The chart above, drawn from Everett Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations Fig. 7-1 (5th ed. 2003), shows the adoption of hybrid seed corn by farmers in two Iowa communities. The dashed line on the bottom shows the number of adoptions by year.  The solid line on top shows adoption on a cumulative basis.  The first farmer in the sample adopted hybrid seed corn in 1927. 15 years later, in 1941, the last four farmers made the switch.

The dashed line is a real-world example of a Rogers Diffusion Curve. See Post 004 (discussing curve); Post 007 (discussing adopter types).  Likewise, the solid line is a real-world example of the S-shaped curve. The farmers switched to hybrid seed corn because it was more bountiful, disease resistant, and drought resistant than traditional methods. The chart above is useful because it shows the common diffusion pattern of (1) a prolonged period of slow adoption, even for a highly advantageous innovation; and (2) a short period of rapid adoption. Cf. Post 016 (showing histogram with long innovator tail).

In the case of the Iowa farmers, the prolonged period of slow adoption was not a random event. Few if any farmers would have adopted hybrid seed corn but for agronomists from Iowa universities. The agronomists were necessary to help the innovator and early adopter farmers understand and use this new technology.  When some of the more influential early adopter farmers met with success, they shared their experiences with other farmers.  As the benefits of the innovation were experienced by the early majority farmers, adoption spread like a social contagion through the two Iowa communities.

In this real-life example, the university agronomists were the change agents. And the influential early adopter farmers were the opinion leaders.  This post (020) explains the crucial role played by these two types of actors. It also emphasizes how these concepts apply to the current challenges facing the legal industry.

Post 020 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.


Before the farmers could adopt hybrid seed corn, they needed “awareness-knowledge”, which is knowledge that such a technology exists.  However, there can be a considerable lag between awareness-knowledge and actual adoption of a new innovation.  This dynamic is shown in the chart below, which is based on the same study of Iowa farmers. (This chart was first shown in Post 008 to help illustrate Rogers’ rate of adoption model).

For the typical farmer, roughly six years elapsed between hearing about hybrid seed corn and adopting it.  In addition to inexperience and uncertainty with hybrid seeds, the lag time was due to the sheer novelty of the innovation, which was rooted in laboratory science and at odds with longstanding views regarding how to grow the best corn. See Post 008 (discussing how complexity and cultural incompatibility can impede adoption of innovations).

Yet, in the early 20th century, agricultural production was a matter of national security, as World War I had driven home the importance of a secure and bountiful domestic food supply.  Farmers had also become a formidable legislative lobby. Thus by 1920, there were more than 3,000 agricultural extension workers funded by a mix of federal, state, and county agencies.

Remarkably, despite the benefit of a large and well-financed change establishment delivering an unalloyed benefit to farmers, the uptake was far from rapid.  The key sociological question was “why?” The parallel applied research question was “can the rate of adoption be accelerated?” The answer to the latter question was yes, thus creating foundational research that would eventually result in a general theory for how innovation diffuses.

Early versus Middle-Late Diffusion: The S-shaped Curve

Diffusion theory is part of an applied research tradition that seeks to enable change strategies that work in a controlled and predictable way.  The core insight is that the diffusion of an innovation is a process that occurs through a social system. See Post 004 (discussing Rogers Diffusion Curve). In most cases, the process begins with a need or problem and a desire by some members of the social system to find and implement a solution.

For the purposes of this post, we can divide the diffusion process into two stages: an early stage, characterized by a relatively long period of slow adoption (base of the S-shaped curve that starts with the long innovators tail); and a middle-late stage, characterized by rapid adoption over a relatively short period (the steep portion of the S-shaped curve followed by a plateau).

Between these two stages, the early stage is far more tenuous and fragile. This is because it requires a member of the social system to (1) obtain knowledge of an innovation, (2) evaluate its relative benefits and costs, (3) make an affirmative adoption decision, (4) successfully implement the innovation, and (5) confirm the existence of the desired results. In substance, this is a time-consuming and potentially expensive experiment that could fail.  Obviously, only a sub-segment of any population would be willing and/or able to bear this risk.

In the diagrams above, the early stage would roughly correspond to the 1924 to 1933 time period. Many farmers had heard about hybrid seed corn, but only a handful had adopted it. The early stage typically comes to an end when the social system’s opinion leaders become part of the adopter group and can vouch for the innovation’s effectiveness. Rogers writes, “[T]he [cumulative] diffusion curve is S-shaped because once opinion leaders adopt and begin telling others about an innovation, the number of adopters per unit of time takes off in an exponential curve” (p. 300).

The middle-late stage of diffusion begins with the rapid ascension of the S-shaped curve (1934 to 1941). In Diffusion of Innovations, Rogers discusses the concept of “critical mass”, which is the point at which enough adoption has occurred that further adoption becomes “self-sustaining.”

[T]he heart of the diffusion process is the modeling and imitation by potential adopters of their near peers’ experiences with the new idea. In deciding whether or not to adopt an innovation, individuals depend mainly on the communicated experience of others much like themselves … . The subjective evaluations of an innovation flow mainly through interpersonal networks. (p. 330).

On a micro-level, change is occurring because individuals are observing each other and responding to social proof. Each individual in the social system has a “threshold” of proof needed to spur change. Once the middle-late stage of diffusion is reached — i.e., the steep part of the S-shaped curve — the adoption process become less deliberative and more imitation of people in their close social network. Thus adoption moves like dominoes from early adopters to the early majority to the late majority to the laggards.  Although thresholds operate at an individual level and vary by adopter type, at a system level, their aggregate effect is to create a critical mass that leads to a tipping point.

In the case of culturally novel and complex innovations, critical mass is seldom reached without the participation of opinion leaders. Thus, it is important to understand their characteristics and attributes.

Opinion Leaders

Opinion leaders are rarely innovators and are not necessarily early adopters.  Their relative position among the five adopter types depends upon the norms of the social system.  Within the tradition-bound legal industry, the opinion leaders may be members of the early majority, refusing to adopt change without a very high standard of proof.

Roger defines opinion leadership as “the degree to which an individual is able to informally influence other individuals’ attitudes or overt behavior in a desired way with relative frequency.” Thus, among corporate law firms, Cravath Swaine & Moore is clearly an opinion leader. See, e.g., Cravath Raising Starting Salaries to $180,000, WSJ, 6/6/16 (reporting that “[c]hange is likely to spawn a wave of copycat moves”). Likewise, Harvard Law leads the way in legal education. See Harvard Law is now accepting the GRE. Could other schools follow?, Boston Globe, 3/21/17.  Yet, neither institution is widely viewed as an early adopter. In less conservative social systems, however, the overlap between opinion leaders and early adopters would be significantly larger.  Cf. Post 007 (discussing the influence and sway of early adopters).

A key feature of opinion leaders — and one that usually renders innovators unfit for the role — is their strong conformity to social system norms. Respect for norms is necessary to obtain the trust and allegiance of other adopter types.  Note that the value at play here may be less about innovation than power and influence, as opinion leaders can be disregarded or toppled. Rogers writes:

The interpersonal relationships between opinion leaders and followers hang in a delicate balance. If an opinion leader becomes too innovative, or adopts a new idea too quickly, followers may begin to doubt his or her judgment. One role of the opinion leader in the social system is to help reduce uncertainty about an innovation … . To fulfill this role, an opinion leader must demonstrate prudent judgment decisions about adopting new ideas. So the opinion leader must continually look over his or her shoulder and consider where the rest of the system is regarding new ideas. (p. 319)

On balance, however, opinion leaders tend to be distinguished by several attributes, at least as compared to other members of the social system. Opinion leaders tend to have:

  1. greater connections to the outside world (more “cosmopolite”)
  2. greater exposure to diverse media
  3. higher levels of social engagement
  4. higher socioeconomic status
  5. more innovative than followers
  6. greater exposure to change agents.

