A few weeks ago, a legal technology startup founder came by my office to get some feedback on a new product that he was building. I’m looking forward to when he releases it, but that’s not what this is about.
During our discussion, he asked me why lawyers don’t adopt legal technology.
“Because most of it sucks,” is all I could say. I might have even embellished it with an f-bomb.
I couldn’t think of a better way to put it, and he seemed a little surprised/amused and may have expected a more sophisticated answer.
So let’s break it down a little.
Wrong Assumptions = Bad Product
One of the persistent assumptions in the legal technology world is that lawyers are technology averse, or at least risk-averse and don’t want to try anything that would change their business model. I have already pointed out why this is mostly a baseless assumption and one that harms people who are trying to build technology products for lawyers.
Lawyers are very willing to adopt technology, as long as it can meet their needs…and do it well. Often, when I read an article or hear a comment from a startup founder about how “lawyers don’t have business skills” or “lawyers are resistant to change,” a red flag goes up. It’s often the case that the founders’ company is not getting the traction they are expecting, so they are choosing to blame the market, rather than seek feedback and correct.
Lawyers want new technology and will pay good money for it. It just has to be good.
What Do Lawyers Want?
If you are going to build a product that you want lawyers to adopt, you need to critically examine what lawyers want, just as you would with any other market.
The legal market is a tough one. It is a highly regulated industry where the fear of being sued for malpractice or losing your law license is constant. If there is an aversion to adopting new technology, it comes from that and not from any genetic predisposition that lawyers supposedly have to change. To crack the legal market, startup founders need to understand that and reassure lawyers that these concerns are being addressed.
What does that mean in practice? It means that lawyers will have a very low tolerance for products that are (or appear) unreliable, insecure, or otherwise fragile. In practice, legal tech founders need to communicate to lawyers that they understand the challenges and constraints that lawyers face. This means going beyond the simplistic “lawyers hate technology” ethos and digging deeper.
Just as you wouldn’t expect a bank to adopt a half-baked product for conducting financial transactions, you can’t expect a lawyer or law firm to choose a product that has holes or that feels “too beta.” Law practice is a high-performance activity and needs high-performance software. We are often not getting enough of it.
This kind of ties into my first point about the wrong assumptions that startup founders often make about lawyers. I think that in some cases, founders set the bar too low, thinking that anything they release is going to be speedily adopted by tech-starved lawyers. The result is a low-quality product that doesn’t meet the needs of the intended market. Or companies that think small because they are afraid lawyers won’t understand the offering.
If you want to increase adoption, spend some time understanding the ethical rules that lawyers are bound by. If you want lawyers to feel comfortable using your product, you need to show that you know the limitations that are imposed upon attorneys by their state licensing boards (if you don’t know about prohibitions on fee-splitting, for instance, you should stop what you are doing and learn).
Next Steps: Talk to Lawyers
While some people think that the best legal technology startups are those that include an actual lawyer as a founder, it may not always be necessary to have a lawyer on your team. But what is required is to talk to lawyers and understand how the practice of law works today. Not how you hope it works after you bring your “disruptive” product to market, but how it works on the ground today. Better yet, understand the WHY.
For instance, instead of lamenting the persistence of the billable hour, understand why it persists (hint: it’s not because lawyers are looking for a way to be inefficient and therefore charge more). Law is a business, and many of the business practices that lawyers use arise from the realities of working with clients who don’t always understand what attorneys are doing, and from various ethical constraints imposed by state bar associations.
If you look, you will find that many attorneys love technology and who will become your early adopters and best source of market insight. The best legal technology companies recognize this and ask questions that help them to build better products. Even if the product is unfinished, many of us are willing to stick with it if the founders seem eager to learn about the issues.
Lawyers Want Your Company to Succeed
Lawyers want your legal tech company to succeed. We want better technology, and we want to make our practices more efficient and less stressful. So don’t fall for the hype that says that lawyers are on the defensive about technology or won’t understand it. That way lies failure.
As a practicing attorney who regularly consults with legal technology companies (and uses a ton of legal technology in my practice), I can tell you that there many missed opportunities. Some of these opportunities are easy; they may not be game-changing, but if taken, they would certainly generate some excellent revenue.