Lawyers as Social Innovators

Earlier this month I spoke at Janders Dean Legal Horizons Conference.  Think TED Talks for lawyers. The topic of my talk was "Lawyers as Social Innovators."  That is the same title as the law school class I'll be teaching this Fall. Given my current focus on the topic, I decided to make it the subject of the first blog post here.

Just like the first day of class, this is intended to be an overview.  So stay tuned. Future posts will expand on the topic.

Here we go...

Pro bono is the lens through which most view how the legal profession achieves social good. But pro bono alone is no longer a big enough construct, nor an adequate measurement tool, to capture the social good already being achieved by the legal profession.  

By redefining, redesigning, and more accurately measuring how the law does good, we can provide a more accurate, inclusive, and quantifiable approach that better captures how the legal industry achieves social impact.  This new approach is called "Legal Social Innovation.”

And here's the exciting part...none of this is theory.  Everything I'll outline already exists in practice today.  What is new is the way we approach and understand it.

Current paradigms fall short.

Currently, the legal profession has a framework for measuring social impact that is limited to one small slice of the pie: pro bono.  There is no tool to capture social impact in other forms.

Yet many innovative, forward-leaning law firms are accomplishing substantial - and measurable - social impact through two primary means:

1) as service providers to clients engaged in social impact; and

2) as direct actors for social impact.

So the overall picture isn't as clear as it could be, and a tremendous opportunity for achieving and measuring greater social impact is currently being missed.

I propose we fix that.

Here's how we can start.
(I’ll elaborate on these steps in future posts.)

Step 1: Get comfortable with the concept of "Social Innovation." For the time being, we’ll define it simply as “novel solutions to social problems” (this is a cribbed version of Stanford Social Innovation Review’s longer definition, which can be found here).  While the concept isn't yet part of the legal profession's lexicon, it is already an increasingly common part of its practice. Further, we can use the corporate private sector’s existing practices as a starting point, providing a basis on which we can assess the role lawyers are already playing as the architects of social innovation.  From there, we can define "Legal Social Innovation." Our team already has.  

Step 2: Design a Legal Social Innovation framework.  This framework allows law firms to immediately grow their practices in a way that allows more purposeful approaches to social innovation. It also provides a new and specific way of measuring the social good already being achieved within the practice of law. Our team has already developed this framework and is helping law firms implement it.

Step 3: Teach Legal Social Innovation in law school classrooms and practice it in clinics for the benefit of clients – both for- and non-profit – working to achieve social impact. This will produce experienced, practice-ready law school grads who have experience with social innovation and who seek out employment with firms that do, too.  And through the clinical practice, law schools enhance their social impact in the communities their clinics serve. I’m putting my action where my idea is and am teaching "Lawyers as Social Innovators" this Fall.  

Step 4: Measure it.  Move beyond pro bono measurement and rankings and into Legal Social Innovation measurement and rankings.  We measure what matters.  This matters. It isn't being measured, and it should be.  And we've got a metric for it!

There is an incredible innovation movement already underway in the law, primarily revolving around technological innovation.  If we expand that innovation mindset to include social innovation, we will be well on our way to redefining how the law achieves social impact through far more than pro bono.

If we redefine, redesign, and measure how law firms practice and achieve social innovation, we will help our profession achieve its highest and best purpose.  

- Scott