Regarding point #6, below is a bar chart showing the average number of change agent contacts per year for a group of farmers in Brazil. It is drawn from an agricultural diffusion study conducted by Rogers and other researchers.

The key takeaway from this chart is that change agents are sources of innovative ideas.  Rogers demonstrates the empirical connection between the Mark Granovetter’s Strength of Weak Ties theory and access to high-impact information.  In Granovetter’s well-known study of how people found employment, connections to far-flung cliques and social groups, albeit weak, were far more powerful than local networks of friends and family.  Thus, peripheral “weak” ties tend to be more informationally rich than the dense connections at the center of the social system.

Change agents and their ideas enter a social system through these weak ties.  Although change agents find the greatest receptivity with innovators, their success often hinges upon their ability to influence opinion leaders.

Change Agents

A change agent is defined as “an individual who influences clients’ innovation-decisions in a direction deemed desirable by the change agency” (p. 27). Their biggest impact is felt during the tenuous early stage of diffusion.

In the agricultural study, the change agents were government-funded university agronomists who were hired to help farmers adopt new technology. The goal was to boost agricultural production. However, in other contexts, change agents could be public health workers trying to reduce the spread of HIV; teachers introducing new curricula and materials to public schools as part of a broader “new math” movement; or salespeople selling enterprise software to large organizations. Indeed, this last example became the basis for the Silicon Valley classic, Crossing the Chasm (1991), which I’ll discuss in the next and final foundational post.

In cases of complex or novel innovations, change agents are necessary to fill gaps in technical knowledge and know-how.  These change agents typically have a significantly greater technical competence than members of the “client” social system.  Unfortunately, this superior know-how often creates communication and cultural gaps that are difficult to bridge.  This phenomenon is very much present in the legal industry circa 2017 as lawyers and legal educators struggle to learn new work methods grounded in data, process, and technology. The gap is undoubtedly the most visible with artificial intelligence.

The Tradeoff between Information Impact and Communication Ease

Communication and cultural gaps are most likely to occur when change agents are very dissimilar from members of the social system. A straightforward example would be lawyers needing to learn technical information from data scientists, software developers, and process engineers. This dissimilarity is referred to as “heterophily” (the technical term used in diffusion theory).  Although there is an enormous breadth of knowledge in these pairings, and thus the latent potential for high-impact knowledge transfer, communication tends to be slow, arduous, and uncomfortable. Thus, except among innovators and early adopters, persistence in heterophilous pairings is rare.

Conversely, when two individuals are very similar (homophily), such as two lawyers who attended the same law school and work in the same area of law, any communication gap is likely to be small or non-existent.  Unfortunately, that pairing is unlikely to transmit high-impact information, as their base of knowledge is too similar.  Cf. Scott Page, The Difference (2008) (economist demonstrating that diverse teams outperform homogenous teams on tasks requiring creativity and innovation). Thus, in a very real sense, law firms, legal departments, and law faculty cannot be leaders in innovation if their information gathering and strategizing is substantially limited to high-level meetings among lawyers. Remarkably, many will try.

The diagram below illustrates the conundrum.

On the far left side of the diagram, the transfer of high-impact information is impeded by significant communication and cultural gaps between change agents and members of the social system. Simply stated, they are too dissimilar to connect. On the far right side, communication is easy and fluid, but there is little or no novel information to share.  However, when an effective change agent works with innovators and early adopters and eventually receptive opinion leaders, a knowledge-rich exchange is possible (center left). After that, diffusion continues, with the early majority, late majority, and laggards adopting based on interactions within the social system (center right). See Post 007 (profiling the five adopter types).

Effective Change Agents

The theory of change agents may seem relatively simple.  However, when the desired change is complex and impinges on social and cultural norms, the change agent’s job is enormously difficult. Rogers observes:

As a bridge between two differing systems, the change agent is a marginal figure with one foot in each of two worlds.

In addition to facing this problem with social marginality, change agents also must deal with the problem of information overload, the state of an individual or a system in which excessive communication inputs cannot be processed and utilized, leading to breakdown. ….  By understanding the needs of the clients, the change agent can selectively transmit to them only information that is relevant. (p. 368-69).

My own interest in diffusion theory was borne of my six years at Lawyer Metrics. See Post 004.  As an applied research company, we created data analytics tools for legal service organizations.  Although the company had PhD social scientists who could build highly sophisticated quantitative models, our biggest challenge was finding ways to present data that lawyers could process, understand, and accept. On many occasions, we quipped that the statistical work was simple by comparison.

As I survey the legal landscape in 2017, I see the same challenges affecting many legaltech start-ups. Most early stage entrepreneurs emphasize the technical features of their product, because they know and love its full range of capabilities. Yet, this perspective places them at a high risk of failure.

Below is a model of change agent effectiveness based on Chapter 9 of Diffusion of Innovations. Suffice it to say, it fully aligns with my professional experience.

The original rate of adoption model in Post 008 listed five categories of variables that influence the rate of innovation adoption. The fifth category was “Efforts of Changes Agents.” The model above provides additional detail for that category. Cf Post 011 (discussing importance of the first category, “Perceived Attributes of Innovation,” to explain the difference between fast and slow innovations, even when the innovations at issue can save human life).

  1. Making contact with clients (+).  Frequent contact builds familiarity and creates opportunities to establish credibility and trust.
  2. Client orientation (+). Is the change agent trying to solve the clients’ problem or trying to advance their own agenda (e.g., make a sale)? If the change agent is listening, they can learn ways to modify and improve their innovation.
  3. Client empathy (+). A change agent is more effective when she or he can see the world through the eyes of the client.
  4. Homophily with clients (+). Can the change agent look and act like an insider? In the legal industry, change agents with law degrees generally have an easier time because of a common experience and background with most clients.
  5. Credibility in the clients’ eyes (+). Can the change agent fluidly answer tough questions? If the client must trust the change agents’ judgment, do the change agents possess the credentials and background to understand the underlying innovation?
  6. Working thru Opinion Leaders (+). Rogers observes, “The time and energy of the change agents are scarce resources” (p. 388). Engaging opinion leaders is the most efficient path to systemwide success.
  7. Improving technical competence of clients (+).  Clients dislike long-term dependency on change agents.  Thus, effective change agents often make education the cornerstone of their efforts, which builds trust and enables clients to make future adoption decisions on their own.

The Legal Productivity Problem

I started Legal Evolution because I believe the legal industry has a very serious problem of lagging legal productivity.  This problem is (a) causing ordinary citizens to forgo access to legal advice; (b) fraying relationships between corporate clients and outside counsel; and (c) causing a collapse in demand for law school graduates.  See Post 001. From a social welfare perspective, this is a very precarious situation.

Solving the legal productivity problem is going to require the uptake of new innovations. If you want to be an effective change agent, perhaps in the cause of your own innovation, you would benefit from learning the basic principles of diffusion theory and deploying them in an analytically rigorous way.

