What Technologists Can Teach Lawyers

A consultant I once knew stated in a technology benchmarking report that while her client (a law firm) did in fact own industry-standard technology, the lawyers of that firm did not know how to use more than ten percent of the capabilities of their technology. In this situation it was abundantly clear that the technologists in that firm had a big job ahead of them in teaching the lawyers to become more efficient by taking the fullest advantage of the expensive tools the firm provided.

Technologists in every law firm could easily devote many hours each day to teaching lawyers how to use technology, but I believe there are other more important lessons to be provided by technologists in 2013.

Why Lawyers Need to Learn

If you read only one book about the state of the legal industry this month, please read Bruce MacEwen’s book, Growth is Dead. As you follow his guided tour of “Law Land” (as he likes to call it), you may well find yourself more than a little discouraged. The picture he paints is not pretty. Further, he is not the least bit optimistic about the efficacy or long-term value of the advice some “experts” are offering to understandably anxious law firms:

  • develop a global presence
  • focus on what you do best
  • emphasize client service
  • become a boutique
  • adopt more sophisticated staffing practices
  • chase the high-value work that commands premium pricing

While these approaches might have some merit in specific situations, MacEwen does not believe they provide complete answers to the crisis facing the legal industry. Instead, he offers another approach:

We have no idea yet what BigLaw (or more accurately, SophisticatedLaw) will look like in the future, and the only way to find out is to invent that future.

Inventing the Future

Inventing the future is great advice. The problem is that most lawyers are not predisposed to this kind of activity. With the possible exception of negotiation strategy, have you ever heard a lawyer say, “I’m not sure how this will turn out, but let’s give it a try and see what happens”?

More often than not, you see lawyers clinging to certainties rather than reaching for possibilities. Some of this is attributable to the fact that many lawyers simply do not find it in their personalities to engage in the kind of experimentation MacEwen is advocating. What is the problem?  According to Dr. Larry Richard, personality testing of the lawyer population reveals that they are by and large risk averse, conservative in nature and, above all, highly skeptical. Further, they tend to have low resilience and are, as a result, sensitive to criticism and reluctant to seek feedback. Finally, most lawyers are introverts. Accordingly, they prefer to work things out for themselves privately rather than to work through things with others publicly.

Taken together, this means that many lawyers tend to favor the status quo; they are reluctant to try something that may not be a sure bet, while being quick to identify the flaws in any plan proposed that might bring about innovation or change.  Unfortunately for them, Growth is Dead unambiguously cautions us that clinging to the comfortable old ways of doing business is neither safe nor wise given current economic realities.

Even if you could find an outlier in the lawyer population willing to try something new, you would face another problem. Unlike scientists, lawyers have had no professional training in how to conduct disciplined experiments.

This is where the technologist can be helpful.

What Technologists Can Teach

In recent years, software development methods have shifted from the waterfall model that focused on requirements gathering, protracted analysis and detailed planning before any work was undertaken, to a new acknowledgement that being nimble can produce more value faster for the client. This new approach is embodied in The Agile Manifesto.

Like any methodology, Agile has its proponents and detractors. I’m not here to tell you that it is the best or only approach to successful software development. And I’m not here to tell you that it is easy to translate the Agile principles and processes to make them applicable to the world of innovation and organizational management. However, I am here to tell you that the Agile principles (which encourage iterative and incremental development, constant communication with the client, early and continuous work hand-in-glove with the client, and periodic reflection leading to a fine-tuning of processes) could teach law firm managers a great deal.  In fact, Agile could be a useful tool in helping lawyers find a less uncomfortable way of doing what needs to be done: experimentation.  Rather than getting caught in analysis paralysis, Agile teaches us to take action, assess the results as early as reasonably possible, revise the methodology, and then take further action.

Agile provides a more disciplined approach to finding better solutions. It is responsive and deliberate. There is not even the slightest whiff of the mad scientist about it.

Technologists can guide lawyers in the Agile methodology. Explain how you make low risk bets. Introduce your lawyers to the merits of safe-fail experiments over the fail-safe experiments they would otherwise find most comfortable.  Show how you try many small initiatives in order to uncover the approach that will ultimately prove to be rewarding. Above all, demonstrate how your constant communication with the client helps manage expectations and improve results.

If the lawyers in your firm are interested in reading more, here are some background materials:

Agile:

Experimentation & the Value of Failure:

Lawyers have so much to learn about disciplined experimentation and you can teach them. In case you, and they, need more encouragement, I’ll leave you with some parting wisdom from Bruce MacEwen:

It’s time to experiment, folks, to learn from what fails and what succeeds, and to invent our futures, even though we have no idea what it will look like yet. This is not optional; it is the signal challenge confronting us. It’s not too much to say that if we don’t get this right, nothing else matters.

Because if we don’t do this, someone else is going to do it for us and to us.

Sobering words indeed.

It’s time for technologists to teach lawyers. Together we can help carry out the experiments that are so necessary for the survival of law firms.