Linklaters’ global head of innovation Shilpa Bhandarkar shares the five fundamentals for fostering innovation, as part of the Business Leadership Series.

What are the fundamentals for fostering a culture of innovation within a firm?

Shilpa Bhandarkar
Shilpa Bhandarkar

There are five pieces to this jigsaw, which need to fit together for real impact. First, visible senior buy-in. Innovation involves risk taking and failure. Senior leaders need to actively champion, allow and role model this behaviour.

Second, a strategy that is easy to communicate and widely understood. Everyone, whatever their role or their level of seniority, should be able to articulate the value innovation brings to their clients and how they can contribute to furthering that ambition.

Third, organisational structures to deliver the strategy. We have chosen a decentralised approach to innovation and have designed an organisational structure to match. Our practice-based innovation teams act as our engine of change – they understand their clients’ needs and market nuanced, and therefore how to adapt new processes and products to suit. The role of the central innovation team is to help connect the dots, and ensure resources are allocated where most impactful.

Fourth, a portfolio approach to projects and initiatives – a mix of “quick wins” to build momentum and credibility with game changing ideas like Matter Explorer and ISDA Create that allow you to make step changes.

Finally, and most importantly, people empowered to make change. Actively encourage people to be brave and try new things; and ensure that you have resources available to help make their ideas come to life.

Has there been an increased amount of innovation throughout this constrained climate?

I think so. There has been less appetite and budget for large new technology investments, but having been forced to adapt to working entirely differently overnight, our lawyers are now much more open to trying new things than they might have been six months ago. The old rule books for how to manage and close a deal is being entirely re-written – just think about how much innovation that mindset can bring to an organisation?

Internally, we’ve been using this time to increase adoption of the technology we already have available to us. Now is also the perfect time to process map the way transactions are set up and managed through their lifecycle so that we can identify opportunities for increased efficiency and automation. Finally and most important, the “customer experience” of engaging law firms and working with lawyers has dramatically changed for our clients. Much of the innovation we are seeing and exploring is around adapting to our changing client needs, and helping our clients adapt to the changes in their own organisations and sectors.

In your opinion, are innovative minds empowered enough to present and pursue projects within firms?

I would like to think that at Linklaters they are. We’ve worked hard to ensure that we capture the best ideas from our people through our ideation platform, the Ideas Pathway – and that we then back those ideas with the right resources and support to bring them to life.

Isabella Peplinski, an associate in our energy and infrastructure group, created a program that converts comment “bubbles” in Word into footnotes, which on documents that run into the hundreds of pages, saves time while also reducing the risk of errors. Joanna Dreger, the COO of our Belgian office, had the idea for a PowerPoint macro that allows us to share selected slides from longer deck with the click of a few buttons (a personal favourite and has easily saved me the equivalent of days since we launched it late last year). Most recently, Hamza Zaveri, a trainee in our corporate group, produced and hosted the Linkubator podcast series which has been downloaded thousands of times since launch.

The more ideas we support into implementation, the more people feel empowered to share their ideas, the more change you can help embed into the system – it’s a powerful virtuous cycle when you get it right.

What has been the most rewarding project to work on?

There have been so many great projects and highlights it’s hard to narrow it down. Most recently, I’ve had the pleasure of working with the Linklaters derivatives practice, the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) and the Nakhoda teams to extend the use of ISDA Create to three new document packs.

ISDA Create, a document automation and digital negotiation platform built in partnership with ISDA, is Nakhoda’s flagship product. The recent expansion of documents available on the platform will allow users to agree additional “business as usual” documents online, bringing further automation and efficiency to the negotiation of derivatives agreements while simultaneously unlocking the valuable data contained in them for other parts of their businesses.

I think the way in which we have worked with our client to capture our combined legal expertise and market knowledge into a cutting-edge and beautifully designed technology product is unique in our industry and sets ISDA Create apart from any other legal technology product that I have seen. It’s really exciting to be part of that team and its journey. 

Name 3 things on your bucket list.

In a world influenced by Covid-19 induced lockdowns and isolation, it would be (i) a night of cocktails and dancing with friends, (ii) then catching the morning flight home (to India) to bear hug my mum and then, after spending some time being home, (iii) leaving the kids with her and heading to the Maldives for 2 weeks of diving and chilling on a boat. Actually, that’s not a half-bad non-Covid induced bucket list either!