An Innovation Playbook for Access to Justice

By Bob Glaves | CBF Executive Director

Over the past several posts, I’ve given an overview of innovation and talked about when it does and does not make sense in the quest to improve access to justice. For all the ways technology plays a key role (though often not in the ways we might first think), innovation is much bigger than just technology

Now that we have covered those innovation basics, we know how critical it is to start the process with a full understanding of the problem we are looking to solve or the opportunity we are trying to seize. With that backdrop in mind, we conclude this short series with a practical primer on how any of us working on access to justice issues can successfully build innovation into our work and advance the larger cause. I am bringing in my colleague Jessica Bednarz, the CBF Associate Director for Innovation & the JEP, to give us the playbook. 

A Quick Refresher on Innovation

In simple terms, innovation is a new idea or a new way of doing things. Central to innovation is a commitment to constant improvement and an openness to trying new ways of doing things while taking some calculated risks in the process.  As noted throughout our series, it is fundamental to understand the problem you are trying to solve before you can evaluate whether and to what extent innovation can play a role.

Innovation can encompass every aspect of doing business, and it is often broken down into four broader areas:

  • A new or improved product or service,
  • A new or improved process or way of delivering a product or service,
  • A new or improved way of marketing a product or service, or
  • A new kind of organization or business practice.

Once we identify and have a good understanding of the problem or opportunity we are trying to solve, the fun part begins.

As noted in the opening post of this series, one of the best books out there on innovation is Adapt by Tim Harford. Harford notes that the process of evolution strikes a balance between discovering the new and exploiting the familiar. But for that to happen, it takes visionaries who are committed to taking risks, trying new things, and admitting failure and learning from it.

Getting into the Innovation State of Mind

While it comes more naturally to some, all of us can be innovators if we put our minds to it. Here are some tips to build your innovation chops:

  • Seek out and listen to different perspectives
    • Read, talk about, and do things that expose you to experiences and views outside of your comfort zone.
    • Echo chambers are the enemy of innovation but deceptively easy to fall into in our regular routines.

  • Create the time and space for creative thinking on your own, and be proactive about using it wisely
    • Start by blocking off a half an hour each week on your calendar to go off the grid and pick a problem or question to think about on your own.
    • Find a space where you feel creative– a coffee shop, the park, the train—whatever works for you.
    • There are lots of ways you can go about this exercise, and no one-size-fits-all method–the key is to just do it and take notes that can set the stage for potential next steps.

  • Similarly, try to create the time and space for collaborative idea generation with others, whether they are on your team or from outside your organization.
    • Choosing a particular problem or issue, having different perspectives at the table, and evaluating the ideas you come up with are the common threads of successful collaborations.

  • Change up your routine from time to time

  • Watch Shark Tank
    • Watching how entrepreneurs of all stripes pitch their ideas, and the questions they get back from the “Shark” investors, is an easy way to get your mind working about innovation.

  • Start small
    • Rather than trying to create the perfect hybrid court system of the future as your first foray, pick a narrower problem or opportunity that you can take on without stopping everything else you are doing.

Processes and tools to identify problems and opportunities for innovation

Sometimes problems or opportunities for innovation are of the big, systemic variety that we all can see. Some of the most pervasive problems and best opportunities, however, begin on a smaller scale and are often missed as we go about our busy lives.

There are some proven ways you can use to uncover problems and, once those problems are fully understood, evaluate the opportunities for innovation. They all start with looking at the experience a client, customer, or court patron (who we will all just refer to as “customers” for playbook purposes) has with your law practice, company, or court system

Create a Customer Persona:  Client, customer, or buyer personas (the name varies based on the audience) are fictional, generalized representations of your ideal or target customer. They are used to gain a deep understanding of your audience – who are they, what do they do for work, where do they live, how do they consume information, what are their pain points, etc. This is a great tool to use during the first step of the design thinking or journey mapping process. You can see a few examples of buyer personas here.

Journey mapping. Taking an in-depth look at the “journey” your customer must traverse from the time they first realize they have an issue where you might be of help until after you have finished serving them, regularly identifies both problems and opportunities for innovation that are not apparent until you take the time to step back and look at things through the lens of your customers. You can learn more about journey mapping here.

Process mapping and improvement. While journey mapping focuses externally on your customers, process mapping and improvement takes a hard look at your internal process for serving them from start to finish. Like journey mapping, this exercise regularly unveils opportunities for improved efficiency and effectiveness in services and processes. is a great (and free) tech tool you can use to process map.

Design Thinking. Design thinking is a five-step process used to identify problems and develop solutions quickly and inexpensively. The process is customer-centric and helps ensure you are:

  • Solving a problem that needs solving,
  • Creating a user-friendly, valuable solution that actually solves the problem, and
  • Spending as little money as possible during the development process.

The five stages of the process are:

  1. Empathize: Understand your customer’s needs
  2. Define: State your customer’s needs and problems
  3. Ideate: Brainstorm how to solve the problem
  4. Prototype: Start to create solutions (start small!)
  5. Test & Refine: Try your solutions out and make adjustments based on the feedback you receive

Check out IDEO’s website for more design thinking resources.

* For examples of how to use design thinking in the practice of law, be on the lookout early next year for the release of an ABA book tentatively titled “Design Your Law Practice: A Practical Guide to Design Thinking for Lawyers Looking to Get Things Done” and co-edited by Jessica Bednarz.

Opportunity Abounds for Innovation in Access to Justice

As we noted at the outset of this short series, there is a lot that works well in the profession and justice system that will play an integral role in ensuring access to justice well into the future. Our legal versions of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and toasters.

But when we critically evaluate the justice system and the delivery of legal services, there are no shortage of problems and opportunities big and small that are crying out for innovation, and we hope this innovation series and playbook will give you some practical tips for tackling these problems.  

Ultimately though, it really is a matter of being willing to take some calculated risks, try new things, and learn from and adapt to what happens next.

As the famed business guru Peter Drucker put it, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” And there’s no time like the present to get started.