A CEO of a legal tech company who I respect enormously has a saying, “you never see many Ferraris parked outside the offices of legal tech companies.” The assumption being that no one has really cracked it yet.
Another legal tech company I know is trapped in a common dilemma. “We want to be millionaires” but at the same time they don’t want to take too many risks. Partly because they don’t have much cash to play with, partly because they don’t really have a risk culture after years of false dawns in legal tech where the aforementioned cash was spent. It’s a misconception, in my experience, that legal start ups are huge risk takers.
Risks like Steve Jobs took when he aggressively rationalised the Apple product range back in the 90’s to focus on a strategic vision that we all now take for granted. (So ruthless was Jobs that apparently the iPhone engineers hid their early designs out of fear that he’d bin them. Imagine!)
Or the risks Yahoo didn’t take that allowed Google in. Google understood.
I was chatting to a well known FTSE-100 GC recently who confided in me, “Jon, I don’t really know what a contract management system is or why I’d need one.” To me that’s a red flag. That is not his fault. It’s our failure in the legal tech community that we have so disconnected from the end user that our audience invariably doesn’t even know what we are talking about. We just think they do. And as long as we keep thinking that then they will keep thinking “errrr?”
For the avoidance of doubt the end user for me is typically not the managing partner, the GC or IT guy. It’s Jack or Jane who have to turn the kit on day after day and derive value from it. The thing is Jack and Jane aren’t normally invited to the software selection party. They just have to clear up the mess for years afterwards.
Recently I’ve had the luxury of stepping back from most of my life being spent in IT of various kinds and predominantly legal. I still don’t see that many risks being taken. Not silly risks obviously, (I’ve seen a few of those, usually fanciful and badly planned are their themes) but ones that change things for the better, for the end user. Ironically those can be simple, affordable and very achievable i.e. not that risky. But then that would demystify the legal tech machine. A machine that relies heavily on the dark arts of bamboozlement. Legal IT likes to be unfathomable, there are many $’s to be had in hourly services charging. Being incomprehensible seems to work, but for how long?
But then it’s not just about the client. Let’s look closer to home. One of the most innovative designers of legal tech I know recently met up with me for a catch up coffee. As seems to be the current vogue he asked for my view on AI (which I am very pro towards simply because of its inevitability, but very anti because of how it is being messaged, but let’s expand on that another time). It was very apparent that even he, a very forward thinking person, had no real idea what AI is. He told me he was awash with white-papers and linkage about it but none of it made much sense. He felt he had to talk about it because everyone else was, yet no one seemed to understand what it really was. How does that work?
Should we be surprised by these anecdotes? It’s the same buzzwords, the same speakers, the same tired messages. Surely it can’t just be me who thinks that “this way isn’t working guys”?
‘Hit & Hope’ is not a sound business model. Good leadership and clarity of vision should overcome hit and hope.
I hear a lot of talk, maybe too much talk, but very little action. What we get is over complicate, incomprehensible use of jargon, glibness, marketing curtains, panning for the future because that distracts from dealing with the reality of the present. The future is easy to stage, the present, less so.
I remember once getting frustrated by the marketing of a company I was working with. The positioning and messaging was in my opinion not lined up. The response I got from the marketing manager was pretty much “well that’s how we’ve always done it…” based around some small sample roundtable chit chat they’d sautéed 3 years previously. Three years!
So we end up with the tiresome elitist ‘I-know-more-than-you’ ego game which slots into the legal mindset very well. We end up with the ridiculous conference model which vendors underwrite yet are given minimal access to the buyers beyond a me me me keynote or an awkward chat over a latte and croissant. I mean we wouldn’t want to be too y’know…salesy. Ironic because as humans we spend large parts of our day consuming aka buying.
So the Twitter bubble, the conference, the roundtable; think emperor, think new clothes.
It should be no surprise of course. Much of Legal IT has been formed by, you guessed it, lawyers.
Facebook et al started as a small clique but then, critically, they socialised then scaled. They built a user driven community of purpose through connectivity.
Legal tech has not done that and until it does don’t expect much of significance to change soon. Legal IT vendors are still obsessed with design and tinkering. Their’s is a very inward looking world. Socialising risks destabilisation because socialising always opens up truth to the world and no one really wants to show that in reality they are plate spinning. It’s not comfortable for vendors to explain why there are no Ferraris. And buyers don’t want to admit they bought the wrong expensive kit out of fear that they look stupid.
But socialising also presents opportunities.
For now, (but not forever) we end up with a ludicrous parallel world where users love the tech they use outside their work environment but dislike the ones they use 9 to 5.
Which vendor wants the future when the present status quo is so much easier for them?
There is a solution; socialise, engage and scale. We need to let go of the technology comfort blanket and start to engage through authenticity, honesty, purpose and kindness. Because then and only then will trust form and only through trust can you build things that sustain.
That makes a great technology launchpad from which we can build a sustainable future for lawyers, for vendors and for society.