Law Firms as Software Developers
Results from a survey of top law firm builders
The Janders Dean team had poor enough judgement to invite me to close their annual conference last week in Sydney. Given the number of headlines recently around law firms developing digital products in the last two months alone, I decided to tackle some of these issues — How are law firms building, should they be building, and why.
In advance of the conference, I reached out to a number of friends who are leading the innovation efforts at some of the most product-heavy firms out there to gain a little more insights into these efforts. For background, I surveyed a range of firms sizes, but most were in the 500+ lawyer category. Between the firms I surveyed, they have built over 200 client-facing products.
Here are a few things I learned:
1. Law firms are mostly building free value-add products.
While many of the headlines are around firms creating new models to generate revenue, firms for the most part have been focused on creating added value for clients through the creation of digital products.
These numbers feel right, especially if you think about the latest Altman Weil Lawyers in Transition Survey where nearly half of all firms surveyed indicated that they have no meaningful competitive differentiation in the market. These efforts make a lot of sense, assuming they are actually meeting client needs.
2. Firms are primarily building custom web applications.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post questioning the use case for native applications in the legal industry. The survey is in line with my thinking, indicating that firms by and large are building web applications. I was, however, surprised to learn that more of these are being built custom rather than using off-the-shelf tools. For the ones that are custom built internally, they tend to use an internal applications team or some blend of an internal applications team and the general IT team.
3. My friends lie?
On this survey, I asked “Do you have a designer on the internal team?” A full 44.4% answered “yes.” LIES I TELL YOU, ALL LIES!!!
Maybe that’s a bit too aggressive, sorry guys. But this response was the one that really threw me. Most law firm products that I’ve seen show no evidence of having been “designed,” and most law firms I talk to have indicated that they have no designer.
For me, this warrants further digging. I’m curious if the ambiguity I left here as to what a “designer” means is what’s causing these stats that are pretty far out of line with my personal experience. Maybe the confusion is around the role of a graphic designer versus a UX/UI designer? I’ll sort through this one, and surely you’ll see another blog post later.
4. Success lies in meeting client needs
I feel like this is stating the obvious, but I just wanted confirmation from the experiences of these firms in working with clients.
As a starting point, about half of all products built by the firms surveyed have been deemed a success, however the law firm internally defined success for the product. Another half are either not sure or it’s too early to tell if the goals of the product had been met.
When I asked about factors for success, client needs come out head and shoulders above the rest.
The way forward for firms?
With a number of firms really moving closer to maturity in their in-house product teams, it will be interesting to see what happens over the next few years. For my money, I think the firms that have gone all in on product and know how to run an agile team without the burdens of law firm politics and bureaucracy will continue to find success in the software business.
I will note, however, that in the last few months alone I’ve received calls from multiple firms who tried to bring product teams internally, and are now backpedalling — a move I can I completely understand. Running a product team inside of a law firm seems extraordinarily challenging for a wide range of reasons, including how differently decisions need to be made in product v. how decisions are made in law firms.
So, what do clients want?
I sent a message out to a group I’m on that includes a number of in house professionals and asked what clients want vis-a-vis law firm product development. I think this quote from my friend and legal operations leader Jason Barnwell at Microsoft sums up well what clients are looking for:
We want partner firms to innovate their practices, including delivering technology supported experiences to us that create more value from our engagements. Investing in the design of those experiences matters A LOT because we serve busy, demanding customers, who are change averse. We have to meet the people we serve where they are. That means taking advantage of existing platform (tools) and experience (skills and knowhow) capabilities whenever possible.
Investment in good design matters because it reduces our change management costs, increases engagement, and improves our chances of successful outcomes.