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Beyond Borders: Learning from Humanitarian Aid for Law Firm Innovation

A conversation with Ruba R Hijazi, MENA Regional Manager @Response Innovation Lab

Ruba R Hijazi is the Middle East and North Africa Manager for the Response Innovation Lab (RIL), a collaborative innovation effort of leading international humanitarian NGOs such as Civic, Save the Children, Oxfam, and WorldVision. RIL Labs serve as vital platforms to strengthen humanitarian innovation ecosystems in complex emergencies, refugee settings, and fragile contexts.

Ruba Hijazi and Dr. Floor Blindenbach, founder of Organizing4Innovation, talked about how innovation is organized within RIL and why. During the conversation, it quickly became clear that there are many commonalities and lessons that law firms can learn from how RIL has been set up.

Adoption of Existing Solutions

Law firms and humanitarian aid organizations share a common approach to innovation: adopting existing solutions. Both sectors leverage proven methods and tools from elsewhere and apply them to their respective contexts.

Testing and Scaling

Both humanitarian aid organizations and large law firms undergo a similar process when it comes to testing and scaling solutions. It typically takes between 6 months and 1 year for a humanitarian aid organization to test and scale a solution, mirroring the process in large law firms.

Starting Small

Even in high-need situations, starting small is the way to go. Testing solutions on a large scale without prior validation can be counterproductive and unethical. For instance, solutions for earthquake survivors were tested in Turkey before being applied in the aftermath of the earthquake in Syria. Law firms can heed this example when testing innovative solutions such as Generative AI.

Organizing Innovation

In humanitarian aid, innovation efforts when disaster strikes tend to be local and driven by immediate survival needs, making structured approaches counterproductive. Conversely, innovation labs like RIL focus on post-disaster recovery and sustainable solutions. An approach like this made it possible for an emergency solution created by Safe the Children to get picked up by UNICEF to become the new “industry” standard.

Practice Innovation efforts of law firms seem to fall in between the first and second categories of humanitarian aid innovation. While attorneys often generate creative solutions for clients under tight deadlines, that process is rarely structured and few of these solutions are scalable. It could be interesting to mimic the humanitarian aid approach, in how law firms support these "last minute" innovation efforts, versus those innovation efforts that are aimed at identifying trends and providing sustainable and scalable solutions.

Challenge Holders

Innovation projects in humanitarian aid are driven by "Challenge Holders" who define the problem, seek solutions, and assist with implementation. It should not come as a surprise, that the more skin in the game the challenge holder has – putting their time and resources - the higher the likelihood of success of the initiative. As such, implementing the concept of Challenge Holders in law firms could enhance innovation processes.

Funding Mechanisms

Both law firms and humanitarian aid organizations encounter challenges with their funding mechanisms. Law firms typically operate on annual budget cycles, while humanitarian aid organizations rely on grants. The rigidity of these funding cycles, in a world that is changing ever faster, leads to significant time lags between the drafting of plans, their approval, and execution, rendering many plans outdated before projects commence. Exploring outcome-based budget conversations could present a refreshing approach for law firms, akin to the outcome-based grants pursued in humanitarian aid.

Flexibility and Discipline

In the humanitarian space, pivot diaries allow for and justify deviations from the original plan while maintaining discipline and focus. This approach encourages adaptability without sacrificing rigor, whereas the "Fail fast to succeed sooner" mentality, often leads to sloppy follow-through.

Impact Assessment

Donors in the humanitarian space prioritize impact assessment, seeking tangible outcomes for their investments. Adopting similar tools for assessing impact could benefit law firms as well.

Incorporating lessons from humanitarian aid can enhance innovation processes and foster greater impact within law firms. One thing is for sure – in the humanitarian sector a lot more effort is put into getting the process of innovation right.


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