Legal Tech: Winners Don’t Whine

It’s not that lawyers are anti-technology, it’s that they are anti-bullshit.

Keith Lee

There are tons of people who show up for tons of legal tech conferences with tons of superlatives about their baby.  You will never meet a thinner-skinned crowd. They hang out with each other, praising the living crap out of their respective start-ups in the vain hope that if they lie to each other, magic will happen.

It won’t.  Worse still, the last thing these budding legal tech entrepreneurs need is to waste their time giving each other tummy rubs, as that’s why it won’t.

Carolyn Elefant, no meanie (like me) when it comes to the potential of technology in the law, calls ’em out.

Over at Law Technology Today, Mary Juetten ponders why the legal profession is slow to adopt new technologies. Here’s the perspective of a practicing small firm lawyer who has been a relatively early tech adopter.   

Juetten’s ponderousness starts with the first lie, the favored strawman of those whose wheels spin fast and furious, yet go nowhere.  It’s lawyers. Lawyers, lawyers, lawyers. They’re “so slow to adopt.”  They’re so “risk averse.” They suck, those lawyers, who won’t recognize the brilliance of my new thingy and throw money at me. Friggin’ lawyers.

Legal Tech Has To Work for Lawyers to Use It

This is kind of a trick point by Carolyn.  When lawyers expect tech to do what its promoters say it does, it’s with the caveat that it happens the first time, every time, and without having to stand on your left leg holding your arm out the courtroom window.  It’s not the lawyer’s job to buy now and await functionality that you plan to get to someday in the future.

Here’s the thing: we don’t love you. We don’t have to forgive you for your failures and inadequacies. You want us to adopt you? Then do what you say you’re going to do. If not, poof. You’re gone.

Tech Needs to Solve Real Problems

There’s a small list of talking points that so many lawtrepreneurs use, though each one tries to pretend they aren’t selling the same benefits as every other new kid on the block.  Do lawyers have problems that need solving?  Of course. Who doesn’t?

That doesn’t mean, however, that you self-absorbed nerds know what they are, or what lawyers would want to fix them.  You got mad coding skillz? That’s nice. What you don’t have is a grasp of how lawyers function, what lawyers want or need, and how lawyers’ ethical demands and concerns are implicated by your special baby.

The most common pitch, and the one that has almost no chance of working with lawyers, is that your gimmick will “save lawyers time so they can spend it making money off other clients, spend their time doing the hard-thinking lawyerish stuff rather than the pedestrian time-consuming stuff.”

Sorry, kids, but getting enough clients to fill the time they already have is most lawyers’ number one problem. They don’t need more free time. They need more clients to fill that free time. And they don’t need to spend money on you to give them something they already have too much of.  But then, you didn’t realize this, did you?

There’s an easy fix for this. Ask lawyers who would be the users of your brilliance what they think of it. But you don’t do this. You huddle in your own private circles and make up ideas about what lawyers want and need, and then believe your own bullshit.

Why not ask?  Because you don’t want to hear the answer. Your baby is ugly.

Ironically, some babies don’t have to be quite so ugly, but de-uglifying them requires that their mommies and daddies do something they’re highly disinclined to do: listen to negativity, criticism.

You’ve decided, in your tiny self-serving echo chamber of pals from the Y Combinator, that you’re on to something huge, and go with it.  Maybe there’s some guy there, a lawyer who loves tech as much as you do, even if she knows nothing about your target audience and doesn’t actually practice law, and she says, “wow, that’s a really cool idea. I think it could work!!!” And you’re off to the races.

Then, to add to your delightfulness, some VC guy listens to your pitch, throws some money your way, that locks in the certainty that you are gonna be RICH!!!  There’s nothing like stupid money to make you feel brilliant.

And then . . . nothing. You put it out there, attach all the bells and whistles you can get your hands on, massage all the players willing to give you a hug, and nothing. No interest. No traction. No nothing.  Like you don’t even exist.

