The Challenge of Law Firm Innovation

The Challenge of Law Firm Innovation

By Alistair Wye, Head of RAVN Presales at iManage

The Opportunity

Alistair Wye, iManage

Decision makers and visionaries in senior management at law firms are great to generate interest and openness to new technologies. The best example I’ve seen in this regard recently has been A&O Fuse (of which iManage was a member).

The Fuse team have worked incredibly hard to build interest, which is now
converting into many interesting use cases spanning the different products being developed by the various cohort members.

But, in general it is a bigger challenge to convert buzz into firmwide adoption, especially if the product requires input from the business users both to understand, use and, in the case of a machine learning extraction tool like iManage Extract, to train when there is no suitable ready-made extractor.

This is a pain point firms and their vendors share, solvable by each for different reasons.

The Firm Challenge

Converting buzz into adoption sometimes rubs up against these issues:

1. Billable Hours: every new product has a learning curve, and sparing lawyer time for non-billable activity to experiment and understand new technology is a challenge regardless of seniority or the billing model. Testing new tech isn’t typically billable; that matters when you’re worth as a lawyer is in part tied to your billable hours target.

2. Timeframes: huge time pressures, unpredictable workloads and demanding clients that expect high responsiveness further reduces opportunities to sandbox new technologies, which are inherently risky, less known and hard to plan.

3. Risk Avoidance: lawyers manage risk. Coupled with billable hours and time pressures, it’s hard to justify new technology without ringfenced and adequate time to understand the product but also to test, experiment and become confident in their use.

4. Hypothesising vs. Experimentation: lawyers don’t have the luxury of unbridled experimentation when providing advice or drafting contracts. They must consider a layer cake of legal and commercial “what ifs” before committing to a course of action. Whilst good lawyering, it’s easy to miss that with technology it’s possible, and often easiest, to try rather than hypothesise. Provided the experiment is boxed in (i.e. not tested first time on the most complex live matter), experiments can quickly confirm if a technology is a fit for the firm. In turn this prevents wasted conversations debating tech that simple testing proves to be insufficient or irrelevant.

5. Productisation: because of (1) to (3) above, it can be challenging to find the time to critically assess which parts of a legal process can be productised and, if so, how. This can make it harder to identify which new technologies fit where in a legal process.

What can firms do?

Two things. Ringfence time and resources, and critically assess what can be productised through tech, or indeed better organisation of people and processes. Creating “legaltech SWAT teams” is one way to formalise this idea.

Like the Avengers movies, these teams bring together a variety of special abilities and experience, comprising partners, associates, paralegals, technologists, project managers and sometimes former consultants. These teams identify, understand, experiment and implement new tech usually in small “proof of concepts” and, if successful, across the wider firm. The focus is typically on either:

(a) enhancing existing business, e.g. reducing costs and improving profitability / competitiveness; and / or

(b) enabling new business, e.g. using technology to turn previously unprofitable and unattractive work into fee earning greenfields, upsold or cross sold to clients.

At large firms, the team might be dedicated full-time to such activities. At smaller firms it’s hub and spoke – a small unit of full-time resources, supported across departments by individuals in other teams who spend a proportion of time identifying and testing new technologies.

Some take it further, recruiting and, in some cases creating training programmes for, “legal engineers”: a growing crop of individuals like myself who have a City legal experience, practical knowledge of coding / tech and able to translate between the two. In doing so, they help identify use cases, build consensus and drive innovation. Likewise vendors are also trying to recruit these individuals to internalise these capabilities.

These teams can serve a second purpose: experimentation with future firm structure. Reports by leading consultancy firms suggest future firms may evolve into a diamond structure: few partners, few junior associates with a thick middle of senior associates – the juniors replaced by technology and lower skilled operators of such technologies. These legaltech SWAT teams often combine new ways of organising people, process and technology, thereby creating a multiverse of microcosms reflecting different future firms. That in turn could be used to forward plan that firm’s future.

To some extent, it’s also a function of firm personality: does the firm see itself as an “Innovator” (happy to experiment with unproven tech), an “Early Adopter” (happy to play with a minimum feature set, albeit with great potential), “Early Majority” (only interested once there’s a fully baked product) or “Late Majority” (only interested once the majority of their peers are using it). There’s no right answer: it’s a strategic personality fit.

Obviously this is only one suggestion and doesn’t fit every firm. That said, it’s one I see emerging at firms of different sizes and practice types.

What can vendors do?

Vendors are part of the problem and the solution. Taking the above challenges in turn:

Billable Hours and Timeframes: tech vendors can help themselves and their law firms by spending greater time understanding the legal domain, the problems lawyers face and why lawyers do things in a certain way. Done well, this helps all stakeholders from sales to development understand the importance of what follows below, and how to execute it well.

Risk Avoidance: making products simple to use and reliable isn’t easy, and if done well, often goes unnoticed by users. However, doing it well makes it seamless for users to trust and therefore adopt. For certain new technologies, particularly A.I., vendors also need to be transparent and educate to help users understand how a product works, when to use it and why it works well in some cases but less well in others.

This is challenging in terms of translating machine learning jargon into realistic practical advice for business users. Communicated successfully, it pays dividends – helping firms become self-sufficient at managing the expectations of their internal and external stakeholders, identifying the correct use cases and building successful rollouts.

Experimentation: vendors should come equipped to make experimentation affordable in time and resource. Making technology easily deployable on premises and in the cloud, and / or pre-loaded with content to readily explore functionality can achieve these aims. Doing so keeps scope manageable and measurable for each party, lowering the cost of initial experimentation, which is acutely important in the early stages of determining whether a technology is a go / no go for a firm.

Productisation: understanding what lawyers do and why, and how that maps to a vendor’s products, can help lawyers critically assess what they can productise. Consulting in this way can be a big value add for vendors, especially in a marketplace where the end-to-end solution might combine multiple products / solutions, not always from the same vendor.


Getting legaltech right for new technologies, and heightened expectations regarding existing products, requires reasonable levels of input from the lawyers. Vendors can help themselves and their clients by making it as easy as possible for lawyers to experiment safely and provide good feedback. Likewise firms, if they wish to be an innovator or early adopter, need to find ways to ringfence that time. Doing so may mean those firms shape the future market for such products, or indeed develop new ways of working that keep them competitive as the business of law continues to evolve.