What is legal innovation
Legal innovation is an improvement – any improvement that makes something in the legal space work better than before. Fundamentally, it creates a positive impact on clients, lawyers, and society as a whole.
Innovation can improve
- the way legal professionals work and think
Legal innovation isn’t always groundbreaking and certainly not limited to technology. It’s iterative improvements over time that create positive outcomes for people who interact with the law.
Legal innovation is more than technology
Typically people associate legal innovation with technology, but it’s only one aspect.
Technology certainly can be innovative: You can automate or streamline legal tasks and processes, build apps or use AI tools to assist with legal research, contract review, and other tasks.
However, not all innovation is about technology. And the use of technology is not automatically innovative, it’s not a silver bullet that magically fixes everything that’s wrong with the legal industry.
It’s more holistic. It requires systems thinking to realize the broader problems before you can maximize the use and benefits of legal technology.
For instance, is the more pressing problem the work-life balance of lawyers? Do lawyers have time and space for new innovative thoughts to increase efficiency and client experience? If their desk is flooded with work and the work days are too long, there’s no room for anything else. Let alone the implementation of new efficient technology.
Or do we need to work on the regulatory reform first to allow the use of technology in legal services?
As you see, legal innovation requires work on many different levels simultaneously to create the impact we want.
Ideas are not innovation
Ideas are cheap. Execution is king.
You can easily come up with dozens of ideas under the right circumstances. But ideas alone do not change anything.
An idea is just a hint, a proposal for something new or different. Ideas need to be put into action and made work in real life to make them useful and valuable. That’s the process of innovation, you turn ideas into practical solutions.
Execution, and implementation, is the key to transforming your idea into an innovation.
Legal innovation using legal design
Legal design thinking gives you an excellent framework to follow, so the legal design process and tools should be tightly tied into your innovation practice. You can learn more about legal design in my other posts.
Innovation in law is people-centric
This means that it’s focused on solving the real needs of people and addressing the challenges they face in accessing legal information or services.
I think that along with our clients, we also need to focus on improving our own working conditions and culture with our innovation efforts. The legal space needs to be safe and functional for everyone, both the clients and the legal professionals.
The 4 key elements of innovation
1. Create space for legal innovation
The number one resource required for legal innovation is time. If you or your team want to come up with something new, you need to ensure there’s time and mental space to do it.
It takes courage and deliberate change. We exist in an unhealthy work culture and mindset that rewards busyness.
I’m busy means I’m important.
With this mindset, idle time may seem unproductive but it’s actually necessary to make room for innovation.
What makes innovation so challenging is that you don’t know what’s going to happen in the process, what’s going to come out of your efforts and when it will happen. And at the same time, we are haunted by the fear of failure and exposure to risks. We want to stay in control.
Having enough resources – which often means money – and having the patience to wait for the results and learn from occasional failures is key for legal innovation.
Typically legal teams don’t have this. We’re used to predictable outcomes and we align our resources and expectations accordingly. But legal innovation is different in terms of the time span it takes and the results it produces.
So you need to build patience with resources.
Do you have the patience for long-term, sustainable, transformative change?
2. Involve everyone
Legal innovation is not a solo hero exercise. Getting other people, whether they’re your clients or your colleagues involved in the idea-generation process brings fresh perspectives and insights.
Whether you talk to people over coffee or facilitate a collaborative workshop, having a diverse group of people with different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives lead to more creative and innovative ideas.
Invite everyone that has something to do with the area you want to improve. Anyone can notice small improvements and come up with new ways to solve them. Most importantly, involve the people you are serving in the process. Don’t innovate for them but with them.
When you work with others, it’s important to foster a safe and positive atmosphere and culture that encourages open communication and sharing. Create common ground rules to ensure a safe space for new ideas to emerge.
A word of caution though. Not everyone is into development and new ideas. And that is fine. Focus your energy on those who are willing to participate and let the innovation adoption curve take care of the laggards. They will follow when the time is right.
3. Generate ideas
Mark Stickdorn says in the book This is Service Design Thinking that
“Creativity is not so much a gift as it is a process of listening to the ideas “flowing” through one’s head and being prepared to articulate them.”
I think that’s brilliantly put. Getting ideas is actually listening to the ideas and then capturing them and creating language to describe them to others. This approach makes the whole process feel much more neutral and something we can get better at. Which we absolutely can.
Few ways to get new ideas:
- Spend time with your customers, talk to them, and have discussions that go deeper than the typical fact-finding interview. Map their journey with you to get the whole picture that they are experiencing. Remember that people don’t have legal problems, they have human problems.
- Notice the mundane. The reality behind the best inventions is that someone looked at something ordinary and saw the potential for a better way of doing it. When we operate on autopilot, we don’t pay attention to details. Many times the most simple solutions can be found in the everyday things we don’t bother to notice. So one really powerful strategy to get new ideas is to cultivate the ability to slow down, observe and pay attention. This will help you identify the hidden treasures that are often right in front of us.
