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You Can’t Make Lawyers into Techies: 3 Lessons About Legal Project Management

Posted in Law firm practices, Legal Project Management, Legal Project Management tools

As a result of a conversation I had this week with David Rueff, a partner at Baker Donelson and an ardent advocate of Legal Project Management (LPM), right now I am particularly mindful of the adage, “never try to teach a rhino to dance. The results are generally unsatisfactory and it annoys the rhino.” Mind you, I am not calling lawyers rhinos. However, I do want to emphasize the futility of trying to coerce lawyers into doing things they are not suited or inclined to do by using the phrase, “but it will make your life better.”

LPM Likes Technology

The focus of my philosophizing is technology, specifically the development of software, templates and tools to support the scoping, planning, budgeting and managing of tasks that are instrumental to effective Legal Project Management. LPM is maturing rapidly, and its rush into adolescence is attended by legions of internal IT experts and outside consultants who want to provide lawyers with elegant technological “solutions” that will support their struggle toward more efficient, predictable and cost-effective management of legal work.

Chapter One: Give It To The IT Guys

The initial efforts of IT gurus to develop software-driven templates and dashboards often produced tools of astonishing elegance – and complexity.  At demos for firm partners, these wizards showed off all their tools’ technological bells, whistles, nuances and capabilities with effortless facility. The IT experts loved this stuff.


But when lawyers tried to: a) learn these technologies; and b) apply them to their daily work while also doing their daily work, their heads exploded. Thus did firms learn that development of LPM software and tools could not simply be delegated entirely to the IT jockeys.  The rhinos definitely were not dancing…and they certainly were annoyed, as reflected in their wholesale resistance to these new LPM support tools.

Okay, How About This?

Major law firms’ determination to develop better, more user-friendly LPM tools (accompanied by the expenditure of significant resources) rapidly led to development of far more user-friendly software tools, including self-populating dashboards that could manage and integrate information about project scope, phases and tasks, the makeup of the project team, budgets, progress milestone with firm time and billing systems.  Many of these much-improved tools were developed with the input of lawyers like David Rueff: legally proficient, technologically savvy, and intensely committed to making LPM work. Among the best of these second-generation efforts, in my opinion, was Baker Donelson’s BakerManage, an integrated tool that was logical, effective, down-to-earth and easy to understand and use. I thought it Best in Class in 2010-2011.

What? Me Training?

BakerManage and other second generation efforts still presented a learning curve to lawyers that necessitated some training and some practice, but the obvious utility of these tools was bound to lead to wholesale adoption with shouts of joy and open arms, right?

Wrong. When offered the manifold benefits of cutting-edge LPM technology, lawyers have complained much, resisted mightily, and generally left the tools to gather dust. A telling example: several global firms have offered their lawyers iPads, on which the firm’s proprietary LPM software is resident.  They can’t give ‘em away…oh, wait! They are giving ‘em away!  Adoption rate?  Less than 1%.

David Rueff tells me that his firm has gone back to the drawing board to further streamline BakerManage. It’s not just that the new iteration is simpler, graphically more accessible and easier to navigate. It’s logic – the way it depicts and handles information – has been fundamentally changed to “think the way lawyers think, and act the way lawyers act.”

3 Lessons to Make Technology Work

Certainly, lawyers are not Luddites, determined to resist progress and deny any change. It’s that they are lawyers, not IT types. So that’s Lesson One: You can’t make lawyers talk IT; IT has to learn to talk lawyer.

Lesson Two is that lawyers insist on immediate gratification. They will happily sacrifice technological sophistication (with its attendant steep learning curve) for instant utility.

Lesson Three is the need for patience when introducing any sweeping change that seriously impacts traditional behaviors.  Lawyers don’t welcome transformative changes, but they will accept sequential phase shifts (if only because their competitors do).  Dechert’s Ben Barnett put it succinctly in an earlier At The Intersection post: “You should not try to build a perfect system off the bat. Don’t bite off more than the firm – and its lawyers – can chew.  Build something that works now, recognizing that you will probably be changing and redesigning almost everything as your LPM function matures.”


© 2012, Edge International US, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without advance written approval.

  • Larry Bridgesmith

    Pam, excellent observations and as they would say at Eversheds, “Spot on!” We know David well and your characterization of the dedication he has brought to LPM initiatives deserves an award for innovation, tenacity, character and competence. Probably no Nobel Prize for that category, but if there were, David Rueff and Baker Donelson should get it. The utility of any software “solution” must work in concert with the subject matter expert and the manner in which she performs her work. For technology to be helpful, it must be as non-disruptive as possible and provide far more payback than investment. If technology tools for LPM are measured by these standards, user adoption will increase and the substance of project management will be enhanced. An “Agile” approach to LPM is as you (and Ben Darnett) suggest it to be: “Build something that works now, recognizing that you will probably be changing and redesigning almost everything as your LPM matures.” A core learning from the SixSigma process improvement movement is “fail often, fail fast and fail small.”