The final foundational post discusses Crossing the Chasm and Hype Cycle, which are topics highly relevant to law in the year 2017.

What’s next? See The Legal Services Innovation Index (021)

Trading ego for effectiveness, friendship, and purpose.

Joe Borstein and Paul Stroka asked me to get naked with them. I said yes. Then Bill asked me to write about it. So here we are.

Now that you’re hooked by the clickbait headline and the tease, we must, naturally, commence with an anecdotal aside before I explain why the platitudinous “our customers are our business” is especially true for LexFusion, why “everyone talks to us because everyone talks to us,” and what these say about the evolution of the  broader legal innovation ecosystem. Continue Reading Getting naked with colleagues and clients (267)

A slice is reserved for everyone who predicts the future of law.

Today is the debut of Anusia Gillespie’s monthly Q&A column on NewLaw Fundamentals.  See Post 243.  This post (241) is an explainer on why we are running Anusia’s series. One part of the explanation is practical.  A second part is deeply analytical and likely of more interest to regular Legal Evolution readers.  Both parts, however, are rooted in the value of humility. Continue Reading Humble pie diet (241)

Photo by Florian Klauer via Unsplash

The pandemic upended the workplace as we know it.  What does the future of work hold for the legal industry? 

Recently, I left a great job.  I did it without another job lined up, in the middle of a global pandemic and record levels of unemployment.  Many people have been kind enough to ask what’s next and a few have asked why I would do such a thing.  After some internal debate, I decided to explain both on Legal Evolution. Continue Reading Why and how I’m unbundling my career (224)

“It is no exaggeration to say that the Restatement of the common law is the most difficult as well as the most important public work ever undertaken without the aid of government by the legal profession in this or any other country.”  William Draper Lewis, “Present Status of the American Law Institute,” 11 NYU L Rev 337, 343 (1929).

This essay is about the importance and value of building shared “legal infrastructure,” which is a term coined by the eminent economist and law professor Gillian Hadfield in her book, Rules for a Flat World (2017). Continue Reading Legal infrastructure and the forgotten story of the Restatements (207)

Why I went on the IFLP journey.

If you’ve read Legal Evolution Posts 154 and 155, you know that the Institute for the Future of Law Practice (IFLP, “I-flip”) is at critical juncture.  On Friday, we launch our third year of boot camps (a special Coronavirus version for 48 terrific law students from the US, Canada, and Europe).  Unless we get funding sufficient to scale, however, this will also be our last boot camp.

This possibility flows from our original strategic plan, which contained two parts:

  1. Build a program that demonstrates the tremendous value of T-shaped curriculum for law students and employers;
  2. Use the resulting proof of concept to attract funding for more scalable offerings that will benefit both law students and mid-career legal professionals.

Well, Step 1 is complete. See Post 118 (student and employer feedback, net promoter scores, diversity data). Our volunteer army is driven by a desire to improve the legal system for all stakeholders, not to provide subsidies to a failing status quo.  Step 2 is our goal. If we get there, we’ll all be a part of a true transformation. Otherwise, it’s time to go home.

Of course, we still have time to bring in the necessary funding.  See Post 154 ($500,000 is absolute minimum nut). In service of this goal, Bill Henderson, our interim director of development, asked me to document why I’ve spent the last 2+ years of my career with the IFLP and what the experience has meant to me. It’s really hard to say no to anything that Bill asks you to do. Thus, it’s with pleasure that I write about my perspectives on IFLP.

Forward-thinking change agents

First and foremost, the people who are committed to IFLP are some of the most forward-thinking change agents in the legal profession. Co-founders Bill Henderson, Bill Mooz, and Dan Linna have a vision that IFLP will transform legal education and the legal profession through modern practice skills training. The innovators on the IFLP board of directors have bought into this vision and they are working to make it a reality.

The organization has an A-team of well respected leaders. But what compelled me to jump into this new start-up was that they have big hearts 💗. The IFLP leadership team is mission-driven and they want to leave the world in a better place than they found it. And that is a very worthy endeavor.

Building something in the public interest

I became involved with IFLP shortly after it formed as an independent non-profit in early 2018. I was looking for my next career adventure after serving for nearly 17 years as Executive Director of Illinois Legal Aid Online. As someone who is a builder and a life-long learner, this was an attractive challenge that I couldn’t pass up. Given my public service orientation, I envisioned IFLP bringing modern practice training to the government and public interest sector. Perhaps even more than their private sector colleagues, government and legal aid lawyers need to upskill in allied disciplines like project management, technology, data, process improvement, and business operations. IFLP can provide that opportunity. 

As in any start-up, there has been chaos and unexpected unknowns, along with struggles to secure sustainable funding for the enterprise. All of that comes with the territory. What I didn’t know I would encounter was a growing collaborative community focused on changing the profession. It has been really fun to work with so many people who want to blaze new paths and make the profession better. It is the 200+ volunteers I’ve  had the pleasure to work with that have made this journey special. 

Cutting-edge employers

Dozens of legal employers of all stripes, in the U.S.,Canada, and Germany, have jumped on the IFLP bandwagon. Big, medium, and small firms, corporate legal departments, legal tech companies, alt legal services providers, and yes, public service organizations. They understand that today they need to hire based on skills and experience instead of pedigree, GPA, and whether or not someone made law review. They have come to trust the training that IFLP provides and they hire IFLP alumni because they have the skills that are required for today’s practice. These employers get it, and they will lead the profession into the future.

Progressive law schools

This year 31 law schools became IFLP partners, which means they want their students to have access to IFLP’s skills training programs and the above-mentioned employers. These law schools range from T-14 to unranked, and all have in common a desire to give their students opportunities to succeed in a fast changing practice landscape. Faculty and career development professionals at these law schools are working to change institutions and colleagues that don’t want to change. They are building tomorrow’s legal workforce, and it has been a thrill to work with them in that pursuit.

Motivated, diverse, talented students

Hands down the most fun group to engage with have been the law students who participate in IFLP’s Modern Practice Boot Camp and Internship Programs. They are some majorly impressive folks who must jump through many hoops in a very competitive application process in order to get into the program. They bring with them a wealth of skills from past education and employment, and understand the need to differentiate themselves by learning the skills that today’s employers want. They are a diverse and motivated lot. One of the best parts of my job is getting to know our students. I am so looking forward to seeing what this year’s cohort of 48 students can do in IFLP’s first online-only Modern Practice Boot Camp.

The people who have been involved with and supported IFLP have inspired me to dream of a better legal profession. Here’s to all of those people – you have made a wild ride a lot of fun! 🎢

Ways you can help IFLP continue

There are four:

  1. You personally have the capacity, affinity, and propensity to help fund the IFLP build. If so, please email Bill Henderson.
  2. You potentially know someone one with the capacity, affinity, and propensity to help fund our cause. If so, please forward a link to this post along with a brief personal note.
  3. Donate any amount you can afford. For any amount in excess of $20, you’ll receive a personalized IFLP Patron Card. See Post 119.
  4. Share this post on social media (LinkedIn, Twitter, your own blog), briefly describing why you and others should support this build.

