The impact of law on social innovation efforts

Focusing on the impact law has on efforts aimed at the alleviation of poverty and social exclusion, this blog explains how law becomes part of a myriad of endeavours aimed at empowering local communities.

Impact of law.

Within our professions in general and within our lives, it could be argued that we all live within small fish bowls, namely communities. Each one containing a complex eco-system of “who is who” and the race as to “who is the big fish of them all” is a never-ending one. Yet the big fish is unknown to others not living within its community. So what happens when the big fish in the small bowl gets thrown into the ocean? Does the fish become lost and die? Or does it thrive enjoying its new found freedom and new found friends?

This blog uses the above analogy not to describe how lawyers can expand their field of work, but to understand how legal practice impacts on social innovation efforts when looked from a wider point of view. If we follow the analogy and look at social innovation through a legal stance, it could be said that much of the law in poor places takes shape as a “done with” or “done to” process to poor people rather than “done by” them [1]. These terms are explained in detail in a recent article written by Stott and Tracey. In short, when poor people are not participants but rather spectators, innovation is “done with” or “done to” them and not “done by” them themselves.

Lawyering as facilitation for economic development

One example of an overlooked “done by” model of social innovation in poor places is called community economic development “CED” (or what the lawyering fish in the small bowl prefers to call CED lawyering). CED as a movement emerged in the United States during the 1960s in response to the War on Poverty kindled by the Kennedy-Johnson administration and thereafter became a novel area of public interest law. CED, as a whole, is an approach encompassing law, social policy and community development. These approaches within CED are aimed at alleviating poverty and tackling inequality, while simultaneously promoting social inclusion.

In short, CED lawyering is a strategy for redressing urban poverty and under this strategy, lawyering becomes a form of facilitation, in which a variety of legal tools and approaches are aimed at improving the economic welfare of the community and empowering its residents. Thus, the practice of CED law embraces those efforts made by a local community in developing jobs and housing and creating businesses for low-income people among others; efforts which many times are supported by non-profit organisations and community groups (such as community development trusts for example).

How legal practice can (not) make social change

The problem with lawyers, as someone once said, is that they turn social problems into legal needs rather than standing back and seeing if the law is actually helpful in given circumstances. As the law may not always present the best alternatives, because to look for social change and to make social change do not necessarily mean the same thing [2].

When using the law as a tool in a community context, lawyers do not necessarily bring about social change, just as innovation as a tool does not bring social change in itself [3]. For example, when North Kensington Neighbourhood Law Centre, the first community law centre, opened in England in 1970 as a way of bringing social change by helping individuals, it was the view of some that establishing law centres would “significantly” improve the image of the legal profession as a whole [4]. In this view, the amelioration of the legal needs of the poor came second. It was not a “done by” process but a “done to”, or at the most “done with” exercise of good will. Therefore, social change needs to exist before the lawyering process can be a participant.

Law obviously facilitates how an individual (rich or poor) sets up and manages a business, for example, by allowing the business to carry out contracts or purchase property. Yet it is only recently that governance issues are being looked at it more deeply [5] and the introduction of “collective impact agreements” in the form of contracts [6] is being discussed. In a collective impact agreement, the community becomes a participant and will have their say. This recent development is a result of changes within the wider society and shaped by how social innovation in poor places is practised.

Lawyers as ‘extrapreneurs’ in community development

By looking at CED lawyering as an example, we can do some theory building in relation to “social extrapreneurship”, a term coined by Tracey and Stott [7] when classifying different types of social innovation. In short, they classify social innovation into three categories, “social entrepreneurship” (e.g. creating a venture), “social intrapreneurship” (e.g. addressing a social issue from the inside of an organisation), and “social extrapreneurship” (e.g. mixture of peoples, ideas, resources that address social challenges). For example, community law centres, as community based social purpose organisations, may present a platform for social extrapreneurship via the practice of CED as it allows for inter-organisational action as it combines resources, people and ideas to address social challenges. In other words, CED offers the fish in the lawyering bowl a big ocean to swim free in and opportunities for a positive impact of law on social change.

Maria Antonieta Nestornestor[email protected]

Maria holds a PhD in law from Trinity College Dublin and is a graduate of the School of Law, University College Dublin. She also holds an LLM from the University of California Los Angeles, where she specialised in Public Interest Law and Policy. She further holds a diploma in journalism, is a trained legal interpreter and translator and is the co-founder and past co-editor of the Irish Review of CED Law & Policy. She is currently undertaking research on the impact of the law on social innovation.


[1] Neil Stott & Paul Tracey (2017) Organizing and innovating in poor places, Innovation: Organization and Management 20:1, 1-17, freely accessible at Taylor & Francis Online

[2] Bryant Garth, Neighbourhood Law Firms for the Poor: A Comparative Study of Recent Developments in Legal Aid and in the Legal Profession. Sijhnhoff and Noordhoff 1980, p131.

[3] Recent talk by Colonel Bill DeMarco, practitioner fellow or the Centre for Social Innovation at CJBS. For slides, see

[4] Society of Labour Lawyers, Justice for All: Society of Labour Lawyers Report (Fabian Society 1968) pp 40-46.

[5] Alina S. Ball, Social Enterprise Governance, 18 U. Pa. J. Bus. L. 919 (2016).

[6] Patience A. Crowder, Impact Transaction: Lawyering for the Public Good through Collective Impact Agreements,49 Ind. L. Rev. 621 (2016).

[7] Paul Tracey & Neil Stott (2017) Social innovation: a window on alternative ways of organizing and innovating, Innovation: Organization and Management, 19(1): 51-60, freely accessible at Taylor & Francis Online 

Maria Antonieta Nestor

Maria Antonieta Nestor

Maria Antonieta Nestor

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