The purpose of Post 004 is to introduce readers to the Rogers Diffusion Curve. The Rogers Diffusion Curve was created by the eminent sociologist Everett Rogers. It was first published in his book Diffusions of Innovations, one of the most widely cited works in all of the social sciences.
Post 004 is part of Legal Evolution’s foundational series on diffusion theory. Readers seeking to influence innovation within the legal industry will be more successful if they obtain and apply this background knowledge. Care has been taken to make this information non-technical and accessible.
The Core Insight of the Rogers Diffusion Curve
Rogers’ core insight – one that is absolutely foundational for Legal Evolution readers – is that the diffusion of innovation is a process that occurs through a social system. As shown in the figure above, the social system has five “adopter” segments that fit a normal distribution. The segments move from left to right over time in order of adoption: (1) innovators, (2) early adopters, (3) early majority, (4) late majority, and (5) laggards.
The groups move in this progression because each group has attributes that make it more (or less) open to change. Obviously, innovators are the most open, and laggards are the least. With the exception of the innovators, each group adopts an innovation by observing experiences of the adjacent reference group. As favorable observations and testimonials accumulate, adoption spreads through the entire social system.
Innovators and Early Adopters
Within a social system, the relationship between innovators and early adopters is different than any other adjacent pairing. This is because innovators tend to be substantially outside the mainstream. They are drawn to ideas based on intellectual curiosity and passion for what is possible. As such, they have the patience and stamina for extensive trial and error and experimentation (think Thomas Edison).
Innovators are a good match with early adopters because the latter have intellectual curiosity and patience. Yet unlike innovators, early adopters tend to have significant influence within in the social system. Their motive is not necessarily to touch off the widespread adoption of an innovation. Rather, they want a competitive advantage over their peers or, alternatively, to maintain leadership status. In a word, early adopters tend to be ambitious.
The special relationship between innovators and early adopters is reflected in the Legal Evolution logo. These two groups make up the light blue portion of the bell curve. This is a population more than one standard deviation from the mean in terms of willingness to adopt a new idea or innovation. When this group (roughly 1/6) meets with relative success, the rest of the social system eventually follows. (By the way, by virtue of finding and reading this post, there is a very high probability that you are either an innovator, an early adopter, or a very curious member of the early majority.)
Does the Rogers Diffusion Curve Apply to Lawyers?
Legal Evolution is directed at a specific social system: those entering or working within the legal industry. This raises a threshold question likely of interest to readers: Does the Rogers’ Diffusion Curve apply to lawyers and the broader legal industry?
I am confident that the answer is yes. Further, I believe that knowledge of diffusion theory has enormous practical value to anyone who is seeking to understand and adapt to the sea change that is now occurring in the legal services market. Indeed, that is why, at least for the next year, I will dedicate the majority of my professional focus to Legal Evolution. See Post (001) (explaining structure and intent of Legal Evolution).
Note that if diffusion theory applies to lawyers, we are confronted with a difficult takeaway: For roughly 5/6th of the legal market, the adoption of new innovations is more a social process of imitation than a mental process of analytical reasoning. This means that the vast majority of lawyers (or law students or law professors) won’t change until they see others successfully change first. Adoption decisions are more than a rational, explicitly stated risk calculations; they are also strongly influenced by the often unstated desire desire to fit in or, alternatively, the fear of being left behind.
Part of my confidence in the Rogers’ theory of diffusion is the breadth, quality, and volume of Rogers’ supporting data. Rogers published the first edition of this book in 1962 and spend much of the next four decades updating subsequent editions with ever richer examples drawn from a diverse array of geographies, time periods, cultures, and fields of study (e.g., public health, technology, education, military, marketing, politics, etc.). Yet, the purpose of Legal Evolution is not to summarize Rogers’ seminal book, as it needs to be read by anyone needing a how-to manual for driving organizational or industry change. In fact, I’ll mail a copy of Diffusion of Innovations (5th ed. 2003) to the first ten readers who express an interest. Just email me your street address.
Although Diffusion of Innovations is very thorough and persuasive, my confidence in diffusion theory is also borne of personal experience. For six years, I was part of a team that built and sold data analytics products and services to lawyers. This was my time at Lawyer Metrics (now owned by AccessLex Institute). As I grappled with the lengthy sales cycle, I often compared notes with fellow legal start-up travelers. In most cases, our experiences were eerily similar; and to the extent they were different, the differences could be explained through diffusion theory. Yet, most significantly, the application of diffusion theory provided powerful guidance on where and how to allocate our limited bandwidth.
Over the coming months, I hope readers come to appreciate the power of diffusion theory and its application to law. Those who fully grasp these lessons can do both good and well.
Related: What is Legal Evolution? (001)
What’s next? See Six Types of Law Firm Clients (005)