What Makes Someone a Legal Innovator?


I should have known this would happen.

By creating Reinventing Justice and including a database of innovators, I sort of appointed myself gatekeeper of legal innovators. I don’t really want to be a gatekeeper, but including people who aren’t actually innovating would defeat the entire purpose of this website. So I have to make judgment calls.

I thought it might help to write down my thoughts about how I am evaluating potential innovators. These criteria are not set in stone, but I hope they clarify how people end up in this database.

The Definition of Innovator

An innovator does something in a new way. (An inventor, on the other hand, comes up with an entirely new thing.)

That suggests at least two questions we need to answer about a potential innovator:

  1. What are they doing?
  2. How are they doing it in a new way?

If we can come up with satisfactory answers to those questions in a way that is relevant to law, we’ve probably got a legal innovator. If it is hard to answer those questions, we probably don’t.

I think it is helpful to identify some roles that probably fall outside the definition of innovator—”innovator-adjacent,” if you like. So far, I have identified three:

  • Advocates
  • Facilitators
  • Educators

Advocates

Let’s look at Jordan Furlong as an example of an advocate. (For the record, I’m a big fan of Jordan’s, and if you haven’t read his book, Law is a Buyer’s Market, you should fix that.)

Jordan does an amazing job explaining what’s happening in the legal market and how law firms can adapt. But for all that he is smart and insightful, I don’t think Jordan is an innovator. What he does is speaking, writing, analysis, and consulting, and he does those things in pretty well-established ways.

I think Jordan is primarily a leading advocate for legal innovation.

Speakers, writers, podcasters, and other advocates can be instrumental in making innovation happen, but they are probably not innovators themselves.

Facilitators

Let’s look at Jules Miller as an example of a facilitator. For the record, Jules actually is an innovator because she co-founded Hire an Esquire with Julia Shapiro. It was one of the first online marketplaces for legal outsourcing.

Now, Jules works at a venture fund. So for the purpose of this example, let’s imagine Jules was always at a venture fund and instead of founding Hire an Esquire, she was an early investor. What investors do is research startups, listen to pitches, negotiate deals, write checks, and act as mentors (among other things, I am sure). Even if they do those things in new and interesting ways, they are not particularly relevant to law.

That’s what I would call a facilitator.

Innovation can’t happen without facilitators who can see the potential in innovators’ ideas and, in the case of investors, are willing to take a risk on them. They are not the ones doing the actual innovation, even if it might not be possible without them.

Educators

Finally, let’s look at Nicole Morris as an example of an educator. Nicole is a law professor and innovator because she directs the TI:GER program at Emory Law, which is definitely a new way to teach practical legal and business skills. But for the sake of this example let’s ignore TI:GER and say Nicole just teaches a course called “Law and Innovation” about legal innovations and their impact on the legal market. What law professors do is teach—lectures, homework, exams. The subject matter probably doesn’t make a class innovative (although developing a new way to teach, like TI:GER, is a different story).

Setting TI:GER aside, Nicole would be an educator, not an innovator.

Let’s be clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with being an advocate, facilitator, educator, or some combination of all three. In fact, I think I have played all those roles, at Lawyerist and now. (That is why I don’t have a profile on Reinventing Justice. I don’t think I have earned one, yet.)

They are all important roles, but they are beyond the scope of this website, at least for now.

The Gray Area

There is definitely some gray area left.

First and most obviously, an advocate, facilitator, or educator might also be an innovator. In reality, Jules and Nicole are innovators as well as filling non-innovator roles. Not many people are one-dimensional.

Another example is teams. When a team of people are working on an innovation, who gets counted as an innovator and who doesn’t? I think we would have to know more about the team. In some teams there is a clear visionary while the rest manage the project or execute on the idea (maybe both are a kind of facilitator). In that case, I think the visionary is the innovator and the rest probably aren’t. But in other teams (such as many design teams), it’s a collaborative effort of innovators. That’s why Reinventing Justice has groups—teams, companies, organizations, departments, projects, etc.

Two more gray areas are multiple innovators and innovation over time. Often, multiple innovators are working on the same problem from different angles. Cloud-based practice management software is an easy example. In 2007, the founders of Clio and Rocket Matter were both doing something (creating practice management software) in a new way (in the cloud). Even though they were doing the same thing, they were working mostly from scratch to come up with a new way to do it.

Four years later, MyCase launched with some new ideas of its own (“social practice management”), so I think the MyCase team was also innovating. After ten years, it felt like new cloud-based practice management startups were launching weekly. I don’t think many of those companies were actually innovating. They were adapting an existing concept without changing much. That doesn’t mean there is no more innovation to be done when it comes to cloud-based practice management software; it just brings us back to the two questions:

  1. What are they doing?
  2. How are they doing it in a new way?

If we can answer those questions satisfactorily for a given person in a way that is relevant to law, we’ve probably found a new innovator to add to the Reinventing Justice database.

Think you or someone you know is an innovator? Use this form to let me know:

Published on March 2nd, 2021. Last updated on May 5th, 2021, by Sam Glover.