Early Adoption: are early birds finally catching the worm?

There is an old - and unfair - stereotype of the legal profession as stoic and Luddite; avoiding technology until the last possible minute.

Today, this picture is deeply undeserved, for several reasons:

  1. Technology has permeated every part of corporate activity. Therefore it’s pretty hard to manage anything but the simplest of legal matters without some understanding of the impacts and practices associated with technology. It’s simply not possible to appreciate business issues in, say, M&A or corporate governance, without understanding tech to some degree.

  2. Tech is making life simpler in legal organisations - often with the same tools, connectedness and seamlessness that have become de rigueur in our personal lives. General Counsel (and their teams) must operate with a technical proficiency benchmarked against their peers, their teams, their internal clients and partner organisations; and that means enterprise-grade tech is now essential.

  3. Finally, leading legal firms are eyeing the opportunity laid out by the Professional Services giants. They see broader consultancy as the future, and it won’t be possible to consult without a cutting edge appreciation of modern IT. Plus, those same Professional Services firms are moving into legal services - equipped with their accumulated tech knowledge - so a lack of technology expertise is an existential danger. The GC community (most of whom cut their teeth in these law firms) is becoming similarly outward-facing and a proactive consultant to internal clients; and is expected to be equally tech-savvy.

So the idea of the quill-wielding brief is an unfair slur. Lawyers today are more likely to be “Fast Followers”: not inclined to be first to market with a new technology, but eager to deploy new tools once they are proven in general business use.

The respected tech analyst, Gartner, has formalised the early life of new technologies into a “hype cycle”, in which, for any new innovation, “early publicity produces a number of success stories — often accompanied by scores of failures. Some companies take action; many do not.” The legal profession prefers to wait.

The technology balance

This makes plenty of sense; the balance of decision-making over new technologies has always been in equilibrium:

Pro early adopter…

Anti early adopter…

Get ahead of peers in efficiencies and cost management.

You won't get a finished product- it may be rough around the edges and is likely not to do everything you would want it to do. Worse, it might not ever do all the things you would like.

Innovate and challenge norms, both for service improvement and perception in the market.

There is a tendency for scope to shift as a digital business finds its niche and discovers its mass market. If your requirement is for low-priority features, you may find your voice with the supplier weakened.

Early adopters have greater influence over a new service: they can steer the development process before it becomes mainstream; at which point customers have less influence.

As an early adopter, the price of a good deal is feedback: expect to have to commit time and resources to helping solve problems (without a mature support function) and co-create product ideas.

Similarly, marquee clients are, de facto, the voice of the customer.

Time-to-value can be longer.

Get a good deal - possibly personalised - before formal price points are defined. You may benefit with prices grandfathered for months or even years.

The inherent overhead of complexity is high. Changing customer demands and tighter budgets mean that most digital newcomers go through quite a lot of legacy systems and unnecessary bolt-ons before they find their stride.

However, is it perhaps time for the profession to go one step further, to commit fully to the leading edge of tech innovation? There is a good argument that the fine balance between “Nobody got fired for buying IBM” (or LexisNexis Practical Law!) and “fortune favours the brave” is being disrupted towards bravery.

Technological disruption in favour of the legal customer

It all comes down to the modern way in which technology is designed and built. Today’s digital tech businesses are focused on cutting the risk of early participation while amplifying the benefits. At the heart of the change are two related trends; the cloud and the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) subscription model.

Whilst, for legal professionals, most of the noise about the cloud has focused on issues like data security and cross-border accountability, the operational benefits are significant. With cloud services, the cost of infrastructure - and then supporting it - are completely removed. Instead, the services you buy are scalable to match the business and require no maintenance or professional assistance beyond an internet browser. The cloud means that the hurdles and expenses associated with “trying out something new” are hugely mitigated.

You’ll also always have the latest version. Because there is only one ‘copy’ of a cloud software tool, upgrade cycles have come down from typically a year to as frequently as daily. Customers of cloud services get new functions rolled out constantly - so you’ll always have the the most competitive configuration. Better still, cloud services connect to one another. If you have ever used leading digital services like Slack or Salesforce, you’ll see that they connect seamlessly with the other tools you use every day. This means a shallower learning curve for users, faster time-to-market, and the flexibility to bolt on future tools which suit the way you want to run your operation.

All this is supported by the second trend; SaaS. The subscription model is always sold to clients as offering flexibility: the option to scale up and down as necessary with no long-term commitments, no complexity and therefore predictable OpEx costs. And that’s all true! But it has also led to world-class customer service. When a customer can leave without warning, there’s nowhere to hide: either you provide a service that people love, or you actually stand to lose money.

Today’s SaaS businesses therefore prioritise a great experience, user interface, onboarding, training and customer support - because they are invested in your success. In fact, the structure of SaaS companies has changed from the ground up to support client delivery: “Customer Success Management” is a board-level role and support agents often physically sit next to product developers so that customer feedback can get straight into the next iteration of the product. It means that early adopters can truly influence product development.

These trends - cloud technology and the SaaS subscription model - have combined to give legal technology buyers, particularly Legal Ops professionals, an ace card. Like never before, you’re in a position to switch new services on at low risk, without any upfront investment, and with the wholehearted commitment from the software developers that every customer wants to “see if it all works for me” first.

With no upfront CapEx, chances are that your first steps will be below any procurement ceiling too - so proofs of concept become simple to execute. It becomes rational to test a service or strategy with a small team before rolling out more broadly. This particularly suits efforts to find transactional efficiencies: tracking legal matters, measuring time and resource usage, allowing the rest of the business to raise tickets etc.

This lowering of barriers, enabling of small-scale testing and offsetting of cost should all make it a little more tempting for legal professionals to take the leap and occasionally try for first-mover status. Because innovation has never been so low-risk.

Do you want clarity on your legal spend?