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Gray Rule
January 2015 | VOLUME 16, NUMBER 1
Gray Rule
Deconstructing the Myth of Low Technology Adoption in Law Firms
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Deconstructing the Myth of Low Technology Adoption in Law FirmsConrad Jacoby, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Paralegal Studies Program, Washington, DC
A tool will languish in the marketplace and inside a law firm if it cannot be demonstrated how it materially improves a current system that already adequately services clients and generates reasonable profits.

Another new tool?
What's the compelling reason?
If none, I'll resist.

There's a general perception that law firms and lawyers shy away from using technology in their practice, even when those tools would materially improve work efficiency and increase law firm profitability. In support of this understanding, commentators look to legal technology solutions providers, many of whom are seeing slow sales compared to the pre-2009 legal market. They also see law firms that have purchased a variety of legal technology solutions, but don't appear to be leveraging them for their maximum value. These are valid data points, but they do not tell the entire story.

Lawyers are pragmatists. It's their job to solve the problems—typically, the complicated problems—of other people, and do so in a cost-effective yet profitable manner. Anything less, and a lawyer is likely to find it difficult to attract clients and stay in business. One would think that lawyers should be receptive to deploying additional tools that help them deliver better results, increase client satisfaction, and, most importantly, increase bottom line law firm revenue.

Indeed, historically, we have seen rapid adoption of certain technologies in the legal community. Law firms eagerly embraced word processing systems and later personal computers because this technology permitted them to create legal documents and pleadings and fix typos faster and with much less effort—and also reduced the need for armies of salaried and nonbillable secretaries and typists. Other than the high initial purchase cost of early systems, lawyers saw immediate value in changing their existing workflow to leverage the features of these tools, and they quickly incorporated these tools into their work. Similarly, today's law firms, both large and small, operate enterprise-class e-mail systems and offer a variety of remote access solutions. Again, lawyers immediately saw how these tools permitted them to be more responsive to clients and have greater flexibility in where and how they could perform client work.

Law firms do have less consistent tool adoption when the benefits of a given technology are less immediately apparent. That's not to say that the tools lack functionality or benefits; rather, it is to say that the tools require more careful marketing so that lawyers can understand the value they will receive if they interrupt their existing work flow to incorporate a given tool. "Interrupt" is a deliberate term; lawyers (appropriately) view technology implementation as secondary to their primary goal of servicing clients and their immediate deadlines. Lawyers will interrupt their ongoing work, but only if they believe it is for a good reason.

A tool will languish in the marketplace and inside a law firm if it cannot be demonstrated how it materially improves a current system that already adequately services clients and generates reasonable profits. We can see this in the evolution of the e-discovery tool market. Initially, law firms had no tools that lawyers could use to help them review electronically stored information or easily incorporate these materials into their case development. Early litigation support and e-discovery tools that could deliver the goods, so to speak, were devoured by hungry customers. After this initial wave though, each successive generation of new e-discovery tools has needed to significantly raise the bar to attract attention and generate new sales. Simply being a comparable alternative to an existing product is not enough to move lawyers from one adequate tool to another adequate tool. In addition, thanks to thoughtful programming enhancements, existing e-discovery tools on the market are proving sufficient for the current needs of most case teams. In this maturing market, incremental improvement may be all that is possible, and solutions providers are left with the difficult task of selling slightly better adequacy to a community that already has generally adequate tools. It's no wonder that new sales have slowed.

On the other hand, it's also possible to find examples of technology purchased by law firms that are being underutilized, and each of these serve as helpful illustrations of the pragmatic approach lawyers use to evaluate technology tools. In the early 2000s, many law firms began investing in customer relationship management (CRM) systems. It was argued at the time that these systems would deepen existing relationships with current clients and make it possible to data mine historical client information, increasing the amount of repeat work and increasing law firm profits. However, the sales-focused philosophy of standard CRM systems alienated many lawyers already managing existing relationships, and they resisted sharing control and information with these systems, seeing them as barriers and impediments to their own business development efforts. As a further complication, it has proven difficult for many law firms to quantify the extent to which CRM systems are actually improving the firms' ability to retain clients and win new work that they would not have received without use of the CRM system. As a result, while many large law firms continue to deploy CRM systems, participation in them by firm rainmakers remains inconsistent. From the perspective of the partners managing client relationships, the technology simply isn't seen to deliver a compelling improvement to existing practices.

Another legal technology that is underutilized in many law firms is automated litigation case management. Properly utilized, these specialized database systems are efficient repositories of all case related information, from court and docket information to pleadings, key correspondence, and e-mail messages. They permit lead attorneys to generate detailed status reports about tasks in the case, and many even offer client-focused Web portals so they can check on the status of their matters too. However, this functionality comes at a clear cost: it can take significant time and effort to enter all necessary information into the case management system, and in busy practices, firms may have to hire additional clerks or paraprofessional staff to stay on top of all the information flowing into and out of these systems. For some lawyers, the cost of operating case management systems exceeds the organizational and reporting value they receive in return; they decline to use such systems, even when they are available to them. For other lawyers, however, particularly those managing clustered, serial, or class-action litigation, the cost of operating such a system may be materially less—and offer much more functionality—than their existing, nonintegrated systems for managing the same information. Different lawyers and different practice areas have reached different conclusions.

Increasing law firm adoption of a new tool or technological approach requires careful positioning and lawyer education; in many ways, it's much more of a marketing issue than a cost issue. Most importantly, lawyers should clearly see how a specific tool can generate additional revenue for a law firm. In making this argument, general platitudes are flatly inadequate; sponsors of the new tool must be able to describe, with specificity, how the cost of a tool and the short-term business disruption caused by changing existing work processes are outweighed by the increased revenue that the new tool will help generate once it has been successfully deployed. Lawyers may disagree with specific points within such a presentation, but the structure of this approach offers attorneys a framework they can use to construct their own alternate cost-benefit analysis.

Second—and only second to the financial argument—new tools should be described in terms of how they improve the lawyer work experience. This is a delicate approach; a typical tech marketing approach that tries to sell a tool by enumerating individual features will repel most attorneys—and most people. As with describing how tools increase revenue for a lawyer, educational efforts must stress specific ways in which the new tool directly improves existing processes that the lawyer audience is using in its existing work, ideally by wrapping the tool in an easy to understand workflow. Thus, instead of bludgeoning attorneys over the head with features, appropriate education, and outreach will permit lawyers to visualize use cases for their own matters, giving them an analysis that they will trust and act upon.

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