The biggest creative challenge for the industry is convincing Gove he should pay for the justice system

Innovation, much like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. At least that is how it appears, according to findings from the largest ever study of innovation in the legal sector.

The 73-page tome, jointly commissioned by the Legal Services Board (LSB) and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), includes responses from 1,500 organisations, including law firms, barristers chambers, licensed conveyancers, costs lawyers, and those not covered by the Legal Services Act.

Unfortunately, many of those who replied to the study appear confused as to the meaning of innovation. One large firm, for example, commented: ‘We now mainly use emails and social media. Our payment system has also evolved from cheques to electronic bank transfers.’

One medium-sized legal service provider was in agreement: ‘The main change has been emails. In the past we did everything by post but now we do everything by email, so it is fast, accurate, and helpful. The website has also improved.’ Meanwhile, another firm explained: ‘We didn’t previously have a website and we do now. It has been effective in generating business and enquiries.’

For the avoidance of doubt, ‘innovation’ is defined as ‘a new method, idea, or product’. Considering that the first email was sent in 1971, and that the first website went live in 1991, the idea that some legal practices are only just starting to use these basic business tools as a matter of course just boggles the mind. To paraphrase Andy Foster of the Legal Services Consumer Panel, trying to find the most innovative lawyer is like trying to judge which is the fastest snail.

That being said, there are a host of traditional law firms, alternative business structures (ABSs), multi-disciplinary practices (MDPs), and barristers’ chambers that are innovating at an exciting pace. This is backed up by the new report which found the major effect of innovation has been to extend service range, improve quality, and attract new clients.

However, all legal practices, regardless of size or structure, need to consider whether innovation for innovation’s sake is worth the time and investment. Is it cost-effective to launch a new product to bring in new clients, or would time be better served improving existing services to better look after current customers? Is it wiser to be a full service firm, or a niche practice?

Research undertaken by the LSB in 2013 found that 40 per cent of 10,000 small businesses experienced at least one significant legal problem in the previous 12 months. Only one in 20 had an in-house legal expert and just one in 12 had legal retainer contracts. Despite this significant market opportunity, small businesses told the super regulator that existing legal services failed to meet their needs. Over half opted to handle the problem on their own.

Tapping into these unmet legal needs may well be the next frontier for lawyers, as will the chance for greater social responsibility. As SJ has highlighted time and time again, many people are now without access to justice. The Lord Chancellor’s solution to have lawyers undertake greater amounts of pro bono work is, on the face of it, ludicrous.

The best legal system in the world needs to be nurtured. It needs to be paid for. But there should be a discussion as to how innovation can promote pro bono activities. Innovation does not mean leaving the most vulnerable behind. It is not all about the bottom line for law firms.

If lawyers can figure out how to fulfil this unmet legal need, while at the same time not giving the master of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) a legal aid system that he does not have to pay for, well that would be truly innovative.

This blog post was first published in Solicitors Journal on 10 July 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission