26 September 2019

Why ‘cultural deregulation’, not just tech, is essential for legal innovation

Published on 26 September 2019
Jennie Pakula is a natural born problem solver. Like many of the best legal innovators, Jennie is all about finding the best and simplest way to solve a problem practically; not just by using the often ill-defined concept of “technology”, but by thinking laterally to identify the full breadth of resources available and potentially underused. Indeed, this is how the now Manager of Innovation and Consumer Engagement at the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner (‘VLSB+C’) began her innovation journey.

Changes are a challenge, but also an opportunity

“I’ve always been interested in working out how to fix problems and do things better – to be quicker, simpler, more targeted, more effective and more satisfying for the people involved,” said Jennie. “In 2010, I began developing the Rapid Resolution Team at the VLSB+C to handle the vast majority of low level complaints through quick and empathetic attention from a very underappreciated group – retired lawyers. It worked an absolute treat.” 

Throughout previous roles, Jennie had spoken to many lawyers and clients who were unhappy with the way law currently works. 

“I’d love to help them work better together,” said Jennie. “I have always loved experimenting and making things so it was a natural fit for me when Board & Commissioner  CEO Fiona McLeay was looking for someone to lead the work in encouraging the Victorian profession to take advantage of all the wonderful tools, skills and shifts in thinking that can really revolutionise the way law is done.” 

She is innately optimistic about change.

“We don’t see a lot of complaints about innovative services, which is good – so the changes brought about are a challenge but also a wonderful opportunity for the profession,” Jennie observed. “They are also a challenge for us as a regulator and invite us to look more carefully at how we can be proactive in enabling lawyers to be their best, beyond reacting to things that are going wrong.”

Towards providing maximum value for clients

For Jennie, legal innovation presents enormous opportunities. 

“Standardisation, better business processes, better customer experience, better communication and better self-help tools give us the chance to develop better legal services,” said Jennie. “Any experienced lawyer knows that there is a lot of stuff that is really pretty standard that can be partially automated, so that the whole shape of a process changes and the lawyer focuses on inserting themselves at the critical points where they can provide maximum value to their clients.”

Changes to process and the adoption of technology can also offer more opportunities to work flexibly, reduce overheads and work with other professionals to help manage back-office operational tasks. 

“As the regulator, we really want to see lawyers taking advantage of all the ways they can develop better practice and bring the focus back on to what lawyers do best: navigating their clients through difficult issues, being the wise advisor and the problem solver.” 

Law will always need its guides and experts

Jennie also echoed an issue raised by other legal innovators: tasks now being automated were previously done by new lawyers to help them learn and develop.

“Lots of the grunt work we used to cut our teeth on might die away and be automated,” said Jennie. “There will need to be ever more focus on supervision and development of junior lawyers; but overall I think the benefits outweigh the costs. There will certainly be some growing pains but the human, relational side of law, and the long-standing ethical standards, will always be important. 

“Law is an embedded feature of every human society and it will always need its guides and experts to help others navigate their way through disputes and organising their business and family affairs,” said Jennie.

Non-tech disruption on the horizon

It’s clear to Jennie that the significant possibilities presented by technology are being increasingly recognised by lawyers.

“Certain groups of lawyers are really keen to step up and shape the tech-enabled self-help tools of the future rather than leaving it to non-lawyers and particularly overseas non-lawyers,” said Jennie.

“The non-tech disruption on the horizon is a lot of new thinking about how to design new commoditised services that hit the sweet spot of being affordable, desirable, usable and at least modestly profitable,” observed Jennie. 

“There needs to be a lot of new thinking about how to price services better and how to run law firms differently,” said Jennie. “The old model of billable hour budgets, partnerships and hourly charges to clients seem to me to generally inhibit innovation, and I think law firms that run like this are unlikely to survive in the long term. While technology like machine learning and technology enabled self-help tools will develop, they cannot replace the judgment, wisdom and human understanding that underpins much of what a lawyer does.” 

Pushing for ‘cultural deregulation’

Part of Jennie’s efforts involve providing guidance and support for lawyers looking to innovate.

“As a regulator, the VLSB+C is developing a strategy to give lawyers clarity around regulation and how that affects the innovation that they want to undertake,” said Jennie. “We hear a lot about regulatory barriers to innovation, but the many innovative lawyers I have spoken to have not really found that to be the case at all – so what we need is almost a ‘cultural deregulation’ effort. 

“Most of all, lawyers are finding it powerful to be commended by the regulator for developing new ways of working – a lot of lawyers think we’re just here to criticise. Not so!” 

In fact, the VLSB+C is currently working on an ‘innovation inbox’ - innovation@lsbc.vic.gov.au – for innovative lawyers to seek regulatory and risk management guidance about their innovative ideas.

“We, the Law Institute of Victoria, the Bar, the Legal Practitioners’ Liability Committee, bodies like the Centre for Legal Innovation, the Practical Legal Training providers – any of these gatekeepers should be sharing their stories of the lawyers who are successfully navigating the changes in the profession,” said Jennie. “If lawyers see the pioneers going well, many will think ‘I can do that too’. We should keep emphasising the basics of what lawyers do – our profound, aeons-old principles of loyalty, honesty, fiduciary duty, serving and protecting our clients’ best interests, and upholding the rule of law. Those principles do not change although the way we do services may change. We want to find ways of linking together the different skills and mindsets that support innovation.” 

An exciting time to be a lawyer

For the emerging generation of new lawyers, Jennie is upbeat.

“Be optimistic,” urged Jennie. “It’s an amazingly creative and exciting time to be a lawyer. Explore all the new areas of work that are growing - for example, legal operations and design.”

“Seek mentors who can provide a solid foundation in the practice of law, then investigate how you might make the experience of law smoother and better for clients.” 

“Harness the awesome insights and skills of mature lawyers when you do this. Be entrepreneurial and embrace ‘creative destruction’ – change may mean some ways of doing things will no longer continue, but will be replaced with something better. Get some inspiration and think about how you might just end up being the creator of a ‘market creating innovation.’ Consider the ‘missing middle of legal consumers’ - it might be a frontier market for you.”

Jennie praised the CLI for its crucial role in driving change through sharing success stories, knowledge and skills around legal innovation.

“The CLI is a wonderful new development,” said Jennie. “Terri’s great knowledge and enthusiasm has helped create real momentum and an incredible creative community. The positive and realistic stories of change will help lift the profession’s eyes to all the possibilities of doing law better.” 

If you would like to hear more about Jennie’s work at the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner and the new emerging role of legal regulation and regulators, tune into Episode 4 of the CLI Legalprenuers Sandbox Podcast series