Thank you!  Lisa Colpoys

“I make innovation less risky and more accessible to the many brilliant lawyers in our firm.” — Anusia Gillespie

I am pleased to introduce today’s guest contributor, Anusia Gillespie, who currently serves as Director of Innovation at Eversheds Sutherland (US).  As demonstrated in Post 128, Gillespie has the full innovator’s tool box:  multiple perspectives (law, design, business operations, technology, and strategy), systems thinking, intellectual courage, astute observation, and the patience and confidence to learn through controlled trial and error. Continue Reading Guest contributor Anusia Gillespie (127)

The answer appears to be yes. A deep dive into Hotshot.

For many of us, success is partially a function of being at the right place at the right time.  Yet, this type of luck often has even larger second-order effects, such as the ability to see new and emerging business opportunities.  Indeed, this is how I see the careers of Ian Nelson and Chris Wedgeworth, who were part of the sales team that helped Practical Law Company (PLC) enter and dominate the U.S. market. Continue Reading Is just-in-time training for lawyers a good business? (102)

A worksheet to help innovators avoid failure

The graphic above is worksheet designed to aid the development and adoption of legal innovations. I created it for my “How Innovation Diffuses in the Legal Industry” courses at Bucerius and Northwestern Law (downloadable PDF available here). This past week, I had the opportunity to present it at LMA’s P3 Conference in Chicago. Continue Reading Scoring your innovation (098)

Photo by Sagar via Unsplash / Like all complex ecosystems, the legal industry and its problems are interdependent and connected.

Disillusionment abounds and frustrations run high in the legal industry: nearly all signals scream at us to innovate faster. Inspire.Legal flipped the script by asking us to stop, collaborate and listen.

Conferences, like most commercial endeavors, are exchanges of value for value. They work by offering distinct value propositions to three primary participating groups. Attendees usually pay for learning and networking; their employers often subsidize this expense to complement internal training. Sponsors pay for access to attendees as defined market segments as a means to drive sales (and usually invest in swag and booth experiences to lure those attendees to the expo hall). Speakers spend time and effort to provide content in exchange for professional credentialing and personal brand lift.

Inspire.Legal, which took place at New York Law School on February 1, was an unusual conference. It asked speakers to limit their speaking time 🙅‍♂️💬 and sponsors to refrain from selling anything 🙅‍♂️💰. Instead of offering attendees some promise of tangible or practical benefit, Inspire.Legal asked them to do work — before, during and after the event.

The result was both unique and noteworthy. Bill’s post (083) takes a brief look at how Inspire.Legal fits into the current landscape of legal conferences and why he believes Inspire.Legal was actually different. This post (084) is a much longer (everyone is 🤯 shocked, I know) and detailed case study of how the Inspire.Legal conference came together and a discussion of what it might mean for the next chapter in legal innovation.

Credits: As will be made apparent in the description of conference format and mechanics, I only experienced my own slice of the conference. For a broader and more objective report of how it actually worked out, I asked several participants to respond to a questionnaire of my design. Thanks 🙏 to Ryan Alshak, Haley Altman, Joe Borstein, Casey Flaherty, Joe Green, Ed Sohn, and Anand Upadhye for their contributions. Lastly, many thanks 🙏🙏 to Christian Lang, the creator of Inspire.Legal, for his candor and transparency in sharing data and information as this case study came together; as he will be reviewing this post concurrently with the readers of Legal Evolution, I add another note of thanks for the trust he placed in us to write about his work with objectivity and candor.

A Minimum Viable Conference: Iterated for Feedback, Pivoted More than Once & Launched with Bugs

Concept to Delivery in 8 Weeks: What Crowdsourcing & Adaptability Can Do

It’s worth mentioning that the Inspire.Legal conference was organized from concept to delivery in about 8 weeks. For those unfamiliar with event planning, this represents an 😓 extremely 😰 expedited 😱 timeline, especially without a large professional staff. This timeline is all the more noteworthy because the production process itself is indicative of larger patterns and trends with broad implications for legal innovation.

During that 8-week period, approximately 50 of some of the most recognizable names in legal innovation signed up to participate as speakers or facilitators for Inspire.Legal. Two sponsors with diametrically opposed market positions signed up to finance the up-front production costs: the Magic Circle firm Clifford Chance (a bona fide institution of the incumbent elite) and the Legal Managed Services division of Thomson Reuters (formerly Pangea3, one of the leading insurgents in the LPO/ALSP category).

So how did it all come together?

A. Change Agents at Work: Communities (Social Systems) over Markets (Economic Systems)

Inspire.Legal is the brainchild of Christian Lang, founder of the New York Legal Tech Meetup and newly appointed head of strategy at Reynen Court. Although Lang says the event is “his” only in the loosest sense of the word, some reference to his background and worldview is instructive, as is a discussion of the social networks of which he is a part.

Lang describes himself as a recovering lawyer: an NYU Law alum and ex-associate from Davis Polk, he practiced across M&A and general corporate work. Since leaving his Big Law post in 2016, Lang has been active in nurturing communities of common interest in New York around several distinct but related concepts: legal tech startups, associate success, and legal technology adoption. That list may sound haphazard, but what it actually represents is a high degree of appreciation for intersections and deep faith in the power of social networks. It is also what equips Lang with the divergent thinking to conceptualize an event like Inspire.Legal and the interpersonal assets to mobilize the requisite support in 8 weeks.

In pedigree, Lang is a prototypical member of the Big Law diaspora: products of elite law schools and prestige firms who leave practice behind, opting instead for higher-risk pathways in legal business or legal technology. Former practitioners have long comprised a key stakeholder group in the legal innovation landscape. They often perform superbly as innovators and change agents because they draw upon domain knowledge that provides a more detailed roadmap of constraints and challenges, practical firsthand knowledge of legacy practices and current-state processes, and cultural familiarity with the decision-making protocols of their target market.

Highly pedigreed former practitioners present another feature of interest in the application of diffusion theory to the legal industry. Their training, credentials, and networks often unite in one individual a set of attributes that allows them to traverse a common gap between two critical roles: that of change agent and opinion leader.  See Post 020 (explaining the disposition of change agents and opinion leaders and their role in spreading innovations).

  • In brief, change agents tend to be curious and venturesome boundary-spanners who are so deeply invested in finding new ideas and information that they willingly trek very far beyond the confines of conventional career tracks and peer groups. In the process, they tend to amass and bring back unusual combinations of complex technical  knowledge: change agents are critical in facilitating early adoption because they fill gaps in technical knowledge and know-how.
  • In contrast, opinion leaders tend to be highly regarded members of the establishment: they often amass social influence among a large group of peers by displaying strong conformity to social norms. The decision of opinion leaders to support new ideas or initiatives often represents a critical tipping point because this facilitates later-stage adoption and mainstream uptake.

As a non-lawyer with no legal training and a product of public school education, I would be the last person to suggest that legal innovation is the exclusive domain of lawyers or of the pedigreed elite. Pedigree is often a byproduct of privilege and represents neither a guarantee nor prerequisite for successful innovation. When I point to representative examples in this group, I point to their values and choices as much as their abilities or background to explain their commonality.

Innovators and change agents tend to be rarities and exceptions in any socioeconomic or professional circle: it is their values and motivations that set them apart, more than any other feature of identity, education, or experience. The work of creating and driving change is much too taxing and risky for this group to be anything but self-selecting, and the curiosity and open-mindedness that drives innovators usually ensures inclusiveness: they seek and value useful information or skills wherever they may be found. In fact, the most successful innovation teams in and outside of law feature both cognitive diversity (usually borne of diversity of experiences as much as background) and psychological safety (defined by a willingness to approach mistakes and failures with both curiosity and shared responsibility). See Alison Reynolds and Davis Lewis, “The Two Traits of the Best Problem-Solving Teams,” Harv. Bus. Rev. (April 2, 2018).

