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Elite, one-percenter lawyers are an easy group to vilify, especially from afar. Change agents and disruptors alike need to resist the temptation.  


Conference season is in full swing, and legal professionals of varying titles are convening in cities all over the world. Some conferences coalesce around themes, but most events target functional roles both new and old. As more and different roles proliferate around the practice and business of law, some spheres collide or merge (law librarians + competitive intelligence, pricing + LPM, etc.)

These days, everyone – managing partners, the law firm C-suite, the general counsel, legal ops, pricing professionals, legal technologists, marketing, marketing technologists – has a conference dedicated to showing them how to navigate the future.  Everyone is meeting, learning, networking, and engaging in dialogue in gatherings of every size, shape and flavor.

Everyone, except the working partner.

Failure to appear ⇒ default judgment

The recurring conference call is a feature of modern professional life. Often, one or more people are late, giving rise to this well-worn piece of office humor: A late arrival offers an apology that falls somewhere between perfunctory and profuse. In response, someone jests, “No worries… we assigned you all the work.”

(How funny or good-natured this actually turns out be depends on a number of factors: the relative importance and current status of the project, personal relationships and professional reputations of those involved, and the varying levels of good feelings or ill will that pervade the team.)

A similar social dynamic plays out at conferences about the legal industry. Whether as a function of exclusion or absenteeism, working partners are not in the room where it happens.

Keynote speakers often sprinkle in one or two jokes about lawyerly tendencies for the easy laugh; these jokes tend to be mild and good-natured. Lawyers are incorrigible! 😂

Panel speakers tell stories that feature some fresh tale of folly, along with the heroics required to overcome their challenge. Knowing heads shake and nod as sympathy flutters across the room. Near-strangers find solidarity in genteel mockery. Lawyers are clueless!! 🙄🤦🏻‍♀️

Attendees gather in small groups to vent their latest frustrations in hushed, conspiratorial tones, seeking advice from old colleagues and new friends alike. These exchanges tend to be more frank and more angsty; pearl-clutching and NSFW language are both featured in equal measure. Lawyers are 😤 insufferable, 😠 arrogant, 😡 out of touch, 🤬 overpaid!!! 💢

There is also solidarity in shared vitriol, but it becomes weaponized, and the metaphorical crosshairs are often fixed on people who aren’t in the room.

No worries… we assigned you all the blame. 

So where are the partners?

The Altman Weil surveys of law firm leaders and Chief Legal Officers always makes for interesting reading, but the best insights come from tracking trends over time.

A key development in recent years has been the waning confidence of law firm leaders. It’s been many years since managing partners received the “lawpocalypse now” memo, and most firm leaders are trying their best to adapt to a changing market. Over the past few years, however, they’ve admitted openly that they are having a much harder time than anticipated, particularly in creating the same awareness among their partners.

In the most recent Law Firms in Transition survey, 69% of managing partners reported not doing more to change service delivery because “partners resist most change efforts”:

Click to enlarge

This is not necessarily because they are stubborn, arrogant, or incurious. Big Law partners are not exactly oblivious: in fact, most of them are stressed and worried about an increasingly uncertain future.

But most law firm partners are phenomenally busy, and they spend most of their days under an unbelievable amount of pressure. Many of them put in grueling hours on client work and travel. In many firms, even senior partners receive less administrative support than ever. If they attend an event, it is usually an industry affair for networking and business development. They prioritize these tasks because their standing within the firm depends on it, and because that position seems less secure with each passing year.

Most law firm partners are not reading books about the future of law or legal service innovation, because there are people at the firm who are paid to do that. They are not following breaking news about ALSPs, which are growing fast but still comprise less than 1% of the legal services market. They are not following what the Big 4 are doing in high-volume, low-margin areas that have no relation to their own area of practice. Mostly, they are focused on doing what they know.

And they are likely to continue down that path until they hear from the only stakeholder that matters to them: their own clients.

There are many echo chambers, but this one is mine

The last decade has spurred greater interest in dialogue about the future of law. This is, on balance, a good thing: the number and quality of communication channels positively influences the rate of innovations. See Post 008 (explaining the key variables that determine rate of adoption).

In 2018, the legal industry has more communication channels than we did even five years ago. Some are high in quality. I worry, however, that our communication channels are splintering the industry into sharper and more brittle factions.

Let me give some context for my concern. The legal industry has been under enormous pressure since the Great Recession – this we all know. Most professionals working in legal businesses are suffering from change fatigue. The dialogue, in short, is getting a bit more heated and a lot more cynical.

Take the ongoing debate over the word “non-lawyer“: it is complicated because it’s symptomatic of the long-simmering resentment of allied professionals. Professionalization of a new role is a difficult undertaking. Pioneers must build content to standardize language and practices in tandem with a community of practice that will accept and uphold those standards. But the most taxing work, in my view, is the murkier challenge of building legitimacy and market acceptance – and in this instance, that market has been comprised of lawyers.

Legal marketers, project managers, pricing officers, legal technologists, and legal ops professionals all have stories to tell about the bad behavior of lawyers. In these war stories, lawyers almost always fail to recognize the value or respect the legitimacy of other professions. The “non-lawyer” grievance neatly and implicitly captures the indignation and resentment of the marginalized.

Against this backdrop, it makes sense why change agents seek out forums filled with like-minded people who “just get it.” Conferences fit the bill: “something of a ‘high school reunion’ for professionals who have been in the change management game for some time.” Strom, “The Law Firm Disrupted: In Heavyweight Bout, It’s Clients v. Law Firms,” Law.com, May 18, 2018.

At their best, conferences function as important forums for continuing education and professional development – two things that are desperately needed for the legal industry to keep pace with the markets it serves. Apart from content and programming, the social aspect is also important. Professionals, especially those in emerging roles, often need the support of a community of peers and mentors that share similar challenges in similar contexts.

A place to share stories and perspectives is important and valuable, but much less so when the gathered group is homogenous in viewpoint and attitude – and not at all when the talk turns to complaining and commiseration. We are all subject to the temptation of groupthink because it is much more pleasant to hear our own worldview affirmed and to be told that we are fighting the good fight.

It all becomes a bit problematic, however, when we fixate on a common enemy who also happens to be a constituent and stakeholder in the very industry we want to transform. Gentle mockery can devolve very quickly into meanness and schadenfreude when talking about people who are not in the room. Any misperceptions or knowledge gaps we might have about their challenges and constraints will persist, while repetition makes us more confident in what we believe.

Anonymous shade and public diatribes

A couple of years ago, Casey Flaherty wrote a book for corporate counsel called Unless You Ask. It is an excellent and comprehensive guidebook designed to help in-house counsel drive structured dialogue with their firms on how they might create or provide greater value. I have read the entirety and I highly recommend it, but that’s not why I bring it up. I bring it up because the origin story of the book is fairly indicative of the current state of “dialogue” in our industry.

For many years, Altman Weil posed a series of questions to both law firm leaders and Chief Legal Officers:

  • How much pressure are corporations really putting on law firms to change the value proposition in legal service delivery?
  • How serious are law firms about changing their service delivery model to provide greater value (as opposed to simply cutting costs)?

