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Legal tech adoption: A principled approach

Getting lawyers to accept new technology

March 20, 2020

Home Blog Legal tech adoption: A principled approach

“Ironically, the popular business press, focused on hot, emerging industries, is prone to presenting these special cases as proof that we have entered a new era of competition in which none of the old rules are valid. In fact, the opposite is true.”

– Michael Porter, 1996

In the world of legal innovation, where we hear things like “the way we do things is changing”, it might feel counterproductive to reemphasize the importance of looking at what is not changing. 

Even though something feels new on the surface, it doesn’t take much digging to uncover a pattern. Certain laws of nature, like gravity, exert their force whether or not you find them convenient. Still, it is more productive to accept them and find ways to work with them rather than work against them.

We can gain a lot from taking a principled approach to adoption of new legal tech products, both within the market generally and within organizations. Aligning with principles makes efforts much more effective.

Tech adoption in law firms

adoption curve
Figure 1: From Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers.

The spectrum of technology adoption has innovators and early adopters on the leading edge. Adoption of a technology always moves from the left to the right of the above graph, without skipping any steps. For example, Facebook started with the innovators and early adopters of social networking—college students. Its growth spread to younger individuals very concerned about staying “in the know” with their social networks (early majority) and eventually led to grandparents using it (late majority). Whatever technology you introduce to a law firm will naturally follow these same steps in the same order: it must first win over early adopters and gain a foothold in the early majority before winning over the rest of the firm.

If a product is not ready for prime time, legal tech companies and managers responsible for implementing tech solutions can save their breath on the Late Majority and Laggards.

Principles governing tech adoption

Even though today’s technological changes feel new to many in law, the principles governing them are not. Those principles say that the quickest way to maximize your impact is to: 

  1. Understand the laws that define the way the world works.
  2. Have the discipline to align yourself in harmony with those laws, no matter how inconvenient it feels.

Principles are rarely convenient, but they do help you better understand how the world works. Uncovering and aligning with how the world works makes you more effective than wishing it could be some other way. Being more effective—seeing your actions have your expected results —is more fulfilling in the long term, even if it means letting your ego take a few beatings in the short term.

“If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”

— Joseph Tussman (H/T to Farnam Street)

Here, then, is an overview of the principles governing legal technology adoption.

Principle #1: Put relationships first

Building long-term relationships will give you more influence than any amount of short-term relevance. 

Bill Henderson, a very influential legal innovator himself, has modelled this rule exceptionally well. One of the foundational articles on his website reminds us that “the change agent is a marginal figure”. While this may sound demoralizing (especially if legal technology is in your job description, as it is for me), it doesn’t have to be. Instead, it takes some of the pressure off. Nobody is expecting you to start blasting your way upstream; and trying to force changes will probably lead to disengagement, or worse (1). It is far more effective over the long term to focus on building relationships before trying to change things.

Establishing yourself as a trusted advisor gives you the best chance at long term influence. Just take a look at the list of factors affecting change agent success:

  • Frequent contact with clients
  • Solving client’s problems instead of advancing your own agenda
  • Seeing the world through the eyes of the client
  • Acting like the client would act
  • Gaining client trust and credibility
  • Working through others
  • Improving technical competence of clients

Given that six of the seven factors include the word “client” it’s safe to say that the most effective action a change agent can make is to become more client-centric. 

If you’re working in a firm, this means being lawyer- and staff-centric. Jumping into improving technical competence probably feels most natural, given you may know more about legal tech than others. But all gaps between market segments are credibility gaps, so if you are committed to being most effective, then I suggest starting with the six other factors.

Henderson exemplifies this relationship-based approach through his blog and from what I can tell, from his limitless capacity for speaking to lawyers of all kinds and trying to see the world through their eyes. His website and articles are full of anecdotes of listening to lawyers. And instead of pushing an agenda, his articles more often feel like exercises in empathy. For example, his post, Can Microsoft hit ‘refresh’ on client-law firm relations?, commends Microsoft’s legal department its efforts, outlines some potential challenges, and ties it into Everett Roger’s framework. It does not, for example, say anything about how far ahead Microsoft is, how behind other GCs or law firms are, or how new technology needs to lead the way.

In acknowledging the challenges faced by these lawyers, he strengthens those relationships. By proving to lawyers that he thoroughly understands and cares about their problems, he gains credibility and support for his own endeavors like the Institute for the Future of Law Practice.

