Find the Thirsty Horses: Legal Tech Adoption is About Personal Value

ByCheryl Wilson GriffinPublished inAnalyses & TrendsMarch 10th, 2023

Cheryl Wilson Griffin, Consultant Legal Tech Consultants LLC

Over the last 15 years, firms and legal ops teams have debated, discussed, and (frequently) failed to see new technologies adopted by their lawyers and legal professionals. In the end, investment in underutilized technologies costs everyone in the legal supply chain. The cost to clients is constantly rising in the form of billable rates, and vendors and service providers must invest heavily in resources aimed at “customer success,” driving up the price of the products and services they provide. Law firms that don’t invest in technology are seen as laggards by both clients and new associates, costing both new talent and new business opportunities.

Is the culture of legal such that legal tech adoption is an impossible dream? I don’t think so. But, it’s time for a new approach, a change in our thinking. Legal tech adoption is all about creating personal value, not organizational value.

Choose Wisely

First things first. Technologies that don’t meet the needs of your users have no chance of being adopted. It’s critical to put a good selection and pilot process in front of any purchase. All tech should solve a business problem or create competitive advantage.

There is no other reason to buy technology. Read that again. All tech should solve a business problem or create competitive advantage.

Too often, we fall in love with a product or service – whether for the promise, buzz, etc. – and then look for a way to use it. Nine times out of ten, this approach will fail. Identify the problem or need first and then carefully consider the potential solutions and choose your technology wisely and ideally, with the input of the people who will be expected to use it.

What Doesn’t Work

Have you ever heard the saying about being able to lead the horse to water but not being able to make it drink? Tech adoption falls under much the same idiom. There is no magic messaging, no threat, no compulsion that you can put in place that will improve the adoption of any of your technologies. Whether it’s an enterprise application like Zoom or a platform that is meant to solve a specific problem, your harsh emails that your people “must use this” are more likely to erode confidence in the messenger and create strife within your organization than it is to increase adoption.

It can also be tempting to invest in swag, free lunches, and other treats when trying to drive adoption of new technology. While these are important tools for introducing new technologies and ideas to your people, think of this type of activity as raising awareness as opposed to driving adoption. No one has ever started using a CLM tool because they received a branded Bluetooth speaker. If neither threatening nor external incentives will drive tech adoption, what are we to do?

Find the Thirsty Horses

Instead of leading horses to water and trying to force them to drink, what if we looked around for some thirsty horses and pointed out where the water is? You can bet that most of them would get over to the water and start drinking without threats or incentives. Why?

The motivation to do it comes from within.

Thirsty horses find drinking water personally satisfying. No one has to tell them to do it or to enjoy it – they inherently do. In that same way, we can improve uptake of a particular technology by introducing it first to the people who are most “thirsty” for it. After all, who’s more likely to adopt your firm’s new project management tool – a partner who doesn’t log onto a computer regularly or a senior associate juggling 12 cases with three partners and six clients?

Organizational Versus Personal Value

When we think about return on investment as it relates to technology, it’s easy to focus on organizational value created; that is, how it will save the organization money, help it earn more money, or otherwise improve its situation. One of the best examples of technologies that provide organizational value is the law firm document management system (DMS). When a firm’s professionals save their work product and files to the DMS, it makes them easy for others in the firm to find should that person no longer work for the firm. It also helps the firm comply with legal holds, records retention, and other legal obligations. While it might not generate revenue, the DMS mitigates risk and it that way, it creates value for the organization.

Now think about it from the individual lawyer’s standpoint. Perhaps she finds it harder to find a file saved in the DMS than she does when it’s saved to her local hard drive. Maybe she’s had to work from an older version of a document because the current version has been inadvertently checked out (a.k.a. “locked”) by someone on vacation. Maybe she can’t access it from her mobile phone and has to leave her family dinner to sign on to VPN on her firm laptop to make one change to a document stored in the DMS. Do you think she finds the same personal value in using the DMS?

The fact is that every change we ask our people to make consumes their personal resources – their energy, their billable time, their family time. They become much more likely to commit those resources towards change when it creates personal value for them; that is, when they perceive that it will in some way have a positive impact on their existence.

This means that those of us selecting technology need to understand not only the technology, not only the business we’re engaged in, but also the personal needs and wants of the intended users. So, for instance, you should understand that a lawyer who primarily bills by the hour won’t find a tool that reduces the hours she can bill particularly interesting. Why? Because she doesn’t get to vacation with that “saved time,” she has to expend her personal resources to find billable hours to replace the “saved” ones. But, a lawyer who primarily bills their clients based on an agreed “fixed fee” (where the client pays the same whether it takes two or 10 hours) might find that same technology a game changer.

Everyone Experiences Thirst

The idea is to use these thirsty horses are your pilot group for rolling out the technology. These friendly faces will help you identify, validate, and document great use cases. They’ll help you find and develop workarounds for the wonky parts that exist in any system. And, when you’re ready to broaden the rollout, they’ll act as product ambassadors. There’s nothing better than an unsolicited referral to a technology by someone who already loves it.

Best Practices for Finding Your Thirsty Horses

  • Start now. If you wait until you have purchased or are considering a technology before engaging your user base, the tail is wagging the dog. It can be time-consuming to find the people struggling with a problem, even if you’re sure it exists. And, once you find them, it can take some time to refine and understand the problem to solve and ensure that the tech you’re buying really does the thing you think it does.
  • Find someone to drive. It must be the responsibility of someone within your organization to drive engagement with your user community. They need not be a technical expert, but they should have a solid understanding of the work being done within the business and a willingness to learn and ask questions. This person (or people, depending on the size of your organization) acts as the “voice of the user” (i.e., the people who would use the product) and liaises with the procurement, IT, or tech selection team when considering a new tool. One important note. Do not force someone to take on this role – it will turn out worse than trying to force someone to use a particular technology.
  • Create user communities. Once you have someone driving, give their people a way to easily stay engaged with them on technology issues. The idea here is that people know who to talk to if they want, love, hate, or otherwise have thoughts on technology. What will emerge is a clear list of business problems that technology might be able to solve. You can do this a number of ways -- create a tech advisory committee that meets every other month over lunch or a Microsoft Teams group. Announce it company-wide and include it in your new-hire onboarding and create a page on your intranet for the groups.
  • Move tech selection closer to the work. Twenty years ago, our IT leaders decided what technology was appropriate, oftentimes without really knowing “the business” the tech was meant to support. Later, as it became evident that technology was essential to certain areas of law, rainmaker partners started to drive tech selection without necessarily understanding how it would be used. Because the way work is done changes over time, it’s critical that the people closest to the work select the technology to solve that will solve their business problems. Your most senior non-executives, junior partners, and senior associates have seen enough to understand most of the edge use cases and know what the most common will be. After all, who’s better suited to evaluate the claims of an automated brief-drafting tool than the person who drafts briefs every day all day?
  • Reset your expectations. It’s time to get real about what good adoption looks like, in legal or otherwise. No technology should ever be expected to reach “full” adoption across all your user segments. Why? Because everyone doesn’t do the same job every day. Let’s use a DMS at a large law firm as an example. Oftentimes, partners primarily review and mark up documents drafted by more junior lawyers. Do they open up the document in the DMS and redline it? Or are they more likely to mark up a local or printed copy? In the latter case, they’re not engaging with your DMS at all. But, your senior paralegal may be in your DMS creating, revising, and sending documents all day long. Use the user communities your formed to help define what “good” looks like for your different user groups and target adoption rates based on those, more realistic, expectations.