What gives?  Your lean-in group tells you it’s those frigging lawyers. They are just “slow to adopt.” They’re dinosaurs. They just do things the way they always have. If only they would realize how ginchy your idea is.  Excuses never sold anybody anything. Bullshit excuses especially.

Are there viable legal tech start-ups that will survive, maybe even thrive? You bet. If a technology provides a tool that meets the needs of lawyers, comes in at a cost effective price and enables lawyers to do what they need and want to do better, they will buy it.  Remember what Keith said:

It’s not that lawyers are anti-technology, it’s that they are anti-bullshit.

For the vast majority of you, that’s going to be the kiss of death. Stop whining about it and do better.


28 thoughts on “Legal Tech: Winners Don’t Whine

  1. Weebs

    Having spent several years selling for LexisNexis, I can confirm attorneys are not tech-averse. In fact, they would enthusiastically adopt new solutions if you could show them how the tech could help them do their jobs better. It wasn’t about saving time or money for them at all. Our subscriptions weren’t cheap (far from it) but the conversation had to be focused on the practice of law, not the business of running a law firm. There’s a small but important differentiation there.

  2. tim

    It’s not that lawyers are anti-technology, it’s that they are anti-bullshit.

    I hate to burst your bubble but lawyers aren’t special little snowflakes with a unique view on the use of technology. Doesn’t matter if its Insurance, manufacturing, entertainment, etc. – we all want technology to provide value.

    However ….

    I work with lawyers all the time (mostly corporate) and as a group I find many (if not most) purposely technology illiterate. A classic example from a couple years ago is that I was working with our in-house legal team on an agreement to allow iPhones and Android devices to certain applications. The lead guy kept referring to iPhones and Android devices as “PDAs” and basic concepts alluded him. It took longer to craft the agreement then it did to implement the technology and processes. This is not a unique story. I experience this all the time. Even from lawyers at technology companies (don’t get me started on media entertainment lawyers).

    I also know many lawyers with IT backgrounds who have had trouble getting hired since other lawyers assume he or she is just the IT person. And I have witnessed that the IT staffs that make up many firms are made up of people who have also studied to become lawyers (and may be in fact – practicing lawyers). Which also makes the legal profession unique. No other industry do you see this.

    The reason I keep track of your blog is to better understand the thought process that lawyers go through so I can more efficiently work with various legal staffs. Because they -are- unique.

    1. SHG Post author

      This is a fascinatingly clueless comment. Lawyers aren’t IT guys, nor should they be. We’re not trying to out-code the coders. We’re lawyers, and this completely eludes you. Tech only matters to the extent it helps us to serve our client. We don’t give a shit if it’s cool or shiny, or whether we call it by the right name. Your inability to distinguish the material from the irrelevant is a good example of why tech fails.

    2. Grum

      I’m sure they all happily use the technology which is actually useful – word processing and email come to mind. Otherwise it’s hard to see any great advantage from computerised stuff in a profession where pretty much everything must be bespoke on a case by case basis.
      See, that’s the thing with computer tech that seems to have been forgotten. It can scale some things to a massive degree; fantastic if you go from 40 orders for widgets to 30 million, it will do that just fine. It won’t scale things which require sitting on your arse and thinking hard about a particular situation. If it did, I’m sure that it might get more traction in this particular argument. I’d be disinclined to call the OP a rant, more a case of calling it like it is.

    3. Rick Horowitz

      My apologies if I’m just repeating what you said, Scott.

      But I might qualify as a lawyer who knows a little something about technology, and one who has had a love-hate relationship with it since before I was an attorney – back even before I wrote a tiny piece of MRTG that was distributed worldwide and used by many in the nascent commercial Internet Service Provider industry.

      Later, when I was the Director of Information Systems for the third-largest North American yellow pages publisher, with a yearly budget of $2 million, and staff of nine, one lesson I had to re-teach every time I hired some young coding genius was this: business people (that includes a lot of lawyers) use tech for business purposes. If what we are shown meets our purposes, we’ll use it; if not, we don’t even waste time sneering at it. (It’s also why I don’t do a lot of upgrading, unless the upgrade solves a problem. I don’t buy a new car every year – or even every ten – without a reason, so why upgrade my computer programs every time someone tells me they added a new subroutine offering a feature I don’t need?)

