The ABA Turns Up the Heat on Legal Service Innovation

Topics: American Bar Association, Corporate Legal, Government, Law Firms, Leadership, Legal Innovation

legal operations

The American Bar Association (ABA) conducted a National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services this past weekend at the Stanford Law School. It was a purposeful, ambitious, and action-oriented set of meetings that challenged the participants to embrace technology and design concepts to improve the ways the profession serves all those who depend on it. For a number of reasons, I believe it was an important event in our ongoing assessment and improvement of the state of legal service in the United States.

In this blog post I will share my impressions of the proceedings, and why I think the Summit was significant. Next week, I will share my substantive take-aways from the Summit’s discussions.

The Summit was noteworthy for a number of reasons.

First, it reflected a sincere commitment by the ABA leadership to stimulating innovation. From their opening remarks convening the Summit on Saturday afternoon, until their closing comments on Monday afternoon, ABA President William C. Hubbard and the Chair of the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Service, Judy Perry Martinez, expressed a passionate and urgent call for everyone present to “break from precedent and tradition” and identify ways to deliver legal service differently. Each element of the programming was faithful to that message.

Second, the Summit brought together a group of leaders who are in positions to make change happen. Numbering approximately 200, the participants included justices from 10 State Supreme Courts, judges from state and federal trial courts, state and local bar association leaders, leaders from large and small law firms, law school deans and other leaders, non-governmental organization (NGO) leaders, and new entrants in legal service.


“We have to make a difference, and the time to make it is now.”

—ABA Commission Chair Judy Perry Martinez


Third, the sessions provided powerful evidence of the need for change and pragmatic proposals of ways to improve the delivery of legal service. I’ll write more about the content of the discussion next week, but here are some examples: i) On the need front, presentations detailed how and why most Americans do not access the legal service they need, that legal service is commonly too expensive, and how the way we regulate legal service impedes the very innovation that is needed; and ii) on the solutions front, proposals included expanding the range and number of professionals authorized to deliver legal service, changing the legal service business model, making access to the judicial system easier and more understandable to citizens, and diverse and concrete ways to use technology to improve and reduce the cost of legal service.

Fourth, the presenters were exceptional. To a person, they were expert on the topics they addressed and effective communicators. The format limited each presentation to 10 minutes or less, requiring each speaker to choose wisely what to cover and get to the point. They gave the assembled participants vivid and granular insights into the issues the summit addressed.

Fifth, the Summit was interactive throughout, including, in particular, two lengthy break-out sessions in which participants discussed the challenges, opportunities, and best approaches for the future of legal service. Each break-out group contained a mix of regulators, judges, practicing lawyers from varying settings, academics, and other leaders. The discussions culminated in sets of recommended actions for the ABA Commission to consider in doing its work.

Finally, the tone and spirit of the conversation in the meetings was deeply encouraging. It was ambitious, determined, constructive, and pragmatic. While they came from different regions, with different perspectives—and had different views of precisely what needs to be done—everyone seemed to share a “commitment to justice for all,” as Lisa Foster, the Director of the Department of Justice’s Access to Justice Initiative, put it; and a “tremendous energy for change,” as Harvard Law’s David Wilkins put it.

Drawing on their varied and extensive experience, the participants approached the challenges and opportunities with a view to converting ideas to action. ABA Commission Chair Martinez’s closing remarks captured the participants’ outlook: “We have to make a difference, and the time to make it is now.”