Senior attorneys recognize that law firms and legal departments need to invest in and embrace new technologies to remain competitive, but acclimating to these technologies can be daunting. Tech entrepreneurs promise to be “disruptive,” but what they are disrupting are business practices that until now have served senior attorneys well for decades. Instead of treating senior lawyers like dinosaurs, it is worth remembering how much new technology they have already incorporated over the course of their careers—from copiers and fax machines to Lexis and WestLaw to Blackberries and iPads—and recognizing that these “tech-averse” senior attorneys have always been willing to adopt technology that presents clear value in terms of workplace productivity or client service.
The challenge, then, is how to demonstrate that value in the face of what unfortunately is often well-earned skepticism. Over the course of my market research as founder and president of a legal technology startup, I have had many conversations with senior attorneys about their concerns regarding new technology. These concerns stem from real problems in product design and engineering, and legal technology companies must show their clients that they have addressed them.
The most frequently asked question about new technology involves the learning curve: Yes, the features sound great, but how many hours of training would I need before I can even start trying to incorporate this product into my day-to-day practice? When senior attorneys ask this question, what they are really asking about is the user experience. This is an aspect of product design that legal technology companies too often neglect because it is easy to rationalize a poor interface by saying that business technology does not need to be pretty, it just needs to work. As a result, much legal software still incorporates design errors from the 1990s, like using too much high-density text over graphics and burying important features in difficult-to-navigate menus.
User Experience is Key
The easiest way for legal tech companies to get senior attorneys on board a new product is to invest in a user experience design that communicates the product was designed with them in mind. This means following modern software design principles to create an interface that is clean and readable with enough information density to be useful but without so much that it becomes overwhelming. It means using a consistent design language across the product so that users have a minimal number of interactions to memorize. It means putting all important functionality in the open so that users do not have to attach Post-Its to their monitors reminding them how to hunt down features they use daily.
The second big question is whether the product was designed with lawyers in mind. This question encompasses two main concerns. First, the software engineers who code legal technology usually are not lawyers themselves and have no experience working at a law firm or in a legal department. Though lawyers and engineers are both professional problem solvers, they are trained in very different, sometimes conflicting, methodologies. This means that when attorneys’ needs are described to engineers too generally, they can arrive at solutions that are not intuitive for attorneys to use. Instead, engineers work best when they understand the problems they are solving as specifically as possible, and, while it may seem a waste of time to explain the minutiae of legal practice to software engineers, this ultimately is what they need to know to produce their best work.
Second, law firms and legal departments have too often bought “hand-me-down” software designed for other types of businesses only to find that it is not well adapted for legal practice. A current example of this is project management software: Most of these types of systems are designed with middle managers in mind, helping them keep a team of workers on task who otherwise would need close supervision. While software like this offers some value to attorneys, the specific problem it is designed to solve is not a significant one in most legal workplaces because attorneys are trained to work autonomously and do not need to be micromanaged. To the extent that law firms and legal departments could improve their productivity by investing in general-use business-to-business software, they have largely already done so. Demonstrating value to senior attorneys requires showing them not only how similar technology improved productivity for other types of businesses but also explaining how the product was adapted with legal workplaces in mind.
How will the technology increase profitability?
The last major question is how to translate the benefits of new technology into bottom-line profitability. For software designed to make non-billable work more efficient, or for corporate legal departments generally, this is straightforward: Gains in productivity directly improve profitability. But for software designed for firms that bill by the hour, software companies need to be aware that competition for clients is and has been becoming increasingly tight, and firms must justify their billable rates with hard data. It is no longer enough for technology merely to improve attorney productivity. Technology must also track user data and document its own value to convey to budget-conscious clients.
Since the last recession, law firms and legal departments alike have been under pressure to cut costs and demonstrate greater productivity. It is becoming increasingly apparent that software represents the last easy way to accomplish this before legal workplaces must resort to more drastic measures. Senior attorneys have already shown a willingness to adopt technologies rapidly when, as with Blackberries and iPads, they show clear value to workflow or client service. It is important to recognize that while IT staff and other early adopters get excited about the disruptive possibilities of new technology, this is exactly the opposite of what senior attorneys want to hear. Instead, senior attorneys want to know the specific problem a new technology product is intended to solve—not a laundry list of features—and how much adaptation will be required of them to integrate the product into their day-to-day. Provided they are implementing software that answers the foregoing concerns, IT departments should be able to treat senior attorneys as partners, not obstacles, to incorporating new technology into the firm or legal department’s day-to-day operations.