      Not all lawyers have time, or desire, to learn the patois of programmers. That doesn’t make them “purposely technically illiterate.” It quite likely means there are other things to do than worry about the tech, which should just work, and too often does anything but. (And for which even I now sometimes pay techs to handle.)

      And, btw, reading one lawyer’s blog to understand the thought processes of lawyers so you can “various legal staffs”? (Especially Scott’s! *wink*) I think I see what your real problem is. I bet you’re a blast when it comes to programming superclasses by looking at just a few of the features of a single object. And g*d-forbid we put you on a multi-level inheritance problem.

  3. Christopher Best

    See, this is why I make my living by selling Lawyers (and Doctors, and Salesmen, etc.) shiny, whiz-bang magic boxes to go into their private airplanes. As long as it looks cool, doesn’t piss them off, and is more convenient than paper charts and magnetic compasses it practically sells itself.

    Good tech “scraches an itch”. It’s made to solve a problem someone is actually having–and actually solves it–in a way that is better than doing it the old fashioned way. This is one of the most fundamental ideas behind software development, shame none of these startups ever bothered to learn it…

  4. Jesse

    I have to say I don’t get the complaint here. If you are requiring every new tech idea to be successful to be worthy of anyone’s time, we’re going to see technological progress come to an immediate and screeching halt. 99.5% of ideas suck, but you’re not going to get the .05% without them.

    1. Jesse

      Whoops I meant .5%. Although since the first calculator likely sucked, I would otherwise still have this wrong if the developers of the calculators cared about what people thought.

      1. Grum

        Oh dear. It won’t come screeching to a halt, although the calculator joke was a cute (if worrying) recovery. The stuff that sucks is easily ignored; you can make money on things that only suck 60% though. BTW, the first calculators were things of beauty – look up “Comptometer”.

        1. SHG Post author

          Very little (as in almost nothing) is really “cutting edge” in legal tech. It’s all basically putting a BIC pen and a yellow pad in an app. We’re not talking “disruptive” here.

          1. Grum

            It’s a shame really. The only advantage from such things is for those of us who don’t carry a briefcase around, but do carry a phone (of sorts). Back in the 60’s IBM created the first word-indexable database (STAIRS) to keep track of, and search, the legal documents pertaining to their big anti-trust suits, but really, it was just a massively talented librarian who didn’t understand context. You still needed a lawyer for that. Your yellow pad app would have given me a sad if I wasn’t such a cynical old bugger. Maybe you can get a deluxe version with a Montblanc. Would that help? No, better scratch that idea before some idiot tries to regale you with the advantages of being an early adopter (as someone who has been identified as a key influencer… blah, blah).

            1. SHG Post author

              Did you say Montblanc? When I give presentations about legal tech issues, I compare my yPad with their iPad to make the point of what can be done at essentially no cost and no risk of glitch or failure. Sure, it’s not at all shiny, but works spectacularly well.

              Most of the software made for law today automates what we did before. Some is useful, in handling vast quantity of data (which didn’t exist, mind you, before computers), though it does so in a binary fashion, which means that we will always miss something because people don’t think, act, write or speak in binary fashion.

              But what gets me is that these lawtrenpreneurs (horrible word, right?) can’t understand why their legal pad, which is 1000 times more costly, less reliable, less utilitarian, isn’t loved. They’re shocked. Me too.

            2. Grum

              Nice story! You have my sympathies as a lefty; when I occasionally take pen to paper, a Parker Duofold rocks but is completely useless if you write thataway. That was badly off-topic…

  5. bobo

    Yes, Lexis/Nexis was useful when it first came out, very much so. It saved sending an associate, or going yourself, to the law library to look up cases…in books. That was huge. Nowadays, most bar associations offer legal research for no additional charge, beyond the mandatory dues.
    Since then, not much has happened besides hype and advertising. As you say, its still pen and yellow legal paper …and hard work.

