Innovation, Part 2: It’s Not Just About Technology

There are many myths and misconceptions about innovation, and one of the biggest is conflating the term with technology. As I talked about in last month’s part 1 of this post, technology indeed has a huge role in innovation, though not always in the way we might first think.

However, innovation is far more than technology. This Part 2 is a shorter post that underscores that point for how we should think about innovation in this context. To finish up the series next month, I am going to bring in a ringer to help outline an innovation playbook we all can use to improve access to justice that draws on these lessons.

The Many Facets of Innovation

As I talked about in my recent “Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwiches” post, as a starting point it is important to remember that innovation has many facets that are often broken down into four broad 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.

Technology can surely play a role in all four of those areas, but it is just one part of the innovation opportunity.

Identifying the Problems We Are Trying to Solve

Within those broad categories of innovation opportunities, we really need to start by going back to the problem we are trying to solve and making sure we fully understand it.

I am going to briefly identify four systemic access to justice problems to illustrate the point. I am not even going to try to identify all the potential solutions—that could be a whole post or more for each one of the problems I am identifying below (and perhaps a subject of future posts). If I am doing this right though, it should be good food for thought for the many challenges and opportunities where innovation can and needs to play a central role beyond technology.

Why are legal services so expensive?

We have effectively priced most everyday people and many small businesses out of the market for legal services and just a few decades ago this was not the case. The timing of this trend coincides with the billable hour becoming the primary pricing vehicle in the consumer market.   

Just a few potential innovations that have shown promise in solving this problem include using set pricing, expanding the use of limited scope representation, and better utilizing other advocates and professionals as part of a continuum of legal services.  

Does the court process need to be so complex and adversarial for all cases?

We essentially use the same court process that we appropriately use for complex litigation for most other court cases as well. This often unnecessarily adds extra time, expense, and conflict for all litigants and drives up the cost of legal services for lawyers trying to serve people in these cases.

Promising innovations include a more streamlined court process for “bread and butter” legal issues people face, more standardization and simplification of court procedures, and building in and incentivizing earlier opportunities for negotiated resolutions between the parties whenever possible. 

Can we more broadly recognize a new kind of subsidized, sliding scale legal model to better serve the middle class, similar to the Affordable Care Act plans for health care?

While the promising innovations to tackle the first two problems noted above will do wonders for expanding access to legal services for everyday people if taken to scale, we still will be left with a big gap for many low and middle-income people. More funding and support for pro bono and legal aid services is an essential part of that solution, but many people make too much to qualify for those already overstretched free services and not enough to afford legal help even in a better functioning market for lawyers.

There are some promising models to offer legal services to this part of the market on a sliding scale basis depending on the client’s income, but these models require subsidies from other funders to be sustainable and need to be more widely recognized in access to justice planning.

How can we better connect with people who have legal problems they don’t recognize as having a legal solution?

The three systemic problems briefly noted above all center around challenges to serving people who already know they have a legal problem. An even larger group of people, however, are facing often significant issues that they don’t recognize as legal problems or do not know where to turn to get the right legal help.

A promising innovation to address this problem is building new partnerships with trusted community-based organizations and entities that meet people where they are and connect with them where they are likely to turn when they encounter these issues.

Opportunity is knocking for more innovation in these areas

That is just a brief look at four big systemic access to justice challenges where innovation already is showing some promise beyond technology and will be a crucial part of the puzzle to build a justice system that is fair and accessible for all.  While technology innovation also has an integral role to play in tackling each one of these problems, the innovation opportunities in other areas like process improvement, service delivery, and communication are even more important to our ultimate success.