It would be folly to ignore the considerable arsenal of potent weapons that former practitioners from elite institutions can bring to bear when they turn their talents and energy to driving positive change in the legal ecosystem. In addition to a baseline level of intellectual horsepower and the work ethic implied by their experience, these individuals are much more likely to hit all of the variables that positively influence the rate of innovation adoption (key graphic from Post 020):

Three of the best-known insurgent startups in legal were led by innovators that fit this profile:

  • Mark Harris, the founder and current Executive Chairman of Axiom, was a Davis Polk attorney in his previous life. (Notably, Axiom fields one of the deepest rosters of high-caliber non-lawyer talent across its executive leadership.)
  • Jeroen Plink practiced at Clifford Chance before founding Practical Law and serving as its CEO until its reported 9-figure sale to Thomson Reuters. He’s now back in the fold as CEO of Clifford Chance Applied Solutions.
  • David Perla, who founded Pangea3 and now leads growth at litigation finance firm Burford Capital, also fits this mold: he is a Penn Law alum, former associate at Katten and former GC at Monster.

Although the above sample is anecdotal at best, the balance of probability and the principles of diffusion theory suggest that the next wave of big wins will likely draw from a wellspring of similar talent. I’m happy to report that wellspring is getting broader and deeper:

  • Pangea3, now part of Legal Managed Services at Thomson Reuters, fields a whole brace of executives that fit this profile: Global Director Joe Borstein hails from Kasowitz Benson and VP of Product and Partnerships Ed Sohn cut his teeth at King & Spalding; both are Penn Law alumni. VP of Legal Solutions Umair Muhajir studied at Columbia Law then spent nearly 7 years at Paul Weiss.
  • Alma Asay, the founder of Allegory and current Chief Innovation Officer of Integreon, is a former litigator from Gibson Dunn, while Anna McGrane, COO of PacerPro, is a former corporate associate from Herbert Smith Freehills; both, like Lang, studied at NYU Law.
  • Haley Altman, the founder of Doxly, put in her time as an associate at both Wilson Sonsini and Ice Miller. Altman is a rarity even among this peer group as one of the few who left her Big Law post after making equity partner at Ice Miller (in record time, at that).
  • The legal tech landscape is littered with similarly pedigreed founders and CEOs: Noah Waisberg of Kira (NYU JD / Weil Gotshal), Adam Nguyen of eBrevia (Harvard JD / Paul Weiss), Jake Heller of Casetext (Stanford JD / Ropes & Gray), Nehal Madhani of Alt Legal (Penn Law JD / Kirkland & Ellis) are a few examples, but the list goes on.

The Big Law diaspora doesn’t always leave the nest: a handful of the most prestigious firms in Big Law are deploying former practitioners as change agents. Of particular interest is the growing cohort of roles in practice technology and KM. These roles sit at the intersection of user desirability and technical feasibility. The proliferation of such roles at firms like Latham, Cravath, Cooley and White & Case signals that at least a handful of incumbents are getting serious about the modernization of legal practice. The continuing evolution of the size and shape of most leverage models is likely a factor in this diversion of legal talent away from an ever-lengthening and increasingly uncertain partnership track. In my analysis, this supports rather than detracts from the hypothesis that former practitioners with Big Law experience will play increasingly active roles in legal innovation.

The nexus of these growing cohorts is where Lang has placed his bets. It explains, in part, how he was able to recruit the speakers and sponsors that made Inspire.Legal possible. That so many of them rallied around his vision is a a testament to the strength of these social bonds forged through shared experiences and values. How their crowdsourced efforts shaped the event may provide a glimpse into the next era of legal innovation.

B. Making Contact with Reality Early and Often: How the Vision Evolved

The Starting Point: Lang’s idea for Inspire.Legal began with a fairly well-knitted hypothesis about the slow uptake of legal tech among lawyers:

I feel like most products are not designed ways that sufficiently respond to the in-the-trenches needs and realities of lawyers. And the communications channels that exist between the lawyers experiencing pain and the techies/innovators who can help them are either terrible or non-existent… So I wanted to try to have conversations with as many practicing lawyers or recently practicing lawyers around the table as we could get, and I wanted to have conversations that were all about better defining and understanding unmet needs and problems — again, with lawyers in the room. I wanted to focus on the gaps between existing solutions, as opposed to the solutions themselves.

As much as I enjoy and feel like I get value from the typical conference, they’re sales-focused. Most are pure or primarily trade shows. That’s the commercial model. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does tint everything that happens around it. All too often, you’re walking around the expo halls looking at the bright, shiny, flashy widgets and they feel like solutions in search of the right problems. For obvious reasons, sales-focused events are highly segmented. That’s how you create sales value.

But if you’re trying to learn and more deeply understand something, the sales dynamic can be a killer. I’m a huge believer in the cross-pollination of ideas: there is inspirational value in attacking problems collaboratively, alongside others who see those problems through a different lens. And I think that, when understood at the right level of abstraction, many of the challenges facing different parts of the legal ecosystem share some commonality. So I wanted to bring together thinkers/doers from a diverse cross-section of background — as much as possible in this sort of a first-generation event. 

Though the initial problem that prompted the idea is fairly narrow in scope, there is a lot to unpack here, much of it very consistent with the themes covered in previous Legal Evolution posts. See Post 054 (working partners are rarely present at conferences, making them an easy scapegoat to blame 💥 for the glacial pace of change), Post 063 (achieving problem-solution fit and product-market fit requires efficient access to users), and Post 066 (the desirability axis demands that proposed solutions solve a problem that matters to the intended user and is presented in a way that makes sense within the context of the users’ existing lives, routines and environment).

I’ll come back to this in a later discussion about what Inspire.Legal might mean for the broader industry, but a few comments here. The most notable premise (at least, to me) underlying Lang’s viewpoint is an important one for the legal vertical: innovators facing slow uptake and long sales cycles should reexamine their assumptions about what their customers really want to probe why their innovations aren’t being adopted.

Lang’s phrasing is characteristically polite, but I’ll put a finer point on it. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: our tendency to gravitate toward blame-based narratives majoring in on lawyer resistance to change or law firm complacency helps no one. In any business, it is a dangerous and costly mistake to believe your customers or your competition are stupid or crazy. Most conferences present as pop-up echo chambers to the extent that they are functionally oriented (attracting attendees in similar roles facing similar challenges) and isolate change agents from reluctant customers (where spatial proximity reinforces tribal solidarity but greater emotional distance from those we seek to influence).

Adapting to Feedback: Over the course of the winter, Lang spent “(literally) hundreds of hours” on the phone with people across his network, and as the conference planning progressed, the scope of the event shifted significantly:

I not only began to hear a fascinating range of passionate views about key topics, so many of the conversations surfaced common themes or picked up right where another one left off, weaving what I had originally viewed as separate challenges together into a complex web.  And it became clear to me that one of the ways we could add value with this event was by engaging with our audience to help set the event’s agenda and tell US what problems they thought warranted increased focus and deeper understanding. 

