By Bob Glaves | CBF Executive Director
Innovation. It’s what all the cool kids are talking about. It’s something the CBF is proud to be a longtime leader in on the access to justice front, and it’s something we could use a lot more of in our profession and in our justice system.
Thus, the title of this month’s post. In the quest for the promised land of a justice system that is fair and accessible for all, we need to identify our legal versions of PB & J sandwiches and toasters* that have served us well over the years and continue to do so and distinguish them from our legal equivalents of typewriters and toll booth operators, former mainstays that were overtaken by far superior solutions.
* I used those two examples for their individual staying power, not as a combo, but toasting your PB & J sandwich is actually an underrated way to make it even better. Hot tip for the day is to try the PB & J sandwich at Potbelly some time. You’re welcome.
What is Innovation Anyway?
In simple terms, innovation is a new idea or a new way of doing things. Many people conflate innovation with technology, and while technology is often a means of innovation, it is much broader than that.
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.
Central to innovation is a commitment to constant improvement and an openness to new ways of doing things and taking risks.
What problem are we trying to solve?
A good starting point for thinking about innovation is what problem are we trying to solve or what opportunity do we see to make things better?
One of the best books out there on innovation is Adapt by Tim Harford. The book is a trove of wisdom and guidance on innovation and how it happens, but Harford starts off the book with the example of the toaster to illustrate that there also are plenty of things that are proven solutions that have stood the test of time. I have added the venerable peanut butter & jelly sandwich into that mix too, and we can all think of many other good examples.
That said, for all of those tried-and-true solutions with well-earned staying power, there are many more areas that are ripe for innovation or for new ways of doing things. But for that to happen, it takes visionaries who are committed to taking risks, trying new things, and admitting failure and learning from it. As Henry Ford famously said, “If I asked the people what they want, they would have told me a faster horse.”
The horse and buggy of course gave way to the car as our primary means of transit, and it changed the world. The typewriter gradually gave way to the computer, and all its subsequent iterations and accessories we continue to see today that have transformed our lives. And no offense to the hard-working people who served as toll booth operators throughout the country, but they largely have given way to far better express pass systems where we just keep on driving and pay automatically. And so on.
Is “innovation” just a coverup for bad execution or underinvestment in proven solutions?
We should be wary of innovation being pitched as a solution when the real problem is poor execution of something that actually works quite well when done right.
Similarly, when a product or service has proven its worth but is not supported with adequate investment, innovation can distract from the work necessary to secure that proper investment in the already proven solutions.
Ensuring we take the time to understand the problem we are trying to solve is a crucial first step in the innovation process.
Looking at our profession and legal system through the innovation lens
You may have heard the joke about Abe Lincoln the lawyer and his doctor friend talking at the end of the day circa 1850 when they are suddenly caught in a time warp and find themselves in present day Illinois.
The doctor walks over to a hospital he sees nearby and is quickly overwhelmed by all the technology and machines and has no idea how he could continue as a doctor because there have been so many advances. Lincoln on the other hand sees a courthouse nearby, finds it to be a very familiar place, and is trying a case in no time.
That joke, which has many variations, underscores that there is no shortage of opportunity to modernize our profession and justice system. But it also shows that the core roles that lawyers play, counseling clients through difficult life circumstances and advocating for their rights to secure justice, are just as important today. As we move forward, we need to distinguish our toasters from our typewriters.
Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich: Holding jury trials and significant evidentiary hearings in-person.
Toll Booth Operator: Requiring routine status hearings or lower stakes legal proceedings be held in person rather than utilizing remote access options.
Toaster: A lawyer providing counsel and advocacy for someone facing a significant life issue or case in court.
Typewriter: A system where a lawyer is often necessary for even low stakes legal matters or to simply navigate arcane procedural hurdles that were made for complex commercial or tort disputes.
You get the point. There are many elements of our profession and court system that have rightly stood the test of time as integral parts of a justice system that lives up to our ideals. But there are many more that are just crying out for new and innovative solutions to bring the profession and legal system into the 21st century.
It is incumbent on us to know the difference between these two sides of the system and act accordingly. We need both innovative new solutions and proper investment in and execution of things we already know work well in order to create a fair and accessible justice system for all.