VIDEO: The Flipside of Failure - Learning from Legal Technology Innovation

April 22, 2019

There is tremendous pressure on law firms and law departments to increase the use of new legal technology to gain efficiencies and improve the delivery of legal services. Yet successfully implementing these innovative new technologies is challenging, difficult and time consuming, and is fraught with pitfalls for the unwary. In this candid case study video, I share our experience with a failed pilot project, the lessons we learned and things we have changed that have set us up for success in projects that followed. (9 minutes, 58 seconds)


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Innovation is a Contact Sport

The statement "innovation is a contact sport" is first attributed to AnnaLee Saxsenian. Back in 1994 she compared the fortunes of Route 128 companies in Boston to those in Silicon Valley. She came to the conclusion that innovation is really about the nature of networks among people, and the interactions between those people.

To be honest, that’s not really what I had in mind when I started thinking about this topic.

As I started thinking about the failures I have had around legal technology, I started thinking along the lines of legal technology innovation as being a full contact sport.

Leading innovation and implementing new legal technology is hard work. We are going to make mistakes and we are going to get beat up by the experience. When I work on these initiatives I know I am going to have to roll with the punches and suffer a black eye or two.

I am going to share with you the story of a project that failed for us. The five mistakes we made that led to its failure and the lessons that we learned from the experience. Unfortunately, I can't tell you that this particular project eventually turned into a success. But I can tell you that others which have followed have been successes because of this failure.

I have to keep details confidential so I have anonymized everything. When I did that, I realized that this is a case study that has probably been repeated many many times across a wide spectrum of legal technology applications.

Safety in Numbers

The story: A number of years ago, we embarked on a pilot of a new legal technology tool. We had been encouraged to check it out by one of our partners. I was excited about the product and we had a few lawyers willing to try it out.

Mistake #1: KM was the champion of this project.

Huge mistake. It was not enough. Despite being led to the product by a partner, that person did not have a vested interested in using it themselves. As a result, they were not standing shoulder to shoulder with us telling their colleagues that they should use the application and why. When the project failed, KM was left holding the bag.

As a result of this mistake, we have changed our approach. We will not start on something new unless we have one of two things:

  • Someone (a partner) is prepared to put their name on the initiative in a meaningful way; or
  • We have a critical mass of lawyers who are all asking for the same thing.

It is incredibly frustrating to know that there is a new technology tool out there that will make things easier for your lawyers but you don’t have the buy-in to push it forward. No matter the temptation, you can't go it alone. If the technology is not sparking enough interest, it is better to understand why than to push ahead.

Beware the Snake-Oil

The story: We saw several demos of the product in question and asked a lot of questions. We thought that we knew what we were getting. Still, there were a number of technical issues we encountered. It could not do everything that we needed, and our lawyers did not think it was as easy to use as the vendor thought it was.

Mistake #2: Wearing rose colored glasses.

To be fair to working in this space, I don’t believe that anyone is trying to sell us snake oil. I actually think that a number of problems our technology vendors are trying to solve are really difficult. And we are difficult customers. We move slowly and we have very high expectations.

However, for those of us trying to implement and use new technology, it is never as easy as we are led to believe.

If you are trying a new technology then be prepared. Plan for the fact that it will probably not work as you think it will. Plan for the fact that you cannot anticipate every possible use case. Plan for the fact that you will need to give lots of feedback to the vendor.

Prepare for Failure

The story: Forging ahead with our pilot, we promoted the software, gave demos to multiple practice groups, and tapped individuals to try it. In all of these interactions, we were enthusiastic, optimistic and talked about how great the software would be.

Mistake #3: Not anticipating failure.

We treated the pilot of this new innovative software the same way as pilots of established proven software. Knowing that new technology is NOT going to be perfect, you need to manage expectations with the lawyers in your firm who are willing to try it.

We now communicate in a way that sets the stage for possible failure. It is a fine line between "selling" use of the tool so we have pilot participants and being realistic with participants that trying it out will require effort on their side.

We support them in ways that we don’t for proven software. And we give lots of kudos to those participating who are "taking one for the team".

Timing is Everything

The story: As I noted, this was a new technology product. While a couple of firms were using it, we would be early adopters. Some of the functionality we were interested in was not quite ready but the vendor promised it would be released during the pilot.

Mistake #4: Bad timing.

Our timing was terrible. It was way too early for Stikeman Elliott to be trying this software. If being an early adopter gives you a competitive advantage, it makes sense to do so. Otherwise, if you do not have the time, patience and resources to be an early adopter, I would think twice about it. Let others do the work for you.

This is really difficult for everyone in this room. We are here because we think that new technology is going to make a difference and we often can't wait to get our hands on it. But, you have to understand and appreciate your organization's culture and what drives its business model.

People, Processes and THEN technology

The story: As with most of our pilots, someone on the KM team was responsible for arranging the demos and the training, working with IT to install the software, testing the tool and finding pilot participants. While this has been successful approach in the past, it didn’t work in this in this case and we weren’t sure why. We had trouble finding pilot participants and those who tried it did not really like it. What was worse is that some of the participants thought it made them less efficient. That was a terrible result for an innovative legal technology pilot.

Mistake #5: Underestimating the importance of people and processes.

New legal technology tools that embed legal knowledge or legal processes often require lawyers to change the way they work in order to take full advantage of the software. If you don’t change the way you work or approach your work, the software may not help and may in fact hinder your existing way of working. A successful pilot and implementation of these new technologies must take that into account.

One of the key take-aways that has informed our innovation efforts going forward is that these tools are not like other technology tools in the firm. They are designed to be used by lawyers but not necessarily on a day to day basis. We need to have the people resources necessary to support the lawyers in using these tools in order to get the most out of them.

Lessons Learned

I would like to tell you that this project was ultimately a success but it was not. It was a failure. Full stop. We kept at it for about 6 months before we finally threw in the towel, gave up and turned it off.

I know we all talk about being agile and failing fast. But when you work in an organization where there are professional, ethical and legal obligations that are core to the services you provide, failure is not really something that happens. So having a project that failed and explaining that failure was an interesting experience.

The lessons we learned have set us up for successes that have followed.

Lesson #1: Don’t go it alone. Look for that key champion or make sure you have a critical mass of lawyers who are prepared to back the project.

Lesson #2: Be realistic about what you are getting into. Using brand new technology is not for the faint of heart. How much tolerance do you have to be an early adopter.

Lesson #3: Manage expectations. Prepare participants that getting up the learning curve will take time. Prepare management that it may fail.

Lesson #4: Sometimes, it is just better to wait.

Lesson #5: It is not really about the technology. There is a reason the phrase goes… people, process and technology.

I hope that by sharing these mistakes, you will make different ones. And if you are feeling a bit beat up by legal technology innovation, that probably means you are doing something right and are making progress. My only advice is to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep at it!

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