These questions provided reliable fodder to deride firms. Here is a side-by-side comparison of how each group rated the seriousness of firm efforts to change:

Click to enlarge / 2018 CLO survey not yet released

There are two basic points of interest in the chart above. The first is glaring and has been noted widely: there is a material perception gap separating the client and firm viewpoints. In 2018, this gap (based on the average) amounted to two full points on an 11-point scale, meaning law firm leaders consistently graded themselves more generously than clients did over the same period.

The second point of interest is that more clients appear to be growing disenchanted with law firm commitment to change. In 2012, one in ten CLOs rated law firms as “not serious at all”; by 2017, that proportion had grown to one in six. The clients at the very edges of dissatisfaction with the status quo are most likely to articulate pain points and unmet needs and to actively seek new solutions from a wider range of providers. These clients are also likely to self-identify and coalesce into like-minded groups in forums like ACC and CLOC to facilitate knowledge sharing across companies.

Often, it is this vocal minority that make up the early markets: they are the innovators and early adopters who are very often featured in conference keynotes and panels and interviewed and featured by legal publications. Keep this group in mind — they will feature in this discussion again.

In 2015, Altman Weil upped the stakes by asking firm leaders why they weren’t “doing more to change,” and firm leaders responded with stunning candor:

(Cue the 💢 uproar 💢 of indignant disbelief.) 

For most pundits, the top two responses provided proof positive that Big Law was doomed to 🧐🧐🧐 their way to certain extinction. Law firms were roundly excoriated.

Over the following year, Casey wrote his book because he understood something worth restating here today: most clients really do not ask. There are a handful of clients who give very good talks at conferences about the change imperative facing us all. Others give extensive interviews explaining the broad challenges of the industry. Most of this group is in the vocal minority.

From time to time, a scathing denunciation of firm behavior by a client might be quoted with attribution, but the veneer of civility ensures that no names are mentioned. In other instances, clients will register their displeasure through some strongly worded but anonymous comments to reporters about things like associate compensation. For the most part, clients continue to give tepid grades to firms in anonymous surveys and scorecards.

But by and large, the majority of clients aren’t holding direct conversations with their relationship partners at their primary firms about what they specifically want. This much has been apparent for years to close readers of the Altman Weil survey: below is another side-by-side view of how CLOs and law firm leaders have answered the question about corporate pressure on law firms to change.

Click to enlarge / Question not featured in 2018

Constructive dialogue must happen at conferences and at your place of work

Let me be clear. The problem isn’t that clients and/or change agents sometimes say unkind things about lawyers behind their backs at conferences. The real issue is that we need to have more tough conversations in our own place of work with our own colleagues, clients, suppliers, and stakeholders.

In two positive examples, constructive dialogue happened in spades at recent conferences:

  • “Whose Fault Is It?” at LMA P3 Practice Innovation Conference
  • “Transforming the Client-Firm Relationship” at the ACC Legal Ops Conference:

The first was framed as a gladiatorial battle but progressed as a debate, pitting firms against clients to decide who is to blame for the glacial pace of progress in pricing innovation. The second was less controversial in format, with a panel of speakers leading table discussions on real-world scenarios and problems that arise in client-firm relationships. Both of them were designed to feature multiple viewpoints, from law firms as well as law departments. Panelists spoke frankly about their constraints and their frustrations, pushing attendees to consider not only the familiar perspectives of their peers but also the unfamiliar challenges facing their counterparts and stakeholders.

Constructive does not mean pleasant. However polite or well-intended, disingenuous consensus is ultimately not constructive. Difficult dialogue may be stressful but festering resentment is usually toxic. Meaningful change cannot happen with some collision of differing opinions, but candor need not be feared if we work to preserve civility.

With those points in mind, we need to include working partners in the dialogue about legal services innovation. Too many change agents within law firms go around in circles without understanding why partners resist change. Too many pundits dogpile on lawyers for arrogance or avarice without considering context.

It is a competitive disadvantage for any business to believe its customers or competitors are stupid or crazy. Firstly, all people sense antagonism, learn to anticipate it and become more defensive over time. Secondly, the assumption that some stakeholders behave in a way that eludes our understanding makes our own thinking lazy: when we see people as incomprehensible we stop trying to understand them. Lastly and most importantly, it is nearly impossible to change anyone’s mind while dismissing their worldview, thinking lowly of them, and sort-of-semi-secretly wanting to see them punished.


As frustrated as we might be with the pace of change, the industry is making progress — and that progress happens in actual conversations that take place behind closed doors. It might not be visible on Twitter or in headlines, but more clients are asking, new entrants continue to experiment, and law firm leaders are still trying.

Enjoy the conference season. When you get back to the office, though, I hope you will try a bit harder to empathize with the people who weren’t in the room.

What’s next? See The Godfather just lateraled to a law firm (055)


Are you a mid-market firm worried about the cost and risk of innovation? UnitedLex is offering a turn-key solution.


By any objective standards, equity partners working in AmLaw 200 firms are rich. Even firms at the lower end of the profitability scale are filled with 1-percenters ($481,000+ per year). So why, then, do law firm leaders complain about lack of access to capital to finance much needed law firm innovations?

Based on recent news, we can ask the question another way: Why do we need a entity like UnitedLex’s ULX Partners to bear risk for a firm like LeClairRyan (325 lawyers, 25 offices)? See Rozen, “UnitedLex and LeClairRyan Announce Innovative New Law Venture,” Law.com, June 13, 2018.

Many of us struggle to answer this question, at least succinctly, because we start with the assumption that large law firms are unified businesses. But that’s not quite right.  Law firms have revenues because partners are out there hustling work, typically by selling a combination of personal expertise and responsiveness. Partners who have built and managed a decent-sized practice know they need IT, office space, associates, support staff, and even marketing, if only to respond to RFPs.  Yet, partner books are often an idiosyncratic mash of clients that vary widely by industry, price sensitivity, legal spend, and appetite for change. See Post 048 (clients vary by size and adopter type, making generalizations hard); Post 013 (same).

At a practical level, this means that firm leaders struggle to explain to partners why a meaningful slice of profit needs to finance “innovations” that are (a) relevant to only a subset of clients, and (b) require partners to learn and change. If law firm leaders push the innovation envelope too far, big-producing partners might leave. So here is the answer to our question: Law firms need capital because their own partners are reluctant to pony up, at least in the quantity needed to compete with VC- and PE-backed NewLaw companies.

Despite these challenges, a surprising number of law firms are going down the innovation road–~10-15% of the AmLaw 200.  If I were a law firm leader who had successfully sold such a plan to my partners, I would be worried that the P3 professionals (pricing, project management, process improvement) we worked so hard to find and train will get poached by competitors. Cf. Henderson & Zorn, “The Most Prized Lateral Hire of 2015 Wasn’t a Partner,” AmLaw Daily, Feb. 1, 2016 (discussing poaching of four-person P3 team from BLP to Herbert Smith Freehills). Of course, if I failed to sell such a plan, I would be worried that I was presiding over a hotel for lawyers (a two-star hotel at that).

These are very serious challenges to manage. It’s also the problem that ULX Partners is designed to solve.

Deep bench

This post is being written on the last day of the ACC Legal Ops conference in Chicago.  During one of the sessions earlier this week, I heard a legal department ops professional advise his peers that “it’s a good idea to engage with the law firms’ price and project management professionals” because “these folks are also doing legal ops, but from the law firm side.”  Others in the room agreed. This is evidence that a true sea change is taking hold.

