Legal Innovation: What’s It Going to Take?

The CBA Legal Futures Initiative has sparked a lot of great discussion and writing over the past few months about innovation. Monica Goyal has bound up a lot of the must-reads on this topic in one simple post on Slaw as a precursor to a Tuesday Twitter Chat organised to discuss innovation in the legal sector. A summary of that CBA Futures chat is worth reading here if you missed it.

What struck me reading this summary is that if we want innovation in our industry, we need to actively support and foster innovation as other industries do.

Mitch Kowalski, once again ahead of the pack, suggested way back in January that we need a “Canadian Institution for Legal Innovation,” a think-tank to “significantly increase legal competitiveness, productivity, and capacity for innovation” — and, I would suggest, an organisation that acts as a kind of innovation incubator for our legal startups.

So what external support do legal innovators and entrepreneurs need from such an incubator? From a review of what’s going on beyond the walls of the legal industry, it seems to come down to three key types of support.

(1) Network Network Network.

This is vital. Having travelled the lonely road of the entrepreneur myself I know only too well the value of fellow travellers who can provide inspiration, mentorship and advice. And it is indeed with the other entrepreneurs at the monthly meetings of the Legal Innovators Roundtable , where sharing the successes and failures of what’s been tried and tested, is like chicken soup for my soul.

Access to a network of like-minded individuals is something people need irrespective of industry. The opportunity to meet people who may be helpful in furthering your ideas, connecting you with others, or just meeting those with mutual interests (sometimes you really need that echo chamber) is invaluable. Innovation is so often about breaking down old divisions or traditions and combining them in new ways. You need a network of people from diverse backgrounds where you can bounce ideas around and see the future of legal services or legal technology in new ways, such as with legal and design; legal and outsourcing; legal and big data; legal and six sigma, etc.

Whilst there are conferences and events that currently provide platforms for networking beyond one’s own professional circle, the high cost of attendance and participation make them only an option to those with already blossoming businesses. LawTech Camp luckily fills this gap here in Toronto to connect those who share a fascination for the space between legal and technology. But we need more such events. Events where we can meet innovators from other countries who are already breaking down the old definitions of what it means to practice law and deliver legal services. Events where we can meet clients and potential clients of new legal services. As well as events that aim to connect a true mix of academics, practitioners, students and technologists.

(2) A Supporting Infrastructure

In capital-intensive industries the ability to share office space, services or capital is hugely important. The Toronto Food Incubator for example provides commercial kitchens to entrepreneurs who want to test, prototype or start making food products on a commercial scale, without having to invest in the equipment. And MaRS has a big focus on Life Sciences partially because research and development is notoriously expensive in that industry.

But what about knowledge-intensive industries? Could our industry benefit from an incubator that allows entrepreneurs to share office space, wi-fi and office services? Sharing clerical support, accommodation, legal research experts and libraries on the model of the tenancy agreements at Barristers’ Chambers in the UK could certainly benefit some entrants to the market. Although half of the value of shared spaces is in the physical proximity and mutual support for entrepreneurs, as the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) in Toronto, and The Hub across the US know only too well.

And, whilst access to funding and investment for legal startups needs a Slaw article all of its own, there are simple examples from outside of our industry that would be easier to emulate. RBC’s Next Great Innovator Competition has been running for the past eight years – awarding prizes to students who can come up with innovative ideas within Financial Services (this year’s question is, unsurprisingly, on big data). There’s a great detailed review of how competitions can spark innovation in the MIT Sloan Management Review. Pairing competition with badly needed funding is not a particularly innovative or revolutionary idea and could even be done at the law firm level. If you know of any firms already doing something like this then I’d love to hear about it!

(3) Information Resources & Knowledge Sharing

Another vital need for those just starting out is access to the knowledge support from the rest of their industry. A great example of this is the British Library’s Business & IP Centre. They hold “speed mentoring” events, where entrepreneurs meet with professionals in Leadership, Sales, IP Licensing, etc. And as a Library they highlight the value of market research, the benefits of qualitative and quantitative research, and provide the support of librarians who specialise in those areas. As Mitch laments, “there is a dreadful lack of Canadian data”. We need a better understanding of client satisfaction, needs and trends; a better understanding of the talent pool and those actively interested in a non-traditional legal career. And we need to share and build on this data to develop solutions and new services that clients actually need, and lawyers want to deliver.

The profession needs an incubator-like resource that creates a “safe” space for innovators to explore ideas, to find what works and what doesn’t. It’s what ReInvent Law (is already doing (but south of the border). This pioneering organisation is already providing support for legal innovators and entrepreneurs through its Laboratory:

Law firms should have research and development departments, but they don’t. ReInvent Law™ fills the R&D gap for law firms, in-house legal departments, and other legal service providers. We conduct experiments. We beta test new products. We engage in market research. We take risks. We question. We explore.

Innovation is not magic and being an entrepreneur is not easy. If we want innovation in our industry we have to support those entrepreneurs who are prepared to take that path. Collectively we have the capacity to nurture innovation within our ranks, rather than waiting for the profession’s death by nibbles:

Innovation will inevitably be thrust upon the legal profession by the mass proliferation of technology outside law, just wait.” – Alex Shalashniy


  1. Great post.

    Thank you for drawing attention to the Slaw Post and the twitter chat from last month.

    The incubator idea was discussed and raised in the CBA Futures Working Group on ABS and Innovation in the law.
    I personally love this idea. It is actually, as you probably know, very difficult to start your own ventures, and incubators can increase the likelihood of success.

  2. Thanks Monica.
    I’d like to find out more about the discussion within the CBA on this incubator idea. Is there any CBA thinking that they could share sooner rather than later? Something perhaps to keep momentum building for those early adopters (I guess) who would like to deep-dive into this subject a bit more?
    Thanks again!

  3. This is a fantastic post, raising a host of good questions. I agree that events and incubators might be handy. It is particularly difficult to start businesses in Canada due to the conservative (risk-averse) business culture and lack of venture capital or traditional investment. (Coddled and subsidized financial institutions like RBC are part of the problem, in my opinion).

    I can’t speak for the legal industry in Toronto, but there are a few of us at Canadian law schools who are working on the education side of the equation, including courses on legal innovation, legal practice management and legal information technology. You’ll see some of these course offerings on next year’s schedule. We’ve floated plans for innovation clinics, internships and the like as well. I find it interesting (and perhaps telling) that the initiatives I am aware of are driven by adjunct professors or business professors, as opposed to tenured law faculty members. Given the signs of interest from students, (e.g., LFTI), I think we are on the right track.

    However, building an incubator or like-minded community is another problem entirely. I have the privilege to hang out with the legal information technology groups at Stanford, which has a decidedly entrepreneurial, risk-friendly culture. There are frequent events here, a culture that encourages collaboration, and venture capital. Toronto lacks those amenities, but it doesn’t mean that it is impossible to find a model that works for your area. As you mention, MARS is quite successful. The British Library program also sounds fantastic.

    It’s an area ripe for innovation, and I look forward to seeing what happens in other jurisdictions like Toronto and Seattle. If Canadian law firms are not interested in funding R&D in this area, there are many opportunities south of the border for those developing innovative products. I think young lawyers should go where the opportunities are. If the notoriously myopic Canadian law firms aren’t interested in innovation, let them fall by the wayside.