to hone new skillsets and mindsets and create innovations at the intersection of law, business, and technology. 

Note: The views expressed by the author of this paper are completely personal and do not represent the position of any affiliated institution.