Yet, I have been a regular attendee at these ops conferences, and often the most expert panelists work at NewLaw providers, with UnitedLex and Elevate typically jockeying for the pole position. These companies have the largest and deepest bench of seasoned legal ops professionals. And because these companies are not law firms, lawyers and allied professionals work together as co-equals in terms of status, bonus, and equity. Consistent with Clayton Christiansen’s disruptive innovation, these companies started with rebar (e-discovery) but are now climbing the value ladder toward high-grade steel (strategic work on par with bespoke practitioners).

For many years, CEO Dan Reed has been hinting that UnitedLex is on the path to become something like Accenture, but pointed at the corporate legal services market. To made that a reality, however, UnitedLex has to reconfigure (disrupt or dis-intermediate are too strong a word) the traditional client-law firm relationship.  BigLaw has tremendously valuable client relationships. However, much to the disappointment and frustration of the legaltech world, those relationships are almost never used to introduce clients to innovation by third-party companies.  See Post 025 (discussing law firms as failed distribution channels for legaltech innovators). Thus, most NewLaw providers focus primarily if not exclusively on legal departments.

Why do we need a legal structure like ULX Partners?

The short answer is that partners need a way to co-venture with highly talented allied professionals without running afoul of Rule 5.4, which prohibits lawyers and nonlawyers from sharing ownership interests in a business that is engaged in the practice of law.

The figures that follow are designed to show how 5.4 shapes, but hardly prevents, how capital finds opportunity in the legal market. We start with Figure 1, which reflects the familiar schema that is in our heads.  If we innovate, we are innovating to change this baseline model.  By the way, the baseline model is much more powerful than some might realize, as it reflects the status quo. More on that latter.  Figure 2 reflects a configuration that is starting to take shape. If you were at the ACC Legal Ops conference or at CLOC, this is likely how you view the legal market.

Figure 3 adds in NewLaw’s current point of entry.  Note that NewLaw has lots of lawyers along with allied professionals.  Because its core business is legal ops / P3, NewLaw invests a lot in vetting technology, building sophisticated workflows, and measuring with data. Most legal departments and law firms can’t keep up with this level of sophistication. NewLaw, however, can’t engage in the practice of law. So, as a workaround, lawyers — usually in purple but sometimes in green — have to “supervise” them.

Figure 4 shows what Accenture’s legal vertical would look like but for Rule 5.4.

Thus, Dan Reed and others need a workaround.  Figure 5 is a depiction of the ULX Partners configuration.

The UnitedLex-LeClairRyan initiative will conduct its business through an entity called ULX Partners, LLC, a Delaware Limited Liability Company with several subunits organized other the laws of Florida, California, Massachusetts, Virginia, and the District of Company.  This structure has surely been set up so that no ULX Partner revenue accrues from the practice of law–i.e., no ULX employee will be signing pleadings, making appearance on behalf of clients in court, writing opinion letters, or negotiating with regulators at the FTC, DOJ, or EPA, etc. But absolutely every other activity that occurs within a law firm, including all the pre-work done by associates, staff attorneys, and other professionals before the partner signs off, can potentially be done better, faster, and cheaper inside ULX Partners.

UnitedLex will be the majority owners. LeClairRyan will be a minority shareholder, with ULX Partners set up to take on additional member firms.  The law partners will continue to manage client relationships and perform their usual work. In the meantime, ULX Partners can drive lower-cost, higher-margin engagements. To make this as concrete as possible, about 300 employees of LeClairRyan will be “re-badged” as employees of ULX Partners. Instead of issuing paychecks to these folks, LeClairRyan will pay a service fee to ULX. If this workforce gets supercharged through UnitedLex’s superior legal ops capabilities, LeClairRyan will share in the upside as a ULX owner.

Capitalists and regulators

The configurations above (and in the appendix below) were predicted back in 2010 by Nick Baughan, a managing member of Marks Baughan & Co, an investment bank with a specialization in legaltech.

‘If the law firms themselves can’t have outside investors, the market will continue to chip away at every part of a law firm that is not the pure provision of legal advice,’ says Nick Baughan, a managing member of investment banking firm Marks Baughan & Co., with offices in Conshohocken, Pa., and London. ‘Anything that can be provided legally by a third party will be.’

Rose, “Law, the Investment,” ABA Journal, Sept. 2010 (also quoting the late Prof. Larry Ribstein, “The question used to be: ‘Will the ABA change Rule 5.4?’ … The question now is, ‘Who cares?’”). For the last decade or so, Baughan’s firm has been running a large proportion of the major legaltech deals. So if this feels new to you or me, it’s old news to the professional investors tracking the legal sector.

Now that the market has shifted in a way that could really disrupt traditional law practice, it’s possible state bar regulators will interject themselves into these more aggressive NewLaw structures. This has long been a risk factor in NewLaw PPMs.

That said, regulators will have to work very hard to find a public interest rationale in Rule 5.4 or Rule 5.5 (pertaining to the unauthorized practice of law) that will contain NewLaw’s growth. These rules are grounded in a presumption of asymmetric information between lawyers and unsophisticated clients. If knowledge is asymmetric, clients have little choice but to trust lawyers. Thus, under this policy rationale, lawyers as a group must be completely independent. Obviously, this asymmetry does not exist in large corporations with legal departments comprised of former BigLaw lawyers.  As a result, protectionist motives dressed up as consumer protection won’t cut it.  Ironically, NewLaw will have no trouble finding BigLaw lawyers willing to take their case.

All of this, however, may be premature, as ULX Partners (or related models) may not be a sufficiently large or imminent threat. As noted by Jae Um, “legal innovation is an extreme sport.” Post 051.

Why would a law firm join ULX Partners?

Well, I can think of five reasons, with higher profits being the least important.

  1. More Profit.  UnitedLex CEO Dan Reed claims that ULX Partners will increase partner profits by 5-15%. See Strom, “Will LeClairRyan’s UnitedLex Deal Be the Accelerant Big Law Innovation Needs?“, June 13, 2018. This is certainly possible, albeit it depends upon the level of internal adoption by the lawyers inside ULX member firms. For this to have been the primary driver of the deal, LeClairRyan partners would have made business judgments based on models of future cash flows and profit margins. This is too much math and too much uncertainty for the typical line partner. I don’t buy it. Profit is, at best, icing on something else.
  2. Cost of innovation efforts. A credible legal ops team inside a major law firm is going to cost between 1-2% of firm revenues. There is a lot of talk that such teams will productize firm offerings and become freestanding profit centers. A few have, see Post 039 (Chapman and Cutler), and more will.  But not in the first year or two.  Further, there are indirect, but extremely significant, costs associated with training and change management. Through ULX Partners, UnitedLex bears the start-up costs and associated headaches.
  3. Risk of slow or uneven adoption.  If a firm built its own legal ops team and did everything right, clients may not adopt at the rate and volume needed for a fair return. Last week, I heard a innovation officer at an AmLaw 200 firm say that his firm took the ACC’s Value Challenge seriously, making major investment in people, process, technology, and data.  When shown the output, however, many clients continue to just ask for a fee discount. Cf Post 048 (corporate clients still in early adopter stage). Innovation requires clients to (a) think, and (b) think in a different way. Not all clients are ready. ULX Partners off-loads this risk to UnitedLex.
  4. Risk of innovation failure. A firm could expend money on its own legal ops team only to get its talent poached. Alternatively, the firm leadership could underinvest in change management, resulting in faulty execution and plummeting firm morale. “For god sakes, can’t we just sell time?”
  5. Focus on the practice of law.  Partners excel at counseling clients, dispensing legal advice, advocating, negotiating, and developing clever solutions to knotty problems.  In the past, they have been paid well for this work.  If keeping it requires them to bundle in NewLaw features, they would be most grateful for low-cost, non-compulsory solutions that leave them in control of their own practice. Cf. Post 040 (describing Flaherty’s “Lawyer Theory of Value”). Most partners want to reserve their white space for things related to the practice of law. Let UnitedLex worry about everything else.