    1. SHG Post author

      I had my own law libe back then, and spent a fortune on books. When it went to CD and then online, it really didn’t make a damn bit of difference to me. I preferred having a dozen books opened, going back and forth between them. I’ve never felt computer research was as good or as thorough.

      1. bobo

        Very true. I had all the State court cases in books, plus some treatises, but if I wanted federal or other States, it was off to the law library I went. Don’t miss that much (although I do miss meeting people there), but I still enjoy having several books open with the fingers going back and forth.

  6. CJD

    Timely post….I work in IT Security and found my way to this blog from MB’s (as I live in houston and enjoy law and reading MB). I have been tinkering with the idea of trying to develop something tech related for either lawyers or doctors, as they both are the traditional “slow adopters.” What I have found is that one of the biggest issues is that for both fields, there is rarely a “one size fits all” solution to problems. For doctors looking to go to digital charts, it is extremely hard to develop a solution that is comprehensive enough to meet the needs / requirements for every type of patient they see (even for a single specialty) but also still be simple enough that it is at least as fast as a pen and paper. To develop that solution, you really need to tailor it to the practice that will use it, which means you aren’t going to make a lot of money due to the labor involved.

    On the law side I don’t think you are going to find a process improvement that saves time in a meaningful way, and as you mentioned, saving time is not a net plus for most. I think law tech needs to meet an existing need with the same (or less) effort required now to meet that need, AND has a significant value add. IMO, law tech should be aiming at the communication space for secured [email] communications for attorney client and attorney attorney. A truly secured email platform so that sensitive issues can be discussed via email, when desired. As an add on to that, secure file sharing between client and attorney so that documents can be securely transmitted. On the criminal side, there probably isn’t a ton of value for either of those, however, on say the family law side I think it could be a great help, as well as in other areas where there is a lot of regular communications and documents shared between client and attorney.

    Funny enough, the biggest reason I have not jumped on any of my ideas is pointed out in your post – A) I don’t have the contacts in either industry to work with someone [that is willing to endure the development phase] to design the product, which leads to B) both lawyers and doctors are NOT going to adopt a new technology that doesn’t work right the first time and every time and without A), you’re not going to be able to develop that technology.

      1. CJD

        Coming from the guy that clogs my RSS feed every morning with 10 new posts a day! 😉

        Only quicker to write me too if you are motivated to get to the “real work” at your dead end job, which this morning, I am not.

  7. Dragoness Eclectic

    I’m having flashbacks to the 1990s Dot.Com bubble–do these guys just not get Business 101? You have to figure out who your customer is and what need they have that you can satisfy. Having a thing and then insisting that it must satisfy someone’s need, somewhere, so it’s their fault if they’re not buying it seems just a bit backwards. It may work for Apple some of the time, but most businesses aren’t them.

    1. SHG Post author

      But that’s exactly the problem. It’s not Biz 101. It’s tech 101. Create what you think is cool, then complain that no one wants it so they must be clueless because they don’t appreciate its coolness.

      The worst part is that when you explain to them (believe it or not, some ask me to consult about their product) why it fails, they only want to argue with you about it and tell you why lawyers are wrong and they’re great. So I shrug. I can only explain it to them; I can’t understand it for them.

      1. Dragoness Eclectic

        As a cranky old software engineer, I’m going to nitpick and disagree: that’s Marketing 101 guys. Actual software developers go “What do you want it to do? A, B & C? Fine, I can write a program that does A, B & C.”

        Then you do, deliver it or just demo it, and find out that the customer really wanted it to do D with a side-helping of E, AND the marketing guy has been selling it as perfect for Z all along.

        1. SHG Post author

          Wrong scenario. That might work when devs work for a customer, but when they’re the source of the idea, and they’re not working for someone else but hoping to sell it to someone, it’s a different paradigm.

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