If you looked at the title of this post with some skepticism, that’s understandable. Law is not a profession known for its innovation. Although maybe that’s starting to change.  Jordan Furlong points out that the practice in business of setting up “regulatory-free sandboxes”–where organizations can try out different products or approaches that might otherwise be barred–may be coming to a law firm near you.  While England & Wales are already well ahead of the US on this subject, as they have been on others, he notes that two North American jurisdictions have launched legal sandbox projects: Utah, which is off to a flying start, and British Columbia, which has also raised significant interest.

On April 13, the Law Society of Ontario’s Technology Task Force released a report calling for the establishment of a Regulatory Sandbox for Innovative Technological Legal Services for a five-year pilot program. Ontario is the home to more than one-third of Canada’s lawyers, so any changes approved in that effort could well quickly reshape the legal landscape in the country.

Four days before Ontario released its report, the State Bar of California’s Closing the Justice Gap Working Group, charged with expanding access to justice for Californians, held its most recent meeting, with an agenda that considered recommendations as to what a regulatory sandbox in that state might look like.

Speaking of innovation, Arizona has already opened its legal sector to all types of providers, eliminating the typical ethics rules barring “non-lawyers” from having an economic interest in law firms or participating in fee-sharing (again, following the lead of England & Wales). Arizona may well be the jurisdiction that makes legal sandboxes look no longer like radical departures from the norm, but just a middle-of-the-road step toward reform.

While the legal industry is working through new structures and processes, it’s important to remember that emotional intelligence plays a pivotal role in achieving innovation.

Creativity is a critical skill for successful innovation and it is enhanced by emotional intelligence. “Ironically, when we most need creativity, we tend to be in an emotional state where creativity is least accessible. Fear and distress . . . shut off the cerebral cortex, where creativity and problem-solving live.” Emotional intelligence empowers us to shelve those inhibiting emotions and access constructive feelings that can generate creative solutions.

We can use emotional regulation skills to move at will from one emotion to another, called “emotional agility,” an ability that can get us out of an emotional ditch, regardless of whether that is a negative or positive feeling, and thereby “alleviate stress, reduce errors, become more innovative, and improve job performance.”  “Leaders stumble not because they have undesirable thoughts and feelings—that’s inevitable—but because they get hooked by them, like fish caught on a line . . . When you unhook yourself from your difficult thoughts and emotions, you expand your choices.”

Emotional intelligence also empowers us to make better decisions, particularly in high-risk situations.  Lawyers are risk-averse by nature and a big part of successful innovation is assessing risk.  In an important study, participants with higher emotional perception and emotional understanding appropriately ignored incidental emotions that were irrelevant to evaluating the risk, in some cases resulting in their taking on even more risk.  As the lead author explained: “People who are emotionally intelligent don’t remove all emotions from their decision-making . . . They remove emotions that have nothing to do with the decision.”

Collaboration is a skill dependent on emotional intelligence as well, and it can be critical at times of change. As Harvard professor Heidi Gardner concluded, “Partners who collaborate realize the benefit of generating more sophisticated, innovative and lucrative work.”

Emotional intelligence is also what helps management corral and inspire the troops to make the changes needed to transition to more innovative processes or products. The leader’s EI fuels his or her own innovation and creative problem solving, but also “plays a critical role in enabling and supporting the awakening of creativity” in workers and managing the “tension, conflict, and emotionally charged debates and disagreements” that “engaging in creativity in organizations inevitably creates.” Leaders who know how to use positivity are more successful on this front as well.

Innovation is for law firms too. Buttressing the firm’s overall emotional intelligence will give everyone a better chance at successfully innovating for the future.