These are five very compelling reasons to ink a deal with UnitedLex.  But will other firms follow suit?  And if so, when?  The answer to these questions is complicated.

Why did LeClairRyan go first?

LeClairRyan is not your typical AmLaw200 firm.  It was founded in the mid-1980s by Gary LeClair, who specializes in venture capital businesses, and Dennis Ryan, a now-retired tax lawyer. So it is a “young” AmLaw 200 firm. Gary stepped down as chairman in 2015. But during his tenure, he was one of the most visionary and innovative law firm leaders I have ever met.  He is also a person of exceptional discipline and character who attracts a large client following.  Thus, Gary always had the respect of his partners even if only a few had the time and patience to digest the full sweep of his futuristic thinking.

One of the consequences of a decade or two of give-and-take with Gary is that LeClairRyan partners understand the shifting economics of modern practice, at least compared to other AmLaw 200 lawyers. Under LeClair, the firm did a large deal with UnitedLex around the firm’s e-discovery practice. See Cassens Weiss, “LeClairRyan opens ‘legal solutions center’ in collaboration with tech company,” ABA Journal, Nov. 1, 2013.  The current CEO of LeClairRyan is Erik Gustafson, a litigator who formerly served as head of the firm’s litigation practice. For the five reasons listed above, plus a longstanding relationship of trust with UnitedLex, Erik and the firm’s executive committee were able to make business decision on par with a corporate client in a highly competitive sink-or-swim business environment.

What firms will go next?

I suspect and hope that UnitedLex gets a few other takers in the relative near term. (They will get a lot of meeting with law firms, primarily to shake them down for competitive intelligence. David Perla has an obscene term to describe this ritual. Fill in the blank: grin ____ .)

The most receptive firms would be in the NLJ 100 to 300 range with a diverse range of practices (i.e., not specialized). These firms would also need an innovative-visionary-realistic leadership team and partners who want to stay middle-market for reasons related to clients and culture.  Suffice it to say, this is not a long list.  If, three or four years from now, ULX member firms get their promised 5-15% return and praise from clients regarding service delivery, UnitedLex may get the early majority to tip, see Post 004, setting off rapid adoption in the rest of the social system. Dan Reed and his senior leadership team will be declared geniuses who changed everything.  And they will deserve it.

However, this could play out in a different way. The most lucid account of BigLaw’s possible futures can be found in TomorrowLand by Bruce MacEwen.  First among the eight competing scenarios for how the market might evolve is Chapter I, “Nothing to see here, folks; move along.” Its core point is that all noise from the blogosphere and legal press may be nothing more than Chicken Little. Through the passage of time, BigLaw proves itself endurable. If Chapter I is right, doing nothing is the wisest strategy.

Chapter II is titled, “Lawyer Psychology and the Partnership Structure Win.”  In this scenario, law firms also do nothing. The difference is that “outside forces impose urgent requirements that [firms] change, but they simply cannot bring themselves to do so. This scenario, in short, is populated by firms that would rather fail than change” (p. 26).

This is a funny line.  But I have spent enough time around large firm lawyers to understand how this would play out. In fact, it’s a short walk to failure:

  • Should we build out our own innovation team? “No, there is too much upfront expense and risk.”
  • Should we do a deal with UnitedLex? “No, there is too much brand risk.”
  • Can we at least merge with another firm so we can get some economies of scale to grapple with innovation? Cf. Post 016 (size associated with greater organizational innovation). “No, we need to protect our unique firm culture.”
  • Well, more of our clients are clamoring for the type of solutions offered by NewLaw and our innovative peer firms. What should we do?  Partner 1: “I don’t care because I’m retiring.” Partner 2: “I don’t care because I’m lateraling to a more innovative firm.” Partner 3: “I knew this would happen.”

Perhaps this is what game theory would predict.  I think the ranks of the NLJ 350 are going to get thinned out, either through planned mergers, rescue mergers, or run-on-the-bank implosions. But lawyers with their own books of business will never miss a meal.

The UnitedLex-DXC Deal

It is important to remember that UnitedLex is maneuvering on several fronts. In addition to its current point of entry (Figure 3) and ULX Partners (Figure 5), it recently launched a deal with DXC, a large information technology and professionals service firm. See SenGupta, “In-house legal teams take the lead on speed and spending,” FT, Dec. 11, 2017; Orum Hernández, “UnitedLex to Support Bulk of DXC Technology’s In-House Department,” Corp. Counsel, Dec. 5, 2017.

DXC is the product of a merger between Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) and the Enterprise Services business of Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE). The new company has roughly $26 billion in annual revenues, which will eventually place it in the top quarter of the Fortune 500.

In the post-merger company, a portion of the lawyers and staff from CSC and HPE legal departments were re-badged as UnitedLex employees (and others were laid off). According to the press release, UnitedLex now “deploys more than 250 senior attorneys, contract and commercial professionals, engineers, and other experts in support of DXC around the globe.”  Interestingly, AdvanceLaw is another part of this deal, handling the selection and management of DXC’s panel of outside law firms. See Sprouls, “Welcome to Legal 2.0,” Modern Counsel, Dec. 13, 2017. UnitedLex projects a 30% cost savings along with greater price certainty. Other anticipated benefits include a bump in quality and transparency.

Figure 6 shows the UnitedLex-DXC configuration, which is yet another Rule 5.4 workaround.

DXC’s general counsel, Bill Deckelman, believes that the sourcing and management system they have put together is “Legal 2.0.”

Last week, I attended a plenary at the ACC Legal Ops meeting that included Deckelman along with the GCs of Walmart, Medtronics, and Chicago Public Media (who had previously worked at Motorola Mobility). After Deckelman explained the new platform with UnitedLex, one of the GCs expressed tremendous skepticism that any cost saving would be worth the risk. Her point was that lawyerly judgment requires business context, and that context is made more attenuated through such aggressive outsourcing. (The other two GCs are building out a mix Figure 2 and Figure 3 models, so they listened with interest.)

What the skeptical GC did not grasp, however, is that DXC is a professional services firm whose core business is the sale and execution of outsourced solutions. DXC has decided to eat its own cooking.  Further, although most GC’s are anxious to protect and preserve their headcount — because headcount equates with status and power in most corporate environments — operational legal work is not core to any business with the exception of insurance. The last 20 years have been characterized by an in-sourcing binge of legal work. See Post 003 (graphing growth). The next 20 will be focused on outsourcing to NewLaw or innovative AmLaw200 firms.  Either way, UnitedLex wins. See Figure 5 (ULX Partners); Figure 6 (UnitedLex-DXC). The timing, however, may still be an irritant to Dan Reed and many others.

