A few weeks ago, I got talking to a taxi driver about innovation in legal services. During our discussion, she shared her current experience with the legal system.

My driver friend was embroiled in a legal dispute over custody of her daughter. She’d already spent thousands of dollars paying her lawyer. She even sold her motorcycle for additional funding. Her ex-partner wasn’t cooperative, so she expected to spend thousands more before their dispute resolved. She hungered for less expensive legal help, but was grudgingly willing to pay for the highest quality legal representation she could (or couldn’t) afford.

As we were talking, I shifted uneasily in my seat. I’ve been studying legal innovation for a while now. I’ve quoted reports about the increasing gap between those who can and those who can’t afford access to justice. I’ve dreamed of participating in legal tech hackathons and conferences around the world. But in the presence of a real-life end user of the legal system, I realized that I wasn’t exactly sure how recent legal innovation could help her. I suggested a few self-help legal resources, but had to admit that I didn’t know much about how they worked or what you could achieve with them.

In my excitement about legal innovation, the end user affected by the access to justice gap had only been an abstract concept. I should have known betteras an undergraduate engineering student, I’d spent a year as a Crocker Innovation Fellow learning how to innovate by first using ethnographic research to personally observe end users and identify problems-to-be-solved. I led my BYU Engineering Capstone team through interviewing end users and using design thinking to redesign a speech therapy device. In my quest to explore legal innovation, I should have known that only abstractly studying end users and legal technology wouldn’t enable me to help a real-life end user solve her legal problems.

Since my taxi ride, I’ve thought a lot about how legal innovation relates to the experiences of people like my driver. I’ve wondered:

  • How are innovations in legal services helping end users of the legal system?
  • What do end users need to know about those innovations to effectively use them?
  • What do lawyers need to know about new process and technologies to better serve their end users?
  • Why do we seek to improve how legal services are delivered?
  • How do we measure our success as legal innovators?

My answers to those questions may be different from yours, but I hope we all keep end users like my taxi driver friend in mind. The legal system was built by people, for people. Even law firms and companies that directly serve corporate clients have at least an indirect impact on people.

It’s an exciting time to be part of the legal industry as we seek to use data, processes, and technology to improve the delivery of legal services. May our efforts to innovate be ever grounded in engaging with our real-life end users, not the abstract ones. As for me? Well, time to go talk to more taxi drivers!

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