- Benchmark others. Generating new ideas doesn’t have to start from scratch. Instead, you can take inspiration from other industries and adapt their concepts to law. Look beyond your area of expertise and be open to ideas from unexpected sources. The funny thing about innovation is that it’s contextual. One solution can in one industry already be outdated and in another a disruptive innovation. So be curious to learn from others.
4. Test and keep testing
When you land an idea and pilot it, keep developing it until it’s useable, impactful and profitable.
Innovation work does not end in a successful pilot.
Don’t settle for a good concept and a pilot gone well. This is very typical in many organisations that they have a ton of great pilots and then, nothing. The pilots are buried and they move on to the next shiny object.
Successful legal innovation means impact at scale at least in my opinion. How you evolve the innovation further to become impactful and also profitable. This takes perseverance and patience over jumping from one idea to another.
While I said before that legal innovations need funding to get off the ground and you can rarely expect big business right from the start, it’s still important to keep in mind the business logic throughout the innovation process.
To make legal innovation sustainable there has to be some kind of business model in place once it’s in full action. Sometimes this can mean that you come up with a new business model as well so the innovation work continues.
2023 is the perfect timing for legal innovation
Right now in 2023, this is more important than ever. In the current state of the world, with everything that’s going on, innovation efforts in legal should be focused on creating a brighter future for all. And we have all the potential to do that.
You have all the potential to do that, to use your skills and expertise as a legal professional to create positive change in people’s lives.
After the pandemic, we were all hoping and expecting things to get easier. But I think 2022 was anything but easy. It just continued to throw curve balls at us with increasing speed.
The world economy is getting close to recession, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the energy crisis, and inflation. You name it. Every time we open any media, it’s full of bad news.
It’s natural that in times like these we seek a break from the uncertainty, we don’t necessarily want to go out there and expose ourselves to more uncertainty and risks that innovation efforts generate. We get into survival mode and focus on getting the minimum done. Just to get by and wait for the storms to calm down.
I don’t know if that’s you, but that is certainly how my mind works.
The challenge with this kind of thinking is that we don’t know when it’s going to be over. Or if we’re ever again seeing the normal we got used to.
As counterintuitive as it is, this is actually the best time to get innovative and try new things. In turmoil and hardship, people are more willing to consider new and unconventional ideas. You can find unexpected opportunities to grow and thrive while traditional lawyering struggles.
I love the old saying “Necessity is the mother of invention”. Necessity fuels innovation. When there’s a pressing need, we are able to focus and make it happen.
So think about how you can take the most out of the disruptive times we’re living in. If many things are changing and uncertain already, maybe this is a good time to be intentional about the change too and make it work for your and your clients’ benefit.
My legal innovation example
First I want to take you back to the year 2015. This is the moment I go whenever I think about legal innovation in my own career. Back then I had my own law firm and I had figured out a way to kill the billable hour and offer legal services with value-based pricing. I wanted to make my services more affordable and accessible and I had done a lot of work with my processes and routines around that.
In 2015 I was in a tough spot. I was a single mom on maternity leave and needed to serve clients as well to make a living for myself and my child. There was literally no time to do anything, or that’s at least how it felt. I was constantly thinking about how I can serve more clients with the limited time I have.
Then as it often happens, I got the idea when I least expected it. I was on a morning run and it hit me.
Why not automate the process to make it more effective and turn it into an online legal service for my clients? That was an aha moment.
To implement this idea in practice, I turned my existing contract creation process of asking questions into a digital form and then have the technology generate the contract based on client responses. I added a half an hour call with me at the end of the service journey and that was it.
Six months later I launched a DIY online service providing automated shareholder agreements for B2B clients.
Then the following year in 2016, after getting together with Kaisa Kromhof, the idea pivoted into Contract Mill, nowadays Ment, a document automation platform serving lawyers all over the world.
Looking back to that year, all that happened seems so random and yet it wasn’t. That morning in January 2015 was the turning point, that one run, that one idea, which basically connected million little pieces inside my mind, of client needs, existing processes and the external situation I was in.
It was “necessity” acting as the mother of invention – just like in 2023.
Make 2023 your year in legal design and innovation
Is this the year when you start implementing legal design in practice and not just watch others do it? Move from daydreaming and aspirations to the real deal?
If this is you, I have great news for you. Contract Design School is coming again this spring of 2023 and the doors will open for enrollment in April. Legal contract design is a fine example of innovation you can use today.
It’s our 5-week online program where you will learn the foundations of legal design applied to contracts and get your hands dirty with your own real legal design work. The course is packed with experiential learning, easy-to-use tools, live sessions and step-by-step instructions making it easy to start implementing legal design in your work immediately.
If this sounds interesting, go ahead and get on the waiting list to get your hands on the early access benefits. Can’t wait to work with you.
Legal design thinking: IRL. Episode 35
You’ve just read a summary of my LinkedIn Live about innovation in law.
Each week I provide actionable advice for law firm owners and discuss real-life legal design in action.
You can catch a replay of episode 35 Legal Design Thinking: IRL or join me live and ask questions.
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Watch all the Legal Design IRL Episodes episodes.