Relationships are fundamental to the successful introduction of new products. You are asking people to try something new. You are probably making them uncomfortable, no matter how small the change. Relationship bears the shock of change. People don’t like to feel like they have a lack of choice or freedom—as if they’re being forced to change. But they do like to have someone take ongoing responsibility for the success over a new joint endeavor.

Principle #2: Pair the right products with the right users

Your adoption efforts are most effective when you pair the maturity of a technology with the right demographic. You can either bring a product to the relevant group or pick a group and see what products would be the best fit. Either way, the viewpoint of the segment on Figure 1 (see graph above) and the product experience must fit together. Each segment has its own distinct reasons to buy something. Changing someone’s reasons is trying to change their worldview. People’s worldviews are out of your control. Moreover, people get defensive if their worldview feels challenged. Instead, try to get their views to work for you by catering technology that fits.

Nor can you control either a user’s expectations or their experience with a product. Instead, try mapping out the products you have to the users with the best match. When the product’s maturity is paired with these users’ stance on learning new technology, it’s less stressful for everybody. Even if the underlying technology isn’t exciting to you, it might still add some convenience to them, and remember, it’s all about them.

If a product is simply not ready for a certain group, and you do not have the resources to build out everything they would need to feel ready, then it is probably best to leave it for now. Spend time on something that has a better chance of success. If you are an innovator, it might feel uninspiring to simply follow the trends in certain areas; but it is better to follow the trend and stay abreast of your competition than to implement the state-of-the-art and fall behind.

Principle #3: Focus your efforts on the immediate change

You must move linearly through the market segments of innovators, then early adopters, then pragmatists, and finally conservatives (see below). If there is new technology involved, Do not go straight to mass deployment: if you try, you will not pass Go, and you will not collect $200.

Mainstream users make up nearly 70% of any market. They are pragmatists and conservatives who expect a product to work right away with little or no training. If you try to deploy a new technology too quickly, you will get off on the wrong foot with a huge portion of your target market. It is similar to growing a garden: you must first survey and dig your plot, then fill it with the proper soil, and then you can focus on the “real” gardening .

The reasons to buy something evolve from functionality to reliability to convenience to price. These attributes nest within one another: for people to buy something for its improved convenience, that product must already reliably perform the functions it promises to perform. In other words, a product doesn’t offer convenience until it can function reliably—and thus doesn’t appeal to pragmatists.Getting reliable results in a convenient way is a challenge for much nascent legal technology, which explains user resistance. Whatever resistance you encounter is not necessarily disapproval of the product, but signals about the product that need improvement before that person will adopt it.

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” 

– Marcus Aurelius

Even if you can’t do anything about improving the product itself, you can still nudge it along toward greater adoption by improving how you service the product—educating users, adapting it to specific pains of your target group, generally owning your customers’ satisfaction and success.

adoption curve - 2

Ironically, while mass deployment can be especially tempting in a law firm or legal department, which is a captive market, it is, in fact, especially problematic. Because the faces change so little, one needs to be extra cautious about starting off on the right foot. Understandably, if you are sitting at 15% adoption, you might feel pressure to get more usage. Your need to focus will be tested. But do not go after everybody right away. Especially, do not bother going after anybody conservative at this stage. Follow principle #4 and focus even more.

Principle #4: Until you break into the mainstream, focus your efforts on a single group

Despite the number of times he repeats the importance of focus in his materials, the number one question Geoffrey Moore gets about crossing the chasm is Can’t we go after more than one target? His answer is unequivocal:

“Just as you cannot hit two balls with one bat swing, hit two birds with one stone, or brush your teeth and your hair at the same time, so you cannot cross the chasm in two places.”

It is fatal to attempt diversifying your efforts before having first developed a successful, fully-implemented model with a small group of users. 

The more opportunities that present themselves, the more disciplined and focused you will need to become. There simply is not enough time or other resources to pursue several breakthroughs at once. The temptation to lose focus is very sneaky. It won’t come from laziness, as you might expect. Laziness may actually be a positive attribute, since it discourages you from picking up new goals. The discipline to focus comes from resisting the enthusiasm to try new projects. Yes, this is an exciting time! There are new legal innovations every day. And that is a big distraction if you want your firm to implement something new.

energy output
From Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Gregg McKeown.

Many adoption initiatives fail because they spread themselves too thin instead of establishing a beachhead in one group. Crossing into mass adoption is similar to D-Day: you must muster all your resources toward a single, clearly-defined target. It takes courage to say “No” when other options seem equally attractive. But if you don’t take Normandy, you don’t have to worry about how you’re going to take Paris. Drawing on principle #3, you must actually cross into the mainstream before you can focus on developing mainstream usage.

