Legal Innovation

August 18, 2021 | By Geoff Best

My partner Martine once said while speaking on legal innovation, that “legal innovation is like sex and teenagers, everyone is talking about it but not much is going on.” 

I found this summed up the innovation climate in the legal industry perfectly. It’s an industry that has clung to an artisanal approach to service delivery, thanks largely to a partnership structure that slows decision-making and a prohibition on non-licensed ownership that chases away capital and fresh ideas. 

But all is not lost. There are some noteworthy advances being made, here in Canada and elsewhere that can be legitimately called innovative.

Before we plunge ahead, I think it’s fair to answer a question that may be on some minds, why rush to innovate? After all, it is a service model that has thrived for hundreds of years.

To answer that I’ll share a statistic I found quite shocking. A 2020 Ipsos Read survey on legal needs found that “85% of British Columbians who face a serious, difficult legal problem get no legal help, or get legal assistance from someone who is not a lawyer.” 

While this survey is specific to the BC market, I think it safe to say that the critical access to justice crisis this points to extends to the other legal jurisdictions in Canada. 

So, one answer to this, as (currently) adopted by the Law Societies of B.C. and Ontario, is to establish innovation ‘sandboxes.’

The notion here is to allow, under close supervision, ideas currently prohibited by Law Society rules to be explored and developed. With some variation between Law Societies, the goals of the sandbox initiative are to improve access to justice, protect the public, and gather data to influence future regulatory changes. 

It also, importantly, recognizes that the greater regulatory certainty that presumably comes from using this mechanism would encourage investment in the ideas being developed. 

It’s a good start. There is a valid question whether it goes far enough, if the severity of the access to justice problem doesn’t demand a more robust response. Well, on that front there is also some good news to report. In the States, Utah, Arizona, and California have opened the door to some profound changes in regulation, in the areas of non-lawyer (ugh, I hate that term), ownership and legal fee sharing with said non-lawyer firms. 

Canada hasn’t gone that far yet (you go Manitoba!), but all-in-all, it’s adding up to look something more than just talk. 

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