Examining Legal Tech Adoption, Part I

The first in a five-part series on legal tech adoption.

Reflecting on a recent contribution to Aderant’s article on legal tech traction, I was theorizing about the long sales cycle into the legal industry and the slow pace of technology adoption. After spending the past couple of years working with hundreds of legal professionals (maybe more than a thousand counting audiences at events), I wanted to test a few thoughts. I took the two following questions to the virtual street, posting on the Legal Tech LinkedIn group, asking on Twitter, and emailing lawyers on both sides of the equation.

Question 1: Former (practicing) attorneys now within the legal tech industry: What is the number one barrier to law firm adoption of your technology?

Question 2:  Practicing attorney who is a legal tech adopter: What was the number one factor in your decision to adopt the technology?

The goal of these questions, and this piece, is to analyze the near paralysis of change in the legal industry and offer some solutions. The response I received to the above questions was overwhelming—so much so that I’m not only writing this post, but embarking on a five-part series.

Additionally, I will pose these questions when I attend the following October events: Above the Law’s Academy for Private Practice and Clio’s Conference. Both of these events target the smaller firm practice (Clio’s Conference also includes in-house counsel). Please feel free to send me feedback @maryjuetten or reach out if you are attending either event, as I would love to continue the conversation.

Rather than organizing this post by answers to each question, I broke it up by themes and theories. First, I am going to share my original theories:

  1. Legal tech companies will do better if the founders are former or current attorneys, because that creates a built-in incubator for the product.
  2. In-house or general counsel are important customers as they will drive change with the larger law firms faster than the legal tech companies.
  3. Legal tech companies have more challenges with medium and large firms because of more cumbersome decision-making processes.
  4. It may be easier to dislodge another competitive legal tech solution than create a brand new solution that has no competitors and therefore no early adopters.
  5. Too many solutions or legal tech products (not necessarily companies) can create inefficiencies—unless there is seamless integration.
  6. Everyone resists change; attorneys are no different.

In this first post, I’ll start with that last theory. The overarching principle is that the adoption of legal technology is not just a sales process; it’s change. Nicole Bradick of CuroLegal summed up the reason for slow adoption nicely with a visual description: “[Consider] the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality. It’s reminiscent of that old cartoon where a soldier wielding a sword tells a gun salesman he’s too busy to talk because he’s about to go into battle. It can be quite challenging to interrupt this inertia, and often adoption of superior technology only happens in a reactive, not proactive manner.”

In the early 1990s, when I led change management projects as a consultant, this inertia was the biggest challenge I faced. Many former attorneys who responded to my first question, plus many lawyers who are still practicing, echoed this adversity to change or being content with the status quo. Interesting that everyone clings to some resistance to change, even when many legal technologies have been proven to both improve client experience and increase revenue.

However, Robbie Friedman, who left a corporate attorney position with Akin Gump to found ViewaBill, brings in a different dimension. “The biggest barrier to law firm adoption of legal tech is that law firms have been structured around being the ‘middle majority.’ Generally, law firms don’t want to lead change; they want to be exactly in line with their peers. It’s the reason innovation happens so slowly and that any innovation has had to be client-driven.”

I have direct experience with the “who are your current law firm customers?” phenomenon described by Jonathan Perle, founder of Privileged Communications. “The reticence to be an early adopter is also an immense barrier. The first question I often get is ‘who else is using it?’ I have a list of firms—all of whom have indicated that they like our concept—that have said straightforwardly ‘we will not be the first or second firm, but you should definitely call us when you have five or six other firms using your technology.’”

This ultra-conservative approach becomes a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. This is why I think the “built-in incubator” approach of having pilots or betas with your own law firm, or previous firm, as a legal tech entrepreneur can help you overcome the dilemma of change and the customer issues.

This is an opportunity for bigger law firms to incubate innovation technologies, such as Dentons’ NextLawLabs. However, we also need these larger firms to implement pilot startup legal products. I think Jonathan Confer, who just launched ClientLegalEd.com, summed it up well: “Other attorneys are just set in their ways.” Jonathan’s analysis of the resistance to change brings in the interesting shift in perspective with respect to client experience and satisfaction:

“Some attorneys adopt useful legal tools before others because they focus on the end goal: client experience. They don’t care what tools they are using as long as the client gets great representation. Tools always change over time, and an attorney such as this will readily adopt something new if it does the job better.”

As an attorney, you can hide in the sand and be replaced by the likes of Shake Law or other companies that eliminate lawyers, or you can be left behind by adopters of legal technology. The other option is to adapt your practice to new technologies that please your clients and improve your firm’s profitability. The choice to change is simply good business and your firm is a business.

Let’s keep this conversation going. Tweet me at @maryjuetten.

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