“We don’t need different software, what we need is more lawyer discipline…”

Anonymous law firm IT Director

There is undoubtedly no end of reasons why a technology product fails, but the one that most often jumps out at me is when the product’s creators (or the persons making the purchasing decision) fail to understand their users. This is especially true when it comes to legal technology as lawyers tend to be far more reticent in changing their ways and behavior than almost all other professionals.

By “product failure,” I am referring to a product that when implemented in a law firm or legal department fails in its essential purpose.  Either the product isn’t used by the lawyers and staff, which undermines if not completely destroys the product’s value.  Or if the product is used, an honest examination leads to the conclusion that it is not really accomplishing its intended purpose.

An example of an “implementation failure” is a Document Management System (DMS) that fails because the lawyers refuse or rarely take the time to “tag” and file all of their documents and email into the system.  As a consequence, it is not surprising that many firms find their DMS actually contains less than 50% of their work product, undoubtedly not the hoped for outcome when the product was purchased.

Even for firms with a “locked down” DMS that attempts to force the central saving of at least documents (unclear what happens to emails), there can be a host of user/product generated problems.  For example, I was recently told that an internal survey by the UK Magic Circle firms of their DMSs determined the most common document “tag” in their systems was  “0000” —  most likely lawyers’ shorthand for “I don’t have the time to fill out all of these @$#! fields”, or perhaps “None of your *&^+! options match my document.” Nonsensical or blank “tags”, seriously impact the effectiveness of such a system.

Implementation failures aren’t, however, limited to DMS.  They also take place in Client Information Systems, billing systems, calendaring systems and the like — basically any technology product that requires significant lawyer/product interaction and where the product’s design doesn’t match lawyer behavior.

Having sat on and chaired law firm technology committees, I know too well the politics of law firm technology purchases, not to mention the widely differing perspectives of IT, firm management, lawyers and staff.  While undoubtedly price, features and technological compatibility are important, in my experience there are three key questions that often fail to get asked when a law firm or legal department is purchasing technology:

  1. What are the firm’s/department’s goals in purchasing the technology?
  2. What does success look like?
  3. Does achieving success require changes in lawyer and staff behavior, and if so, will that change happen naturally, easily and without coaching (or the infamous “more lawyer discipline”)?

Not having a clear, defined goal for new technology (e.g., to securely preserve and retrieve our electronic work product in the case of a DMS) can lead to disagreement over whether the technology is accomplishing its agreed-to purpose.  Not defining “success” before implementation (e.g., 100% of our work product makes it into the system and is easily retrievable from any device) often leads to an inability to measure the effectiveness of the technology after implementation according to an agreed-to standard.

Clear goals and success metrics, however, can get you no where unless you also ask the critical third question — “Are there any behavioral changes required of our lawyers and staff to achieve our vision of success?”  Stated differently, “Does this product work in the way that our lawyers work and is natural for them?” If not, you can pretty much assume you will have some element of failure in implementing that particular product, no matter how clear your goals and your definition of success.  Let’s face it — lawyer behavior is hard to change.

Asking this third question is especially important for legal technology products that have a high value to the law firm and which require high lawyer interaction in order to be successful.  These are the products that fall into Quadrant 2 in the below matrix:


So what should a firm or legal department do when it is seeking success in purchasing products in Quadrant 2?  First, expand your search to look for products that better match your established user behavior.   They are out there, you might just have to do a little digging to find them.  Second, weigh in with the vendors of the products you might be considering to let them know the problems you see with their products from a user adoption perspective. Who knows, the changes you are looking for might be in their next product release.

And finally, if a product that matches your users’ behavior doesn’t exist or isn’t a few months from being released, weigh heavily whether your time and money (not to mention sanity) aren’t more appropriately spent waiting until a better product comes along. In other words, pay attention to those user adoption yield signs you see as you proceed down the product selection path.  Trust me, its far easier than trying to enforce more lawyer discipline…





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