rblog

Any ideas?

By George Hawkins on 1 September 2015

Earlier this year I wrote a blog about research we’d jointly commissioned with the Legal Services Board into innovation. The report, which you can read here, was published in July. 

I know lots of you of have already read the report and the findings sparked some interesting debate. However, I’m sure the idea of reading an academic paper on innovation in legal services isn’t every lawyers ideal way to wind down. This blog therefore summarises the findings, hopefully encouraging you to take a more in-depth look at the report. It’s worth a read and certainly contains some interesting ideas and findings.

One of the biggest talking points to arise from the research was the broad definition attributed to innovation. The researchers asked lawyers from across the regulated and unregulated sector whether they had introduced a new or improved service in the last three years. Some feel this should capture just about anyone but you’d be surprised - about a quarter of all providers had done this. 

They also asked about radical innovation, which means the provider had introduced something new before competitors. Around 6 per cent of all providers had done this. It is this statistic that most people seem to present as examples of “true innovation” and I understand that view. However, when thinking about what is special about the legal services market – the legal assistance provided to those who are vulnerable, the evolution of shared ethical standards, a sector that is the engine room for the proper administration of justice – it’s wrong to ignore the quarter that are introducing new services and improving the way they do things. Doing something new in legal services can have a tangible public benefit. 

The legal services market isn’t as competitive and accessible as it could be. We are reforming the way we regulate to try and improve things. For example, when the separate business rule reform comes into force in November, solicitors will no longer be prevented by our rules from owning and getting involved in other kinds of businesses that deliver unreserved or “legal-like” services. 

We want our regulation to encourage and not inhibit innovation so maybe in ten year’s time, the quarter of providers delivering new and improved services becomes half, two thirds, or all. Yes, we want to increase the numbers of those doing something totally new but the research is also about looking at the overall capacity of the legal service market to absorb new ideas and change. So yes, a local firm moving into mental health law may not on the face of it seem innovative or newsworthy – but it would to service users who previously had limited choice or providers that were costly and unfamiliar with their locality.

So here are the top three things that I learnt from the research. 

1. Firms with access to a wide range of talent and support are more innovative 

The research found that ABSs are more innovative than other law firms. However, beneath this headline was an interesting insight about why. It was found that access to a wide range of skills in the board room, alternative funding methods and a keen focus on customer service, contributed to increased levels of innovation. It isn’t about ABS being the reserve of the large conglomerates. It’s a real option for the family business planning for succession or any firm that want to promote non-lawyer talent or access non-lawyer funding. Dozens of small businesses have been licensed as ABSs and many have reported the benefits of having non-lawyer expertise and funding.

2. Eighty per cent of providers have leadership and management that support new ideas but only forty per cent have any written policies or practical steps to implement them

Unlike the technology sector, not many lawyers invest in the research and development of new ideas.

Many legal services are constrained by formal procedures but this shouldn’t discourage those wanting to invest in bringing new ideas forward. We certainly want to hear about new and improved ways of working and if you think a new idea might not meet one of our regulations, why not contact us? It is worth finding out before you rule it out. 

3. Regulation can drive innovation as well as constrain it 

The research found that regulation and legislation can stifle innovation but providers also identified regulatory reform as a key driver of innovation. This gives us food for thought. As we look to simplify our rules and regulations, we will be thinking about how we can help drive further innovation and growth, whilst maintaining standards and providing proportionate consumer protection.

Please do give the report a read. If you see an unmet legal need in the market place, there may be nobody better than you to meet it.

George Hawkins is a Senior Technical Advisor at the Solicitors Regulation Authority.