This all happened on such an expedited timeline and was so dependent on network effects that the vision and the language we used to describe it were continually evolving.  But stepping back from the creative process towards the end, I began to view the event as having a broad substantive scope, as driven and limited by who put their hand up to get involved and contribute. 

Here’s how the event design ultimately landed.

Bill’s post (083) will discuss the intrinsic value of interactivity, so I’ll focus my commentary more on on the structural intent of the conference. One noteworthy feature of Inspire.Legal was that it put attendees to work, and not just as a training mechanism to teach attendees how to apply a given problem-solving methodology.

The format of Inspire.Legal — from pre-event engagement to every aspect of the event itself — was intended to drive toward two defined outputs, flowing directly from the activities and work-product of attendees at the event itself, particularly during the Legal Problems Forum, which Lang calls the 💗 “beating heart” 💓 of the event.  The crowdsourced problem statements and Unpanel sessions preceding the two general Problem Forum sessions were designed to prime the attendees to think deeply about the content and context of various predefined problems so they could work effectively together on these outputs.

Where the final lineup of Unpanel topics landed will give a sense of the scope of the event. Lang provided moderators with only two constraints, though he was positively militant about the two: (a) maximum airtime 💬⏳ should be given to audience members rather than the moderators and (b) the session topics should be framed as open-ended, provocative questions.

During the Problems Forum, audiences gravitated toward tables, each marked with a broad problem space (e.g. “Data/Insight”). Guided by expert facilitator Matt Homann of Filament, these table groups engaged in free-flowing discussion to probe divergent stakeholder viewpoints, critical constraints and barriers to solutions.  These discussions were richer because participants drew upon not only the shared experiences of those gathered around the table, but the diverse perspectives represented in the room during the Unpanel sessions.

The table discussions were organic but not aimless: each team was asked to complete the following worksheet:

As made apparent in the structure of this worksheet and consistent with Lang’s initial focus on “better defining and understanding unmet needs and problems,” and “focusing on the gaps between existing solutions,” attendees were reminded all day to focus primarily on better understanding problems, to the complete exclusion of exploring potential solutions. This may sound strange from a distance. After all, we live in an age that prizes buzzwords like “bias for action” and “solution-orientation.” Why discourage attendees from even discussing solutions? The intent was to prevent what veteran innovators and change agents will recognize as “solution-jumping.”

Designing and iterating a solution that actually survives contact with reality is very, very difficult. It is not an endeavor to be taken lightly, and the amount and type of work required certainly doesn’t belong at a conference. Primarily, this is because the requisite work to validate assumptions and hypotheses requires frequent and fluid interaction with the actual intended buyers and users of the solution, as well as deep-dive analysis of obtainable technology and the design of a working business model. See Post 066 (defining three axes along which innovation teams must validate innovations in development: customer desirability, technical feasibility, and business viability).

As design thinking hits mainstream, its attendant trappings (Post-Its, canvases, and the word “empathy”) have traveled further than the skills and commitment required to apply the method rigorously. Empathy is an important concept in the sense that it safeguards us from solipsism: it reminds us that other people exist who don’t necessarily share our exact set of beliefs, preferences, constraints or opportunities. However, the tenets of design thinking are built on anthropological traditions of doing the legwork: observing users and customers in their natural habitats and engaging directly with people through structured user research.

Simply making the effort to “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes” doesn’t help us figure out what they want and need. This is not a failure of human imagination but a simple fact of life: we can’t correctly guess facts we don’t know. A study by an international team of social scientists indicates that the real-world work of “perspective-gathering” (or as Nicole Bradick put it, “just talk to your users!!!”) is far more effective than the mental exercise of imagining what someone else might choose, even when given limited and structured options. See Tal Eyal, Mary Steffel, and Nicholas Epley, “Research: Perspective-Taking Doesn’t Help You Understand What Others Want,” Harv. Bus. Rev. (October 9, 2018).

Rather than shepherd attendees through an exercise in innovation theater (where we go through the motions to learn the mechanics while guessing at the underlying problem content and the real-world context that makes actual life messy and complicated), Inspire.Legal set out objectives that were simultaneously more pragmatic and yet more ambitious. At Inspire.Legal, attendees were asked to stop the natural flow of their thoughts, assumptions and conclusions, so they could think — in a very specific way that is unfamiliar and uncomfortable for most people. It is human nature to cling to preexisting notions and beliefs, and it takes humility, intense curiosity, and intentional effort for most of us to reexamine what we think we already know.

This generally only happens when we come face to face with people who have facts, knowledge, experiences and viewpoints that are contradictory to our own. Most experiences in this category are distinctly unpleasant: often as not, each party defends their position, take turns talking, and walk away more entrenched in their respective opinions (sometimes with a lasting distaste for the other person). This is why cognitive diversity and psychological safety are such critical ingredients for problem-solving. See Alison Reynolds and Davis Lewis, “The Two Traits of the Best Problem-Solving Teams,” Harv. Bus. Rev. (April 2, 2018).

Ultimately, the design of Inspire.Legal set out to fulfill both conditions. Lang’s emphasis on avoiding the typical format and sales dynamic of conferences is deeply tied up with the event’s focus on prioritizing problem-orientation over easily accessible solutions. The conventional conference model is built on an underlying premise that attendees pay for some sort of prescriptive view: session content marketed as practical, concrete takeaways presumes that someone has the answers. While case studies can be helpful, the typical one-way presentation format often strips away important context-dependent factors that leave too many legal teams imitating without learning. Despite the rising focus on consultative sales, most legal tech sales pitches are exactly as Lang described: a solution in search of a problem.

Reflecting on the admittedly chaotic process of iterating toward the final design and scope of the event, Lang described the attendees of Inspire.Legal as being bounded most by ethos. When I asked him to summarize that ethos, this was Lang’s response:

Curiosity. A passion to engage with and to do the work required to understand challenges across different contexts — rather than scoff at the idea of reexamining what we think we already know. An interest in hearing different, diverse viewpoints. 

In pockets and moments, attendees engaged in lively, rich debate, challenging assumptions and refining the group’s collective grasp of the size, shape, complexity and interdependencies inherent in the problem at hand. The challenge worksheets were completed, sorted into broader categories by Lang’s army of volunteers, and displayed for dot voting.

As for what we collectively learned through the conference attendees’ hard work, you’ll have to wait for the outputs: the Challenges Report and the Startup Requests List. (I’ve gotten a sneak peek at the worksheets and dot voting, but frankly, this post is shaping up to call for yet another #extreme #longform alert — and I shockingly have more to say about both the event and its potential impact.)  😇

How It All Worked Out & How Inspire.Legal Might Improve

So, did it all work out? For the most part and against long odds, I would call the event both successful and instructive. Of course, it wasn’t perfect — no event ever is.

A. Suggestions for improvement

Next time around, I would love to see three changes to the conference:

  1. More pre-event planning to align audience composition to problem content.
  2. More focus and structure during the opening session to clarify a common problem-exploration methodology and facilitate cleaner transitions from the Unpanels to the Problem Forums.
  3. More guidance for moderators to drive greater consistency in quality of Unpanel discussions to make the most out of the number and diversity of perspectives.

Some of these are likely gaps in execution that are part and parcel of a first-generation event that came together the way it did.