    • Pam Woldow

      Larry: Thanks for your comment. It has been a true pleasure and honor to work with the Baker Donelson folks on LPM. David and all the others have a solid approach to making LPM the way they “do business.” It is not a once and done program for them; instead, they are in it for the long haul and view LPM as an important tool for aligning what they do with what clients need. If that requires adjustments and improvements, then that’s what they will do. It’s great to see a firm that “gets it.”

  • I just discovered your blog through twitter and think this is a great post (I’ll have to remember that line about rhinos). I work in legal tech in the realm of litigation graphics and visual presentations, and I got into this field because during many years as a litigator in a small firm, if often fell upon me to tech troubleshoot and to develop graphic presentations for my case. While your points and three lessons at the end are well put and I generally agree with them, I also think it behooves attorneys to broaden and sharpen their tech know-how, especially in this competitive market, and especially if you’re a young attorney starting out and/or a solo trying to build a practice. If you’re interested, here’s my post that goes into it: “Legal Media and Tech Skills for Attorneys: Advice to Help You Get Hired and Improve Your Practice”
    Glad to discover your blog.
    – Morgan Smith, Cogent Legal

    • Pam Woldow

      Thanks for the information about your blog, Morgan, and the link to your very interesting post. As I work in firms and legal departments, I see the great divide between the lawyers who have grown up in the tech age and those who did not. As the tech-savvy lawyer ranks increase, technology tools will become perforce more integrated into the legal practice.

  • Giuliano Chicco

    Not much has changed in the thirty or so years that IT has been making glacial inroads in the practice of law. I once worked for a firm that would not let lawyers have computers since “lawyers don’t type.” That didn’t last very long. Lawyers will adopt any tool that makes their life easier (or appears too). The reason that most lawyers of a certain age remember Wordperfect 3.0 for DOS so fondly isn’t that it was so elegant and full featured (which it was) but that you would click on the icon, get a blank screen and start typing. Simple, no setup, no window with layers of options lawyers seldom use, etc.

    I have long had a rule the if you couldn’t tell what your next move was from the screen, a lawyer wouldn’t use it. Lawyers have little patience for training, and less for using software that doesn’t provide an immediate benefit to them. Virtually any software that is imposed from the top down, to make the firm more efficient, or whatever, will be ignored.

    Now the landscape is changing as more people who have grown up with technology are entering the legal profession. These are the people who will drive technological change. I recall an incident a number of years ago about a class of summer associate who at the end of their summer, dispite the parties and wining and dining, panned their experience as the firm because of their dated network and system. The firm immediately upgraded all their systems.
    The most successful systems for lawyers are those that make their lives easier, are easy to use (i.e., no or limited training) and provide tangible benefit.

    IT designers are interested in features, wizz-bang and functionality, more is better. Lawyers are interested in ease and results.

    • Pam Woldow

      Agreed! One partner recently told me, “If it requires more than two clicks, I won’t use it.” So, the interface better be simple and provide only what lawyers need and not one bit more. Toss the whizz-bang and focus on essentials.

      Thanks for your comment and observations, Giulano.

  • Pam Woldow

    Change is a fascinating subject, and resistance is certainly a much larger force, as you point out. Your comment reminded me of one of my favorite books (an oldie but still the best on the subject): “Why Change Doesn’t Work” by Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley.

    Regarding change in law firms, I generally see it when clients demand or require it, and, occasionally, when the competition is getting a leg up with something new. Short of that, not much happens.

    It will be fascinating to see if and how technology will get folded in to professionals’ work lives. Thanks for your comment, Carolyn.

  • Chris Jarrett-kerr

    Lawyers are good at the law, IT gurus are good at providing great innovative technological solutions and the two roles are very different. In the military you don’t ask gunners to build a bridge, you ask the sappers! The gunners will however use the bridge to cross the gap. So the problem is making sure that the sappers build the right sort of bridge in the right place at the right time. Enter the commander, leader, project manager, co-ordinator, or dare I say it, perhaps a consultant who can pull the expertise of the various specialists together to achieve the goal?

    • You make a powerful point: people whose roles are defined by unique areas of expertise contribute the most when they are operating out of their personal comfort zones. The challenge, however, in getting people versed in different technical disciplines to collaborate is deciding whose language will be used in the interaction. Our experience is that, right or wrong, lawyers often tune out and check out if their collaborators don’t or won’t speak their language.

      My point was not to suggest that lawyers should start writing code or morphing into professional project managers. That is the province of specialists. Nevertheless, lawyers must add better management capabilities to their personal toolboxes, and that would include getting comfortable with using technical tools for managing legal matters. Those working with them should understand how persistently lawyers operate from their own frame of reference.

      Thanks very much for your insights, Chris.