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Is 'legal innovation' an oxymoron?: Part One

In the first of a four-article series, legal services industry consultant Daniel Santiago Acevedo asks what it is we really mean when we talk about 'innovation' in the realm of law.

Legal Innovation is now a commonly used term within legal circles in Europe and the US. However, it is an expression that, in my opinion, fails to have its concept fully grasped. After all, it is no secret that people tend to use business lingo ‘just because’ so frequently that terms easily become buzzwords.

Talking about innovation per se is not an easy task, and surely it is not a matter that should be taken lightly, since doing so is the easiest way to trivialise its most important issues.  By the same token, it is less simple to speak about innovation in a generic fashion, as seen when the expressions 'medical innovation', 'technological innovation' or even 'legal innovation' are used. Why? Because the concept of innovation entails, as we shall see in a moment, the introduction of a new or significantly improved component of a particular activity or task.

Defining industry innovation

This being the case, let us imagine for a second the following preposterous phrase: 'I will significantly improve medicine.' How so? Which part of medicine is the speaker intending to improve? Medicine as a profession? Medical education? The regulation of medicine as a component of social infrastructure? By using this example, we can establish the following: It is neither accurate, nor realistic, to say something like: 'We are going to be innovative in law', given that you are talking about everything and nothing at the same time. If a phrase like that is going to be thrown around, similar questions arise. Which area of the law are you claiming to innovate? The exercise of the profession, or justice more broadly? Or perhaps legal education?

Getting specific 

Evidently, it is not convenient to talk about innovation in such generic terms, and for this reason we shall approach the main topic of this article on the three fronts that compose the economic development of a country: 1) innovation in the provision of legal services; 2) innovation in law education; and 3) innovation in justice.

Now, I am certain that each of these fronts could provide sufficient material for not one, but several doctoral dissertations. With this in mind, I will talk about legal innovation through four different lenses. This first article is where I will introduce the general concept of innovation. Three subsequent issues will discuss each of the mentioned fronts respectively. 

The general concept of innovation

To avoid building over what has already been established, we shall take the concept suggested by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and which can be found in the Oslo Manual, which is arguably the most important reference document regarding R+D. Concerning the concept of innovation, we can find in the mentioned document the following:

“Innovation is the implementation of a new or significantly improved, product (good or service), or process, a new marketing method, or a new organisational method inbusiness practices, workplace organisation of the workplace or external relations… A common feature of an innovation is that it must have been implemented. A new or improved product is implemented when it is introduced on the market. New processes, marketing methods or organisational methods are implemented when they are brought into actual use in the firm’s operations.”

In this order of ideas, the manual mentions that an innovative activity consists of:

“…all scientific, technological, organisational, financial and commercial steps which actually, or are intended to, lead to the implementation of innovations. Some innovation activities are themselves innovative, others are not novel activities but are necessary for the implementation of innovations. Innovation activities also include R&D that is not directly related to the development of a specific innovation.”

With these two concepts we can conclude this initial article with a couple of considerations:

  1. To innovate necessarily implies to make something new or take something that already exists and 'significantly improve' it. Although I am not that comfortable with this last expression given that it leaves a wide space for interpretation, what is clear is that in order to innovate there must be a change from an initial state to a secondary state, whether it be 1) a product or service, 2) a communication channel, 3) an organisational method, or 4) an organisational joint area.
  2. That an organisation is doing something in order to change its current operation does not necessarily mean that it is 'innovating', meaning that it is possible that innovative activities might be carried out without having a clear picture in minds of the 'innovation' that is ostensibly being introduced. To be able to claim that a company is innovative, the results of its innovation projects must have been validated by their clients, and therefore the innovation projects must have generated some value for the organization. In other words, it is not an innovation if it is not implemented.

These conceptual considerations are of the utmost importance since more often than not the innovation efforts, and more so in the legal profession, do not seem to have a clear aim, but rather they seem to be a patchwork of good intentions that in practice have little or no benefit at all for those who really need it: the Society, where more than half of the 113 countries evaluated in the Rule of Law Index scored 6 or less out of 10. 

Stay tuned for further installments of this four-part series on Legal Innovation

Posted by:

Santiago Acevedo

10 March 2017

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