  • The scope sprawl of conference content was likely to the good; however, the event would likely improve by securing a critical mass of attendees from each represented constituency. While the overall diversity of perspectives represented was excellent, there were still imbalances in overall composition.
  • Based on the reports I received on the Unpanels I could not attend, there was some lack of clarity in how the discussions should land in order to best facilitate group discussions during the Problem Forum.
  • By all accounts, the Unpanel mechanics for “Who should pay for the training of the next generation of legal professionals?” were a cut above the rest. This, obviously, is unsurprising that the Unpanel comprised of seasoned educators would feature the best facilitation method (recounted below). That said, some upskilling of the moderator group would not be amiss. In reviewing the reports for all other Unpanels, many of the sessions proceeded as a mixture of small-group discussions followed by open-floor debates, likely leaving the level of interactivity in the broader discussion variable and dependent on the experience and skill set of the moderators in the room.  After reviewing the Unpanel reports, composition of problems explored and resulting insights, and the overall texture of the dot voting, I suspect the quality of Unpanel moderation materially shaped attendee interest in choosing what problems and challenges to probe.
B. Highlights of what worked well

From Casey Flaherty, on the now famed “who should pay” Unpanel: Bill Henderson jettisoned the operating principles of a stable panel entirely while simultaneously imposing discipline on every person in the room. Audience members were given two cards as we entered. Our red card allowed us to challenge what a panelist had said. Our yellow card empowered us to replace a panelist at the front of the room and share our own thoughts. With Online Stopwatch on the screen in lieu of slides, each ‘panelist’ could hold forth for two minutes—and only two minutes. We would then answer each red-card challenge for 30 seconds. When no more red cards were raised, we returned to the audience and were replaced by whomever raised their yellow card next. After the pre-selected first group, panelists spoke in the order we volunteered. With five slots, this ensured someone was always ready to speak next. The constant movement of bodies increased the energy in the room rather than distracted (which, candidly, is what I would have predicted and been very wrong about). ’d never seen it before. The unpanel was a great blend of authoritarianism (the unforgiving clock), egalitarianism (we only got the two cards), and meritocracy (the market allocated red-card time).

From Haley Altman, on the “role of lawyers in evaluating legal tech” Unpanel: Forcing people to write out problem statements in their constituent groups (law firms / in-house counsel / vendors) provided to be a great framing device for the broader conversation. People seemed initially skeptical of just identifying problems, but as they discussed with their similarly situated peers, common themes started to emerge. The magic happened in the larger group discussion when it became obvious that similar themes came out of each major group. 

Heard at Inspire. The specificity of insights exchanged provide better proof that conference attendees engaged in perspective-gathering. Observations and experiences obvious to one constituency turned out to provide invaluable insights to others with limited visibility into the process.  Many of these zeroed in on the value of synthesizing divergent viewpoints.

  • The fact that the buyer (the firm) and the user (the lawyer) are bifurcated is a powerful realization. The other being that engineers are stress-testing products meant to be used by lawyers (because in the current state there is no streamlined way to get lawyers on a platform quickly and painlessly).
  • Not only are buyers and users sometimes distinct groups, the pain-feeler (who pays for the problem) is sometimes part of neither group. How might we create more visibility and direct connection between associate pain and client value so we can align incentives across clients, partners, associates, legal tech buyers and legal tech vendors to drive value through tech adoption? 
  • One-to-one collaboration across clients and firms isn’t enough. Clients are challenged to collaborate with attorneys across a variety of platforms, so standardization across the three sides (law firms, clients and vendors) is incredibly important to facilitate collaboration. Maybe we might start standardization with security, because that’s an immediate and relevant problem for everyone involved.
  • Service providers feel RFPs are too rigid and over-baked to allow for actually meaningful or any creative responses around innovation. In-house counsel counter that they face internal constraints around procurement risk and much of the RFP process is designed to address that need. After extended back and forth, the group concluded that the RFP process is trying to do too many “jobs” – how might we rethink the legal buy process to drive transactionality or creativity as the need calls for each? 
  • The diversity of viewpoints influenced the framing of the problem, big time. Talking about deregulation of the legal industry was super duper enriched by viewpoints of people who have seen that liberalization as a matter of policy take place in the UK and in Australia. The conversation would have been blind groping in the absence of those views.  I left with a decent framework of how to mobilize legislative will to affect regulatory change on the profession.
  • I left believing even more strongly that creating standards and greater interoperability for legal tech and processes is going to be essential to transformative and lasting change in the practice of law.
C. By the numbers

In the space of 8 weeks, Lang managed not only to recruit 50 people to devote a decent chunk of time to this event, he also mobilized a significant number of them to spread the gospel to their own networks. He also convinced Joe Borstein of TR Legal Managed Services and Jeroen Plink at Clifford Chance to commit fairly sizable checks to fund the effort.

Here are the results of their collective efforts.

  • The 81% NPS figure is a top 2-box score on a 10-point scale, meaning that 81% of respondents indicated they were extremely likely to recommend the conference to a relevant friend or colleague.
  • While current practitioners (line lawyers) were scarce, a clear majority of participants brought practice experience, which brought much needed practicality and specificity to the problem explorations.
  • Particularly considering the seniority in the room (over 35% of attendees were directors or chiefs), this level of turnout is only made possible by extensive social proof.

All things considered, Inspire.Legal was a very promising start to something that could be significant. The how and why behind that statement merits a few observations, because it tells us something about the current state of play of legal innovation and about the people who are invested in and committed to the bruising work of making positive change actually happen.

Huge, if True (Episode II): Inspire.Legal Makes a Compelling Case for Hope & Courage

Before I delve into the potential impact of Inspire.Legal, a few observations about the current state of our industry bear repeating.

A Recap and #SanityCheck: Yes, Legal Innovation IS Happening ✨ Yes, It Still Feels Slow & Insufficient 😞

Last May, I published a slide deck about innovation hype and fatigue in the legal industry. My hope was to help make sense of the dissonance I saw across the industry. The pace of change has picked up considerably and continues to accelerate. Yet, the emotional tone in the dialogue about legal innovation remains intensely skeptical and at times vaguely fatalistic. Since then, both trends have seemingly intensified.

In 2019, more corporate clients are experimenting with their supply chains and service delivery models, more law firms are investing in at least exploring innovation, more legal tech companies are being funded to bring products to market across segments, and yet disillusionment, skepticism and doubt abound. In previous posts, I’ve tried to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory observations. See Post 051 (extreme balkanization and fractal opacity slow innovation by impeding fluid cooperation and knowledge sharing) and Post 052 (divergent psychographics and values of adopter types lead to friction within each organization).

Today’s post adds one more feature of interest I’ve observed over a year of field research and direct conversations with legal startups, investors, and innovation teams across Big Law: we have too many teams working in silos on similar problems. The result is a proliferation of point solutions that favor speed and expediency in solving discrete problems in isolation over deep analysis of root causes, interdependencies, or second-order impacts on system integrity:

In the first few years following the Great Recession / Great Reset, corporate clients under unprecedented budget scrutiny essentially dragged Big Law kicking and screaming into legal innovation. Since then, innovation has become de rigeuer. More and more incumbent are jumping into the deep end of legal innovation, but they often do so without some recognition that others before them have grappled with similar problems, thought of similar ideas, and invested time and energy into similar endeavors. As the unprecedented influx of capital flows to fund legal tech startups, many underestimate the extent of fragmentation in the market, resulting in too many startups building point solutions to solve problems of limited value to offset the small size of addressable and obtainable markets.