Still a very slow bake

Folks, I am going to make a point grounded in diffusion theory.  But this puts everything into full perspective and is arguably the most important point in a very long post. Sorry, it had to come last.

For a moment, consider the Figure 1 baseline model.

Each one of the lawyers in purple and green has a view on how things are going and what needs to be changed. In a corporation, the legal budget (in-house and outside counsel) runs around .3% of revenues with variations by industry. See Henderson & Parker, “Your Firm’s Place in the Legal Market,” American Lawyer, Dec. 2015. Is that too much money?  Well, are we talking a relatively simple thin-margin business (e.g., transportation or retail), or a complex business involving IP and extensive regulation (telecom)? A lawyer content with the status quo can spin a story of risk best managed by a big in-house team and/or elite outside counsel. How many CEOs or CFOs can see through the law-is-a-black-art handwaving? Probably not many, though their ranks are growing as they compare notes while socializing.

Granted, agency costs are not the full story. Quite a bit of change is driven by the desires and preferences of innovator/early adopter lawyers (on both the client and law firm sides). It’s just that actual client urgency, and thus law firm urgency, is far from a given. It is also distributed unevenly and somewhat randomly.

Now, consider the UnitedLex configurations (Figures 3, 5, 6) in light of the perceived innovation attributes of the Rogers rate of adoption model in Post 008 (five factors explain 49-87% of rate of adoption). See also Post 011 (slow versus fast innovations).

  • Relative Advantage. It really depends on the intensity of pressure placed on legal departments. Exogenous forces can help, as Pangea3 and Axiom were dramatically aided by the 2008 financial crisis. See Post 032 (Pangea3); Post 036 (Axiom). Pressure is steadily increasing — Richard Susskind’s “more-for-less” challenge — but not necessarily on the timetable of VC and PE investors.
  • Cultural Compatibility. NewLaw scores low on compatibility, albeit crossover at CLOC and ACC are slowly changing that. UnitedLex and others need to continue the basic blocking and tackling. Theses are the “efforts of change agents,” which is an important rate-of-adoption factor. See Post 008 (reviewing full model, including change agents); Post 020 (going deep on change agents).
  • Complexity. Very complex. UnitedLex is not offering a smartphone app. This slows adoption.
  • Trialability. Not really. A trial on low stakes work is dismissed as not a real test. The really transformative stuff requires a commitment + effort + time. The client must believe in reason, data, and the experience of other industries. This slows adoption.
  • Observability. Really hard to do.  I have done site visits and web/conference demos and have been impressed. But that still takes a lot of effort for potential clients. Client testimonials can help here, but are they from opinion leaders? See Post 020 (opinion leaders needed to tip early majority). DXC and LeClairRyan don’t fit that bill, as they are innovator/early adopters. Cf. Post 052 (discussing need of right types of reference clients for pragmatist mainstream market). Higher PPP by itself won’t do it, as the causal relation will be contested.

In summary, ULX Partners (and the UnitedLex-DXC model) appears to be, at best, a slow innovation. See Post 011 (fast versus slow innovations).  UnitedLex is competing against in-house legal ops and more innovative law firms, see Figure 2, which are (a) more culturally compatible and (b) require less complex changes in how the work gets done. For some clients, in the short to medium-term at least, these factors may weigh heavier than lower cost and higher quality. Remember these adoption decisions are made by groups of lawyers. All day long, collective adoption decisions impede the diffusion of valuable innovations. See Post 008 (basic model); Post 048 (comparing individual and corporate markets based on type of adoption decision). This is why leadership is so crucial — to serve as a counterweight to paralysis-by-analysis so common among lawyers.

Lawyers might confuse slow change with no change.  But they are different. Further, to benefit from slow change, you might need to act very soon in relatively significant ways lest the door of opportunity permanently close. One can’t put off change for a decade and then, when the heat gets unbearable, change overnight.

Appendix on ElevateNext

ElevateNext appears to be a cross between the two UnitedLex models. Basically, most of the legal department functions, including outside counsel management, are being moved to ElevateNext, a law firm that will be very tightly integrated with Elevate Services. The client in this case is Univar, a global chemical company currently ranked #349 in the Fortune 500.

Under this configuration, those practicing law in ElevateNext have best-in-class process, technology, and staffing options.  This effort is being engineered by Univar GC Jeff Carr, who is famous in in-house circles for his ACES model and his excellent track record at FMC Technologies, see, e.g., Davis, “Playing with ACES,” ABA Journal, Oct. 7, 2009. In fact, this opportunity got Jeff to un-retire. Thus, ElevateNext will be highly incentivized to optimize their use of Elevate legal ops functions. Also, when Univar needs the specialized expertise of a law firm, the firm will enter into an ACR with Univar, but ElevateNext lawyers (i.e., another law firm) will, in most cases, manage them. (By the way, the DNA here descends from Mark Cohen and Clearspire.)

Below is the ElevateNext configuration.

The analysis on the UnitedLex models applies wholesale to ElevateNext.  Jeff Carr is a thought leader, but he is not an opinion leader that triggers the early majority to follow. Instead, they watch with interest, as happened with the ACC Value Challenge. All of this will take longer than reason or self-interest would suggest.

What’s next?  See BigLaw partners aren’t dumb: they are just not in the room (054)

Click to enlarge

Innovative products and services feel magical to the user. To create that feeling, however, innovation teams must grind through lots (and lots) of work. Fortunately, we have a playbook.


The core insight embedded in Rogers Diffusion Curve is that the adoption of new ideas occurs in a specific order through a social system comprised of five distinct segments. See Post 004 (introducing diffusion curve); Post 007 (explaining adopter types). Rogers’ research eventually found its way to Silicon Valley and got relabeled the Technology Adoption Life Cycle. See Posts 024026. Along the way, technology marketer and consultant Geoffrey Moore added a key modification: a material gap, or “chasm”, between early adopters and the early majority. If a company can “cross the chasm”, commercial success becomes inevitable, as sales then occur largely through a social process of one peer imitating another.

To boil it down, Rogers proves out the science, while Moore provides the playbook. This one-two punch dramatically increases the odds of successful innovation adoption. But let’s keep it real: This is a lot more work–and deeper thinking–than law firms are used to.

One of Moore’s most useful adaptations to Diffusion Theory is the use of buyer personas to correspond with each adopter type. Moore’s book Crossing the Chasm is peppered with many detailed narratives about the trials and tribulations new product teams encounter in their efforts to sell to each persona/adopter type.  The persona approach is a profoundly powerful way to design a product or service offering that the target end-user finds irresistible.

Below is a summary of how to apply Moore’s buyer personas to the legal market.

1. The Early Markets, Where Things Often Go Swimmingly

In his discussions, Moore provides a practical description of a functional job each adopter type tends to perform in the diffusion process. This post draws heavily on Chapters 2 and 3 of Crossing the Chasm, but with particular emphasis on Early Adopters and the Early Majority.

Innovators / “Techies”

Techies often embrace the nuts and bolts of how stuff actually works. Over time, Techies tend to amass a wealth of technical knowledge through self-initiated and self-sustained study.