The only way to cross this chasm is to make a product number one with a certain group. Being fourth in five markets is deceptive. If you’re in a law firm, this is the equivalent of getting a few people in disparate practice groups to use a product. A practice group that is kicking serious ass with a new technology is an exponentially more influential story than a few scattered lawyers who sees a tool’s potential, even if the total number of users is the same. You don’t even have to be number one by much. Just being a little bit better than the other options can lead to huge results.

Remember principle #1: the change agent is a marginal figure. The mainstream wants to hear about the product from others in the mainstream, from someone clearly biased toward new things. Even people who understand that an innovator’s primary goal is to improve the company will regard him or her with suspicion simply by virtue of the discomfort-inducing nature of new ideas. 

The only way to get in a position where people are compelled to try the product is through word-of-mouth from their peers. And the only way for people to actually talk about a product is to have it be the top choice for a certain group. And the only time a product gets to the top in a niche is when the backers commit to it solely. 

Principle #5: Own your customer’s success

Recall Principle #1: people do not like to feel “owned” or told what to do. But they do like to be owned if what that means is a vendor or change agent taking ongoing responsibility for the success of their joint ventures. Especially with newer products, a gap always exists between marketing promises made and fulfilled. Mainstream users have neither the desire, nor the capacity to cross this gap alone. Thus, we should not expect or demand that they do so. Ease-of-use might not be a contract requirement, but it is a requirement for maintaining a positive customer relationship.

Mainstream users evaluate and buy not just the new tech but the peripheral software, standards, and support that make this new product an easy transition. It’s not even about the technology at this point: any endeavor that competently executes on the whole product strategy has a high probability of mainstream success. 

A whole product consists of the following:

generic product

As you can see, many variables influence a product’s success beyond the generic product itself. Any single change brings with it many smaller changes. And the more the product can handle all of those smaller changes, the easier it will be for people to adopt it.

If you leave your law firm’s adoption to chance, you are giving up control over its success. If your job involves introducing new products to your organization, owning the whole product is even more important. Everybody at the firm associates you with that product: when users have a problem, they think of you, not some external trainer they met for an hour or a co-founder they’ve never met. Because it is a closed environment, if you fail to execute on whole products enough times, your reputation will suffer. Gaining momentum for adoption of something is only sustainable if it becomes self-reinforcing – as in, real people must genuinely enjoy the product. 

While there is no guaranteed formula for creating a self-reinforcing market, it is guaranteed that people who do not have positive experiences will not come back. In fact, all of the above principles focus on either increasing the likelihood of a positive experience or maintaining engagement through negative experiences.

Conclusion

An overarching benefit of a principled approach is that, even when things don’t work out, you have a robust framework for understanding why. 

  • If you’re having trouble getting people’s attention, try to better understand what they care about (principle #1). 
  • Depending on the maturity of the product, you might need to focus on building a whole product, or on later stages of implementation (principle #2). 
  • Whatever you focus on, focus exclusively on that; don’t chase several groups, run yourself too thin, and not have any sense of what actually worked (principles #3 and #4). 
  • Lastly, take care to ensure that clients have absolutely everything they need to succeed (principle #5).

Applying these principles to the legal market, I highly doubt that lawyers are finally coming around to legal innovation because they now “see the light” in some way. Recall that each segment on the bell curve in Figure 1 represents a worldview. It is highly unlikely that people en masse are radically changing their relationship to technology. There are more ways to improve operations than new technology. Technology is merely the current, easiest-to-adopt method of meeting current challenges. 

“This isn’t rocket science, but it does represent a kind of discipline. And it is here that most high-tech management shows itself most lacking.” 

– Geoffrey Moore

Though it is tempting to look at legal innovation as a new world where the rules of the game are changing, remember that law is not the first industry to undergo technological change. Innovations will not diffuse in any uniquely lawyer-esque fashion. If we are to have any success in changing law firms we must be disciplined. 

Footnote

(1) “There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new order of things… Whenever his enemies have the ability to attack the innovator, they do so with the passion of partisans, while others defend him sluggishly, say that the innovator and his party alike are vulnerable” – Niccolò Machiavelli. The Prince, as quoted in Rogers, Everett.  Diffusion of Innovations pg 1.

James Côté

James Côté

James Côté is the Legal Technology and Innovation Specialist at Bennett Jones LLP, combining technology and business strategy to navigate the changing legal landscape. His work has helped win new business and improve efficiency across the firm.
James Côté

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