The legal industry’s penchant for redundant efforts and reactive problem-solving results in several negative externalities. At the organizational level, a critical price of overreliance on point solutions is the overall erosion of system effectiveness. In some cases, point solutions perform well in early markets because they offer speedy pain relief for a well-defined user group. However, growth at scale often remains elusive because the accumulation of too many point solutions without the attendant work around integration and interoperability tend to erode, rather than improve, system performance.

This applies not only to technology solutions but internally siloed efforts in business and legal process improvement. Too many teams across the legal industry are expending time and energy into perfectly rational projects to resolve a readily apparent problem with “quick win” workarounds; in doing so, they often add conflicting requirements and process complexity to already brittle operating environments that are resource-strapped and underfunded in infrastructure maintenance. In a recent Medium post, Rob Saccone of NexLaw Partners characterized this system erosion as “management debt” that law firms must pay down before investing in real innovation.

These 3 factors conspire to create an environment of incoherence for the legal innovation dialogue.  While balkanized markets create a dizzying array of varying commercial context that present distinct constraints, challenges and options for different subsegments of the market, change agents work within their own social systems that are populated with a dispersion of attitudes toward new ideas and new practices. Simply put, many change agents have been working in silos to push grindingly slow progress forward while hearing snippets from an ever-quickening news cycle about emerging innovations that seemingly have no relevance to them.

When we experience dissonance across our own experience and what we hear in the general dialogue, the natural impulse is to believe what we can see, hear and touch. And as a #SanityCheck, most of us are seeing and hearing just fine: it’s for this reason that we need to recognize two hard truths about legal innovation, often and loudly. First, change is happening but it’s not happening at the same rate for everyone across the industry. Second, the work of driving positive change demands exceptionally taxing emotional labor.

We work in an industry that is rife with seemingly intractable problems. Many of these problems are old: they have been acknowledged, discussed, studied, and tackled in various ways for years (and in some cases decades). That durability and persistence conspire to make these problems feel unsolvable.

This pain of incoherence is likely a driver of the continuing backlash against innovation hype in the industry, but the cynicism that can creep into our perspective is deeply corrosive. Change implies striving for something better and usually requires taking risks and trusting other people, all of which demands a great deal of hope and courage. Pessimism and doubt seems much easier at times, but this is how complacency and stagnation win out.

Even among the small community of change agents, battle weary veterans and the newly converted may find the other group confusing or alienating, but these two groups should be allies, not adversaries. Veterans with many change management campaigns under their belt have valuable insights to share about organizational and environmental context, and the neophytes bring to bear reserves of energy and in many cases new ideas, new skills or new technical knowledge on old and intractable problems.

Still, these measures aren’t enough to combat the most harmful effects of too many redundant efforts in a fragmented market: the total cost of innovation is much too high and the overall rates of failure just may be unnecessary.

How Distributed Leadership and Shared Agendas Could Activate a Movement

It’s against this backdrop that I view Inspire.Legal as a potentially significant development for the broader legal industry. Why? Because it represents the nexus of two concepts that I think legal innovation desperately needs.

Distributed leadership is the first of the two: the concept represents an effort to understand how leadership actually works in the context of complex organizations. Here, I’ll adapt it to a highly complex and decentralized environment: the legal market. For decades, management research on effective leadership emphasized the traits, behaviors, and skills of the heroic individual: a transformative or visionary CEO. More recent theories of leadership effectiveness have moved toward more inclusive models that examine how people across complex social systems actually interact with each other to accomplish something big. Distributed leaders often act without any formal position of power or authority, which shifts the locus of analysis away from the individual in a role to the various activities that comprise leadership.

Diffusion theory relies heavily on stable attributes and pre-existing social standing of each adopter type to explain their respective roles in the process of evaluating something new. While Rogers provides invaluable insight into the variables that speed or slow innovations, much of the analysis presented on Legal Evolution focuses on specific and discrete innovations diffuse through a social system.  Distributed leadership provides a useful complement to diffusion theory because both are socially oriented; while diffusion theory looks at discrete contexts, distributed leadership can help us examine how we might address ongoing needs of leadership to better order and prioritize long-term efforts for innovation.

Agenda-building. Inspire.Legal is of particular relevance to the zeitgeist of the legal industry in 2019 because of its commitment to collective sense-making and interest in collaborative agenda-building. This is the second of the two concepts we need for legal innovation to combat its current state of serious growing pains, because we are also on the cusp of a tipping point. From a market perspective, the era of the innovation arms race is shifting into a focus on the ecosystem: platform plays, alliances, and partnerships. The time is right for deeper thinking about collective responses to shared challenges with systemic impact: standardization, interoperability, inter-organizational collaboration and open innovation.

The stated aspiration of Inspire.Legal is to facilitate the collaborative mapping of a path for future innovation by a coalition of the willing. This is, of course, a wildly ambitious and audacious goal. I think it deserves attention not because of its likelihood for success but because (a) we desperately need it; (b) a sizable cohort of self-selecting individuals spontaneously gravitated toward that challenge; and (c) the group coalescing around Inspire.Legal likely fit the mold of the type of distributed leaders who just might make some appreciable progress toward articulating shared and collaborative agendas to organize innovation efforts across a fragmented landscape.

The baseline requirements for distributed leadership are:

  • A willingness to contribute
  • Investment in relationships within and across their own social nodes
  • Contextual understanding of how their locality fits into the larger whole
  • The domain knowledge and technical skill to decompose a broad goal into component tasks

Joe Borstein, who Lang calls an early champion of Inspire.Legal, is a prime example. Borstein is the best salesperson I know, full stop, and he leads one of the highest-performing consultative sales teams in the legal vertical. When I asked him why he would sponsor an event where he couldn’t sell anything, Borstein had this to say:

Christian’s vision was crystal clear: to get leaders from the major constituencies across legal working together as peers to define the problem space. My division of Thomson (Pangea3, the Legal Managed Services business) often finds itself as the legal know-how glue (the human element) between emerging legal tech and a fully baked legal problem. Getting the opportunity to host an event like this — to help map the problem spaces of the future — was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Our industry has a huge gap right now, perpetuated by most conferences: a culture where the buyers (corporate counsel and law firms) segregate themselves from the sellers (legal innovators, legal tech companies, and ALSPs). At most legal conferences, there is an actual physical separation, manifesting itself in vendor-booths and other flashy apparatus which separate “us” from “them.”  At Inspire, everyone was sitting together, working together, and thinking together. Full hours were devoted to group debate and thought with no “speakers” or “presenters” whatsoever.  

We ALL have a part to play in improving the quality of legal services. We ALL have roles to play in reducing the costs of representation. Only TOGETHER can we solve these problems, because so much is interconnected. It needs to start from law schools teaching young lawyers that it’s their job to solve legal and business problems, not maximize PPP (though those who solve legal problems at scale will certainly also make a lot of money). It will hopefully flow to a culture of innovation at law firms and corporations who will test new tools, workflows and business models.  Finally, it will be enhanced by legal technologists and innovators who can supercharge and replicate solutions designed by brilliant legal minds. 

I agree with Borstein: we have big, complicated problems worth solving and we all have a part to play.  Because this will take resilience and wide-scale collaboration to solve, on a much longer timeline than this calendar year, here’s hoping that everyone who walked away Inspired on February 1 will continue on fighting the good fight. If they win even a battle or two, it could be huge for legal innovation.