In its earliest days, an innovation needs social proof to validate not only its novelty but its objective superiority. Moore describes Techies as “the gatekeepers for any new technology… the ones everyone else deems competent to do the early evaluation” (p. 39).

Of all five adopter types, Techies have perhaps the most straightforward and unambiguous job: to curate and assess new technologies or methodologies and endorse those with true technical superiority over currently available alternatives.

Early Adopters / “Visionaries”

Visionaries have both the imagination to see the world as it could be rather than as it is and the ambition to try to make those possibilities the new reality. Curious and ambitious, they gravitate toward high-impact, high-visibility roles within organizations. Along the way, Visionaries often gain access to significant discretionary budgets earmarked loosely for “strategic initiatives.”

The innovation function of the Visionary is easily described but exceedingly difficult to perform. Visionaries match emerging technologies or new ideas with systemic opportunities to drastically reshape existing markets. In other words, they identify business opportunities for a strategic leap forward. This requires not only an already rare combination of innate traits (curiosity, risk tolerance, openness to new ideas) but also an asset acquired over some years of experience: deep domain expertise in a specific industry.

“Huge, if true”

In the parlance of renowned venture capitalist Marc Andreesen, the most ambitious and canny Visionaries find and bet on ideas that will be “huge, if true.” Their work looks and feels nebulous because it is.

Moore’s critical insight here is that Visionaries balance risk against reward: they must perceive reasonable potential for significant breakthroughs to justify the risks attendant in sponsoring new ideas. To the uninitiated, Visionaries are regularly seen signing irresponsibly large checks to sponsor the development of murky endeavors that are often nothing more than a doodle on a whiteboard. The gift of vision enables this group to see the possibility of what Moore calls “order-of-magnitude” returns in the competitive positioning of their business (p. 44).

Given the stakes, Visionaries present as the least price-sensitive adopter type, and money is usually not the type of capital that is top of mind for them.  Rather, they tend to hold their reputations and political capital at a higher premium. As a buyer group for new products or services, Visionaries like to structure deals into pilot projects, replete with milestones and other signifiers of measurable progress. The perception of smooth progress toward tangible “wins” is critical for Visionaries to maintain not only their social status but also their professional standing.

Techies + Visionaries Make Unlikely 💖 Pairings That Make Perfect Sense

At first blush, Techies and Visionaries tend to look and sound quite different, and the collision of their two worlds often take casual observers by surprise.  Many Techies are self-proclaimed nerds who dig deep into their chosen area of interest. Visionaries tend to be well-connected individuals who travel far and wide, always in search of a new idea that will spark their next “initiative.”

But the natural affinity between these two types is quite easy to understand when viewed through the lens of shared values.  Both groups seek new things, though for purposes that are quite different in both behavior and motivation.

Techies and Visionaries each provide an invaluable service by performing key jobs that advance the goals of the other. Techies willingly volunteer their time, effort, and expertise to curate and test new offerings, but they often lack the social and professional standing to make things happen. Visionaries are big thinkers who share the Techies’ future-orientation, but with the upwardly mobile executive’s knack for imposing their goals onto the agendas and budgets of a well-resourced organization.

Thus, Techies and Visionaries tend to form symbiotic relationships that provide mutual benefit and fulfillment. Perhaps because of this unusual affinity, innovations that target Techies and Visionaries in the correct sequence are able to build impressive traction in early markets.

2. Into the Chasm, Where Things Get Dicey

When Bill first introduced the five adopter types, he had this advice to offer: “If you want your innovation to be adopted, don’t waste time trying to convert the early majority, late majority, or laggards. You only have one audience that matters – early adopters.” Post 007.

This is excellent advice. The work of taking innovations off the paper, out of the lab and into the real world requires the successful penetration of early markets.  In these early days, Visionaries are crucial to the innovation effort because they perform critical jobs for which they are uniquely equipped.

But why do so many innovation initiatives stall in the chasm, even with the support of the Early Adopter?

This is a critical question for our industry. See Post 051 (positing that the true bottleneck in legal innovation is a commercialization gap). The latest Altman Weil survey of law firm leaders reports that 38.3% of firms are actively engaged in creating special projects to test innovative ideas or methods – down from 50.4% in 2017.  While the decline is concentrated in smaller firms, the dip in experimentation suggests that the chasm threatens to dampen the overall pace of innovation in legal markets.

If you hope to scale innovation beyond experiments in the lab, understanding the psychographic (the “why”) and functional (the “how”) dynamics around the chasm is a must. An examination of the often fraught relationship between the Early Adopters and the Early Majority who bookend the chasm is particularly instructive.

Simply put, the chasm exists because the buying criteria and performance expectations of these two groups are so dramatically different. These very differences form the crux of why Early Adopters make poor reference clients for the Early Majority.

The perpetual tension between Visionary Early Adopters and the Pragmatist Early Majority stems from many dispositional differences, but there is one factor that we must always keep in mind. Despite the best of intentions and the best of efforts, the Visionaries’ bets do not always pay off. The hoped-for “order of magnitude” returns fail to materialize, and the new idea, product or service is found insufficient to catapult the innovation sponsor ahead of the competition.

In these unfortunate instances, it is often a Pragmatist, not the Visionary, who sounds a quiet death knell for the innovation experiment.

3. Pragmatists Hold the Keys to the Mainstream Markets

When David Cambria, the Director of Global Legal Operations at ADM, and Jeff Carr, the General Counsel of Univar, talk of “massive passive resistance,” or MPR, they are describing the attitudes of mainstream markets.

No single person or segment among the Early Majority, Late Majority, or Laggards holds nearly as much influence or prestige as the Techies or Visionaries who comprise the early markets.  All the same, the mainstream markets derive massive power from massive numbers – and their passivity actually makes them more intractable. They are hard to understand because they are not as vocal or as distinctive as the early markets, and markets that are not well understood are hard to penetrate.  Unfortunately, the failure to understand 85% of the target audience usually portends a slow but certain death for any new process, product or service.

Techies and Visionaries are united in their continual quest for new things, but mainstream markets are equally unified in the opposite direction.  The vast majority of B2B buyers do not care for novelty. Rather, mainstream markets generally seek proven, complete solutions to known problems. Lack of clarity on either side of the problem-solution equation usually translates to substantial costs to educate the market. Within each organization, change agents also must contend with the costly battle against legacy infrastructure and cultural antibodies reinforcing the status quo.

Early Majority / “Pragmatists”

Pragmatists tend to gravitate toward roles of responsibility and stewardship in sizable corporations and in professional communities.  Hence, Pragmatists are often the de facto keepers of the core company budget as well as industry standards and best practices.

According to Moore, the “Fortune 2000 IT community, as a group, is led by people who are largely pragmatist in orientation” (p 55). We can easily envision how this type would dominate positions of authority across legal functions of the same companies, and the description fits reasonably well for practice group or industry group leadership roles across NLJ 500 law firms.

An Advanced Exercise in Empathy

As a buyer group, Pragmatists are practical, stringent and value-conscious for entirely rational and comprehensible reasons.  Early markets opt into their innovation roles, but Pragmatists have their responsibilities thrust upon them.  Pragmatists are the ones usually held internally accountable for building, integrating, testing, debugging, and maintaining a new reality but at realistic levels of cost and effort – all while supporting their entire organization as it is nudged and prodded through all the unpleasantness of learning a new way to work.

