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The Human Barrier to LPM Technology: Will Lawyers Get to the Future?

Posted in Legal Project Management, Legal Project Management tools

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We have just returned from the World Masters of Law Firm Management Conference in Sydney, Australia, where we had the opportunity to compare notes with a lot of folks deeply invested — literally and figuratively – in the future of legal technology. By and large, we agree that when it comes to Legal Project Management (LPM), the platforms, tools, templates and technology are evolving at the speed of…frustration.

Law firm and law department IT heads and CTOs (Chief Technology Officers) are pained to admit this, but somewhere out back behind every one of their workshops is a pile of magnificent junk – prototypes of self-populating dashboards, first generation automated Gantt charts, comprehensive budget and pricing tools, automated process flow chart generators and even entire LPM suites that are elegant, efficient, elaborate, and exhaustive. Yet they have either been consigned to oblivion or doomed to chronic non-use.

Golly, That Sounds Swell!

Some of these “failures” are awe-inspiring in their capability and complexity: they see all, do all, tell all. When demonstrated to a receptive executive committee by an IT-savvy stunt pilot, they can awe the audience with their acrobatics, sophistication, versatility, comprehensive metrics, and ability to support efficient legal services. The sales pitches are compelling: once implemented throughout the firm, these tools can reshape – even revolutionize — the way lawyers, at all levels and in all disciplines, practice law day to day. These systems will pay for themselves in increased productivity and efficiency in no time!

Only frequently they won’t. Because the people who are supposed to use them…won’t. The record is clear and discouraging: many of the lawyers who need to use these tools – adopt them, learn them, and master them…simply won’t. They may attend the mandated training sessions, tolerate the installation of the new software on their computers and smart phones, even pay lip service to the need for better tools for logging their hours, prioritizing their tasks, managing their work, and sharing crucial information with colleagues. But then they avoid using these super-tools as if touching their firms’ new technologies exposes them to the Ebola virus.

Where Did We Go Wrong?

This resistance occurs not because the current generation of tools and software is too simple, accomplishes too little, or doesn’t work. On the contrary, many failed law firm technology launches (and yes, there have been a bunch of expensive disappointments) stem from the fact that the technology is too much. Like the deeply-troubled F-35 fighter prototype that is supposed to do everything (win dogfights, drop bombs, shoot recon photos, take off vertically, serve military branches that have distinctly different needs), much current legal technology is disdained by lawyers because it has too many bells and whistles, takes too long to learn and is seen as too hard to use. Their gripes focus on utility and usability.

Experts Rejecting Experts?

In one sense, this gulf between the firm’s lawyers and its IT people is ironic: in some ways lawyers and IT experts are similar animals, and one might expect more mutual respect from people whose roles are predicated on mastery of various types of subject-matter expertise and who all supposedly are concerned with optimizing the performance of the firm.

Actually, there may be a strain of the “not-invented-here” syndrome at play here. Many lawyers tell us that efforts to superimpose – indeed, to press-fit — work process software upon their professional wisdom and legal judgment is kind of insulting. “Those people don’t really understand what we do,” they say. “They want to digitize and commoditize and quantify everything.”

This tension between technologists and end-users might seem a little like a Dilbert cartoon if the stakes were not so high. The evolution of LPM and process improvement tools has developed due to the inexorable client-driven economic pressures. Management and IT committees that buy into expensive software “solutions” have valid and substantial concerns about what efficiency-enhancing measures are necessary to keep their firms competitive.

What Will It Take?

What will it take to get the firm’s practicing attorneys to get on board, adopt new technologies, and ultimately build them into their fabric of their legal work? The most common answer we hear is “greater user-friendliness.” But what does that really mean? What will that look like in real life? A flatter learning curve before one becomes proficient? Faster modes of either entering or extracting information? Technology that “speaks legal” rather than cascading menu IT-speak?

Several years ago we saw a demo of a first-generation self-populating dashboard that integrated information about the full spectrum of LPM variables: who the client was, what the matter was, what work had been scoped, the members of the project team (and their billing rates), prioritized phases and tasks, budget plans and budget-to-actual metrics, overall progress against plan. We thought it looked wonderful. Six months later we saw the dashboard’s architect, and he said that when beta-tested, the dashboard had been criticized as too complicated and too time-consuming to use. His second, far more simplified iteration also was vetoed by a panel of the firm’s practicing lawyers. As was the third another six months later.

Finally, he sought out the most sympathetic member of the technology review committee and asked, “what is it going to take to get these people to use this tool?” The man paused. “I could say that what’s needed is a simple point-and-click interface, but even that’s probably too much tech-speak. What our lawyers tell me is that the whole thing has to be really simple and really intuitive to use. One keystroke, maximum two. Anything more than that, and you’ve lost them.”


© 2015, Pam Woldow and Doug Richardson. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.