I recently listened to Stephen Poor‘s podcast entitled Pioneers and Pathfinders. I am a regular listener and find it to be always enlightening. (Poor is Chair Emeritus of the large and innovative law firm, Seyfarth Shaw). This past week, Poor’s guest was John Alber, a former partner at Bryan Cave and its Strategic Innovation Partner for many years. Alber was one of the first chief innovation officers in a big law firm, so his experience in that regard, I thought, would be pretty revealing. And he didn’t disappoint. 

I have written several times about the frequent disconnect between legal tech providers and law firms. Part of this disconnect comes from the lack of knowledge on the tech companies’ part as to how law firms really work. 

The real power in law firms resides with the lawyers

Unlike a business (or even the selling tech companies’ business), most law firms are still de facto managed on a consensus basis by lawyers. Certainly, many firms do indeed have business people in critical roles and a managing partner or committee. But the real power in law firms resides with the lawyers. The fact is individual partners produce the revenue of the firm. They originate the business; they bill the lion’s share of the hours. The economic reality is that the partners’ income and profit are directly affected by changes and tech purchases. So they still have a lot of clout in what gets used and decided.

So if you are selling to law firms, you have to convince—one way or the other—a group of partners that the product is worthwhile. Then you have to be sure they use the product lest it is relegated to the dumpster. Add to this that because firms are run on consensus bases, most big tech decisions are made or at least must be approved by several committees. Committees made up mostly of lawyers. And while the business people in law firms have some say, they often don’t have the final say. Lawyers have the last word, and the tech sellers often don’t get to talk to them. Add to the mix that lawyers are skeptics by training and independent by nature.

So it’s challenging to make headway.

But Alber introduced another problem that I had yet to really think through. Alber says in addition to the above issues, most lawyers—particularly successful ones—have their own way of doing things. Their own work processes. Their own tools that each thinks are ideally suited to their particular practice. Trying to convince all these special snowflakes to adopt a unified system, work process, or tech is an exercise in futility. They don’t see the value and worry that innovation will affect their revenue or production costs. And since they bring in the revenue and the lateral market is so hot, firm leadership is often unable and unwilling to force change on those who don’t want it.

Alber’s solution is instructive to firm leadership and legal tech marketers. He did not go to firm leadership or even practice groups with innovation and tech proposals. Instead, he first went to individual lawyers. He would convince and cajole a partner with a book of business into trying out something he thought might help. He would show them how the tech fit their particular practice. If successful, that lawyer would more often or not mention it to others, and gradually through some wins, Alber would enhance firm wide change. He recognized that forcing change on a room full of powerful independent skeptics wouldn’t work.

This concept, of course, has implications for selling and marketing legal tech. But for all the reasons above, that’s not how it works. All too often, legal tech marketers focus on the firm. They make the mistake of thinking law firms buy and embrace tech like other businesses. 

While law firms may buy and pay for the tech, the individual lawyers decide what they think will work with their practice. Individual lawyers choose what to embrace and use and what not to. That’s why it’s so hard to get lawyers to use tech that a law firm purchases without buy in across the board. The individual lawyers just don’t see the value to their practice. The value has yet to be demonstrated to them in concrete ways that affect their individual bottom lines.

It’s helpful to think of individual lawyers in a firm as individual entrepreneurs. They have their own line of business: it’s their business,

Tech marketers would do well to look at individual lines of lawyers’ business and tailor pitches to those lines. Why a tech product might work and be valuable for a wills and estates lawyer differs from why it might benefit a litigator. It’s helpful to think of individual lawyers in a firm as individual entrepreneurs. They have their own line of business: it’s their business, they treat it as such, and they make the decisions with respect to it. Each one is different, just like each business in the non-legal world is different.

Yes, tech marketers often don’t have access to individual lawyers. But they can reiterate to those they do have access to the need to achieve small victories with individual lawyers. They can explain why tech might be valuable to individual lawyers and lines of business. And why the tech fits the peculiarities of a particular practice area. They can give examples of why and how other lawyers in a specific field use the product to their benefit. They can demonstrate value: value to the individual lawyers and their practices.

Slow going? Yes. But it fits with the way law firms really work.