For the would-be entrepreneur or intrapreneur, the skeptical demands of Pragmatists throw cold water on all the dreams nurtured by early market success.  For that reason alone, an “extended exercise in commercial empathy” for this group’s point of view can feel very taxing.  We often find it easier to vilify Pragmatists as unimaginative, plodding, and ornery – for the simple reason that they stand towering like an impassable mountain range between us and all our innovation dreams.

(For an illuminating glimpse at the world through the viewpoint of a Pragmatist, set aside some time to at least skim through the narrative vignettes in “What is Code?” – an award-winning 38,000-word showpiece on Bloomberg Businessweek.)

Innovations Start Life As Hypotheses, and Hypotheses Need Testing

Visionaries craft many scenarios about what the future might look like, but it is the Pragmatists who ultimately decide what the future actually will be.  Pragmatists derive this considerable power not from glamorous positioning and self-promotion, but rather from the distinctly unglamorous work of safeguarding their organizations against catastrophic system failures and irresponsible budget leakages.

Along the way, Pragmatists provide an invaluable service not only to their own organizations but also to the innovation teams who listen with the intent to understand.  Visionaries deal in the murky realm of intuition and hunches, but Pragmatists are the keepers of cold hard truth.  And cold hard truth is what we need when we tackle one thorny question after another to validate the Visionary’s plausible theories:

  • Are we addressing a business problem that matters?
  • Does this problem matter to a market of sufficient size?
  • Have we built a complete product that solves enough of the problem?
  • Does our offering solve the problem more effectively than any other available option?
  • Can we deliver sufficient business value to justify not only our asking price but the total cost of adoption and use?
  • Does our offering actually work reliably and for real users in the real world?
Click to enlarge

Asking and answering these questions in an evidence-based manner demands extraordinary emotional discipline. The interest of early markets, no matter how exciting, is necessary but insufficient proof. The true test of market viability is forged through the exacting requirements of Pragmatists.

Prior to crossing the chasm, the Pragmatist’s buying requirements present material barriers to further diffusion:

  • insistence on a whole product solution
  • reliance on peer references from other Pragmatists
  • penchant for backing the market-leading solution
  • attention to practical deployment levers (e.g. infrastructure compatibility)

However, the innovation teams able to meet these demands find themselves well positioned to capture market share quickly. And the innovations that survive these trials are often imbued with an invaluable attribute of mainstream success: scalability. Lastly, because Pragmatist are fiercely loyal once won, the innovation team can expect to enjoy a highly defensible competitive position.

4. Even In A World of No, There Are Lessons To Be Had

The Late Majority and Laggards do not feature as prominently in our narrative. Legal innovation is not yet mature enough to grapple seriously with the market extension opportunities offered by these adopter types, who are generally resistant to trying new things.

Still, we append a few remarks. Despite the best efforts of innovation teams to convert each of the adopter types in the prescribed order, the messy and chaotic nature of legal markets all but guarantees that we will encounter all adopter types in our quest for market entry.

Late Majority / “Conservatives”

Risk aversion, price sensitivity, and tendency to follow rather than lead are the identifying characteristics of Conservatives. Whereas Pragmatists seek demonstrable gain in a defensible cost-benefit analysis, Conservatives in legal ecosystems are more likely seek minimal pain in their individual buyer and user experiences. This has the benefit of forcing us to focus on convenience factors such as ease of purchase and use as well as performance reliability.

Conservative buyers reward innovation teams for attention to human factors, optimized product design, and streamlined sales operations. However, none of this matters without the requisite social proof and peer pressure from Pragmatists and other Conservatives. For this reason, premature focus on these factors generally bodes ill for innovation teams, particularly in B2B markets. Making something more usable before verifying that it is actually useful to a sufficient number of paying customers is usually an expensive exercise.

Laggards / “Skeptics”

Skeptics are as likely as not to avoid adoption to the bitter end. As hostile as Skeptics may be to any innovation endeavor, engaging them in good faith whenever they are encountered can deliver at least one important benefit.

Skeptics tend to draw attention to specific gaps between product promises and actual performance. (This rarely feels beneficial or benign to innovation teams grappling with concept models and prototype.) Still, innovation teams who are open to engaging with this challenging segment gain precious opportunities to achieve greater user understanding, client empathy & client orientation. Particularly if the spotlighted performance gaps lead to specific insights about customer failures – e.g. critical breakdowns in business processes or the user journey – we can gain a much deeper understanding of the customer’s work context, business problems and use constraints.

5. Innovation Is Really Hard

All of this is much easier said than done. It is an inordinate amount of work and most of it cannot be done sitting at a desk. If we intend to put a dent in the universe, we cannot expect to coddle our creations in a pristine but sterile lab. Instead, we have to venture out into the messy and chaotic world that we hope to change.

Effectuating meaningful change is also hard because it demands, early and often, productive collisions with many people who will disagree with us. That work involves lots (and lots and lots) of dismissal, criticism and outright rejection.

To survive this bruising onslaught, innovators and change agents need to develop not only relevant expertise and skill sets but also habits of mind. Chief among these is a habit of thinking deeply and constructively about the viewpoint of the customer.

Much like a fledgling magician without an audience, an innovator without a customer is just another person with a quirky hobby.

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What’s Next? See ULX Partners: UnitedLex develops solution to law firm innovation risk (053)


Legal innovators yearn for a big payday. The obstacle course in their way? A messy, fragmented, and chaotic legal market.


Why is the legal industry so slow to change? This question gets asked all the time – particularly during conference season – but it gets more than its fair share of airtime year-round. It is ever-present in the blogosphere and hotly debated on Law Twitter at least once a week.

However, the most frequently given answers are largely unsatisfying and the ensuing discussion often recursive. If the legal industry is on tape delay, the change conversation may be stuck in a Delos-worthy loop.

Legal innovation stands at a critical juncture. With mounting momentum comes heightened scrutiny, and though we may be on the cusp of significant breakthroughs, we also stand on the precipice of an industry-wide chasm.  It’s time to acknowledge that we are working within an environment of extraordinary complexity and inefficiency, where innovation offerings are at clear and overwhelming risk of faring poorly.

(Market) Context Matters More Than (Lawyer) Character

One popular fallback is a narrative that I’ll call “because lawyers.”  Because lawyers are skeptical, because lawyers are conservative, and the list goes on (and on and on). The “because lawyers” train of thought goes something like this: because lawyers are different, the legal industry must also be different, and what has worked to advance positive change in other industries will not apply here. I disagree.

How “Because Lawyers” Fails the Industry

The “because lawyers” narrative can offer insights of value to would-be change agents, but I tend to think it suffers from two limitations that are closely related:

  • Firstly, it is better at explaining failures than explaining successes (and there have been some successes). This suggests that the “because lawyers” narrative lacks explanatory power: designing around lawyerly tendencies is likely a necessary but insufficient condition to driving systemic change.
  • Secondly, “because lawyers” is an intrinsically blame-based narrative, built on hypotheses about highly stable aspects of lawyer disposition and personality. This is especially problematic where it invites proactive defensiveness from lawyers and engenders cumulative resentment in change agents. These two consequences conspire to erode rather than promote collective psychological safety. Cf. Laura Delizonna, “High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here is How to Create It,” Harv Bus Rev (Aug. 24, 2017).

