Nishith Desai

One of the 21st century’s most defining evolutions is the ‘coming of age’ of the Creative Economy.

Today, though, that headstart in the creative journey, and our creative agility, is perhaps our strongest value proposition. In 2016, the prestigious Financial Times Innovative Lawyers rankings report declared NDA as Asia Pacific’s Most Innovative Law Firm. In the two years prior to that, we were ranked the ‘Most Innovative Indian Law Firm’.

Only after the Financial Times recognized it, did the world begin to admit lawyers into the 'innovation space'. For our firm, this acknowledgement has given visibility to our ‘creativity’ and strategic innovation. However, the seeds of this engine took almost two decades of belief, passion and effort to fructify.

What then is happening now? From industrial economy, we moved to the knowledge economy in the last few decades. But now, every organization has to be a knowledge organization - a minimum qualification to be in any business. To be a knowledge ‎enterprise is no longer a differentiator. In order to differentiate, we have to be a part of what is now called a 'creative economy'. An innovation driven enterprise.

Innovation, in simple words, means solving a complex problem through an unprecedented mechanism.

While there are a multitude of theories and perspectives of what and who fall in the ambit of this burgeoning economy, I choose to view it in its broadest sense – the application of creativity to produce economic and social value.

Ideas, innovation and creative expression have spurred a sweeping wellspring of economic value. The implications and impact of this is profound – and it is transforming organizations fundamentally. You cannot innovate or transform if you are not creative; and if you do not, you perish.

Nevertheless, one may wonder, is ‘creative value’ significant enough for a law firm to cogitate on? After all, the legal profession - notoriously structured, conservative and defined as it is – can hardly be visualized as a ‘creative’ field. We are trained to view everything through precedence, and have an ingrained retrospective habit. We seek logic, rigor and proof. We demolish uncertainty, irrationality and risk – quite the antithesis of a creative tendency.

Still, my take is, a law firm cannot lead in any aspect today if it is not ‘creative’. Without original thought, inventive products, initiatives and approaches, we will no longer be relevant. Building and maintaining a creative institution is now a necessity – not an option or a luxury.

Our firm has foundationally used creativity as a strategic tool. We have sought to embed a culture dominated by creative mindset, process as well as skill. It may have sounded quite far-fetched and quirky for a law firm to talk about ‘creativity with discipline’ two decades ago. When we first set out to constitute a creative DNA, we were absolutely contrarian.

In fact, the rising credence and popularity of the rigorous FT Innovation reports with its research partner, RSG Consulting, indicate the growing importance of innovation in the legal profession and organization. Started around 2006 in Europe and North America, these awards were launched in Asia Pacific in 2014. The search for legal enterprises demonstrating outstanding innovation in its practice, deals, business, strategy and management is symbolic of the power of innovation to create transformative success and value for both clients and the industry.

What now sparks this resounding emergence of creativity into the mainstream?

Creativity and some ‘creativity-based’ industries have existed as parallel niches within the larger wheels of the economy. But what’s striking today is the all-encompassing meshing of creative activity within the core of almost every business and enterprise. Today, creative edge is a crucial economic driver, and possibly every organization’s competitive advantage stands on this prowess.

We have seen the global shift from manufacturing to services, and subsequently the tectonic surge of the ‘knowledge economy’ as we turned the millennium. The tide has now turned to ‘innovation’ – the best manifestation of creative discipline, ideas and originality.

It is about what constitutes and escalates value, and the ability to differentiate and reproduce it. The competitive edge of ‘knowledge’ and ‘information’ in the post-industrial knowledge economy has waned to threshold status. Knowledge and information is now getting commoditized – everybody can have access to it and in real-time. Its scope and power to create economic premium is shrinking. It needs lacing with further and distinguishing creativity to cut through the clutter. In fact, disruption – including that brought in by new technology – is a result of innovation, and it is spinning our organizations today.

As I see it, the creative economy is the refined upper crust – or the differentiating edge - of the knowledge economy. Without question then, knowledge enterprises will thrive only as creative enterprises.

That’s why law firms need to respond to the clarion call of innovation and creativity.

But how do you shape a creative enterprise that constantly innovates – and revs up value for clients and communities?

My single-point premise is, we must view creativity as strategic and establish it as a culture. Make ‘ideas’ and their development important and a way of life for everyone. Encourage risk taking and failures. Along with our high impact innovations, we had plenty which were tried but didn’t reach our standards. We still celebrated those failed attempts.

It is not enough to have a few creative people who would think up unusual ideas and try and window-dress the usual stuff. Creativity must be systemic and reinforced through all people and all processes. Also, creativity is pervasive and needs meticulous rigor. From social leadership to distribution of work or designing a page, it is an opportunity to pack in value.

We drive bold leaps and continual, break-through practice development. We have long used our future gazing research methodology to spot disruptive technologies and trends, and uncover their scope for legal innovation. Our forays into futuristic practice development – such as Internet of Things, Drones, Robotics and Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, Med-tech and Medical Devices, Driverless cars, Space laws, Bitcoins or Block-chains – has fostered a sound innovative capability.

Again, our emphasis on thought leadership and open source content creation has been instrumental in both attracting and developing professionals who have creative inclination, flair and technique. Our performance management system has given equal priority to ‘value creation’ work such as writing hotlines, articles and research papers – as much as legal delivery work. So, along with legal expertise, our talent hone on their ability to express, design and produce innovative ideas and content. One such breakthrough innovation was our ‘M&A Lab’, a publication that analyzed in depth some of the biggest mergers and acquisitions of the time. While we were still building our M&A practice, this series of M&A labs showcased our expertise and ability to interpret in no uncertain terms. Our M&A practice today is a large and flourishing one.

Not only that, we seek to be creative and innovative in every aspect of our firm’s activities. Let’s take our organization model and behavior. We have built a no-silo, integrated, hierarchy-averse, collaborative ‘One firm firm’. Firm members work across practices, locations and teams. Besides their core area of specialization, they necessarily invest at least 30% of their in other practices. Collective brainstorming, participative management, multi-disciplinary exposure and collaborative working sparks creativity. Likewise, our leap to a networked organization model and a new leadership ethos is meant to further boost our inventive juices. So, always ensure you nurture the context and culture for creative action.

There’s of course more grist for the creative mill. But I’ll leave another tale for another day.



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