Instead, I think we (legal innovators and change agents) would reap greater benefit from thinking and talking more specifically about target markets. For example, which buyers have underserved needs that they are willing to pay to address now? And what, precisely, are those needs?

Buyers Rarely Beat the Proverbial Path to Your Door

Developing new products and services is hard – in any industry.  Even when there is a proven customer base with clearly articulated and well-understood needs, incremental improvements do not readily and reliably translate into profit.  Disruptive products and services are another order of magnitude difficult: they occur because of discovery of a whole new set of needs not yet known or understood by anyone (we want 1000+ songs on demand at all times); or because of a wholly new configuration of value creation and delivery that substantially displaces the current solution (we want to order every book and eventually every product under the sun and have it delivered tomorrow).

In either context – incremental improvement or true disruption – would-be innovators must proactively define a reachable target market. Because new things take time to refine and scale, the survival of new ideas often depends on identifying and addressing the correct market first.

This implies a deep understanding of buyers and markets:

  • how buyers currently organize and identify themselves into groups;
  • how each group might differently perceive their needs and potential options to fulfill those needs; and
  • how they prefer to buy and consume products and services that present a solution.

This is especially tricky because markets for new things are fluid and sometimes cut across existing or obvious demographic segments.  Indeed, as this publication has well established, receptiveness to new things – in any context – are more dependent on psychographic attributes than demographic ones. See Post 007 (covering the basics of adopter types).

Ideas Need Market Feedback to Become Real

In the legal industry or anywhere else, ideas are rarely in short supply. Ideas are necessary but insufficient for meaningful progress – what we need are effective and reliable means to validate and refine ideas into tangible products and services that will survive contact with reality.  This almost always requires the participation of potential buyers.

Unfortunately, optimal buyers in early markets do not always self-identify or congregate conveniently in a physical marketplace that innovators can visit to announce or demonstrate their idea.  Instead, as the graphic above suggests [click to enlarge] the innovation team has to think creatively and undertake all manner of legwork outside the lab, to discover or pull together niche markets or sub-segments who will provide feedback and stress-test hypotheses about how the new process, product or service should work.

The onus to find the right prospects and convince them to try new things rests with the innovator, entrepreneur or intrapreneur. Yet, how often do we revert to the “because lawyers” narrative to explain away the many promising ideas that have stalled without achieving significant adoption?  If a product or service is actually effective in addressing a problem that matters to the customer, the change management burden can be reduced (although perhaps never fully eliminated). Cf. Post 008 (49 to 87% of the rate of adoption typically turns on just five product attributes–relative advantage, simplicity, cultural compatibility, trialability, observability).

Unfortunately, “going to market” has become shorthand for any number of sticky problems and nebulous questions to work through. When we use that phrase, we need to acknowledge the enormous time, effort and difficulty that lies ahead.

As an industry, we are not yet mature in our collective ability to define and size new markets for innovative offerings. In simpler terms, our most critical gap isn’t ideation and it probably isn’t change management either.  We have a commercialization problem, and to improve our industry-wide win rate we need to address the actual choke point.

Legal Innovators Face Extreme Conditions

In a recent discussion, Bill offered this insight: the legal industry isn’t different; rather, it’s extreme.  I think this is a superior framing device to drive constructive dialogue and to advance our thinking about legal innovation.

Two distinguishing features of the legal industry’s structure contribute to make it an unusually unfavorable ecosystem for innovation: (1) extraordinarily balkanized and (2) fractally opaque.  That sounds highly academic and esoteric, so I explain in plainer English below, with some supporting figures and visuals.

Balkanized and Isolated

Many industries are fragmented (i.e. crowded without a clear or dominant market leader), but legal is something more: extremely fragmented into many smaller units that are mutually hostile or uncooperative.  This is true at the establishment level (individual firms) and at the segment level (the categories and subgroups into which firms roughly organize themselves).

The above diagram [click to enlarge] conceptualizes the evolving landscape of legal service providers, along the two-hemisphere model advanced by Heinz and Laumann and Susskind’s bespoke-to-commoditized continuum. See Henderson, What is more important for lawyers: where you go to law school or what you learned? (Part II), Legal Whiteboard (July 19, 2015). The left side of the chart captures the broad categories of incumbents (“the artisan guild”). The middle and right regions capture the broad categories of emergent competitors who seek to leverage new technology or process innovations to offer a different value proposition. This graphic is effective in communicating the increasing complexity of the legal marketplace.

However, it’s important to note that the above depiction of market composition is conceptual and categorical – it is not a scale representation of current market share along any quantitative measure. To add a more quantitative dimension, the below chart [click to enlarge] relies on U.S. Census data to show the composition of the legal services market by establishment size:

While this is an incomplete view of the market and a fairly imprecise mapping of segment to firm size, it still offers added quantitative support to the idea posited first in Post 005 “Six Types of Law Firm Clients” and clarified recently in Post 048 “Confusing Conversations with Clients”: namely, that we talk past each other because we each bring varying perspectives from different work contexts.

Most market composition analyses are based in revenue share. On infrequent occasions, the point is made that the vast majority of firms are solos or small firms (over 90% in the Census data above). But it is an analysis of job share that gives a more accurate sense of our industry as well as the best real-world explanation of why we often talk past each other.

Roughly 1,200 of the largest companies in the legal market account for about a third of all jobs, with small firms and solos splitting the remainder fairly evenly. If a Martian visiting Earth to learn about our legal ecosystem were to randomly select 3 people who work in legal services, the most likely scenario is that he will end up with 3 people who come from dramatically different work contexts and have almost no consistent information to offer.  Even if our Martian were to beat the odds and pull together a focus group of 3 individuals who at least work in similarly sized organizations (he has about a 3.7% chance of getting that lucky), it’s also likely they come from firms with different specializations serving different client segments, who are accustomed to completely different workflows, technology environments, and compensation and incentive schemes.

Like any balkanized region comprised of hostile states, the legal market is difficult for outsiders to navigate or understand. For those of us on the inside, we should remember that each of us brings to the table a labyrinthine set of customs and experiences that create significant divisions and critical barriers to cooperation.

Fractally Opaque → Perpetually Lost in Translation

By and large, we remain in our silos and fail to cooperate. The “lone wolf” proclivities of lawyers (so autonomous and so competitive!) have been cited frequently as a primary barrier to open communication and collaboration. However, I think the phenomena is subject to more contextual explanation. Some legal work is intrinsically adverse and nearly all of it is highly confidential in nature. These factors serve to anchor a high baseline of opacity and create communication infrastructures that are designed to impede, rather than promote, the efficient sharing of information.

Despite the efforts of some forward-thinking corporate law departments to drive deeper collaboration across their supply chains, firms within each category tend to engage in vigorous competition, which in turn drives even greater opacity. The intensity of that competition has only increased in recent years as corporate budget pressures and insourcing strategies have depressed demand growth for the “artisan guild.”  Subsequently, an open exchange of new ideas or practices within categories is more the exception than the rule, and usually only happens under diligent and hands-on management by a shared client.

In the current state, we also see very little systemic cooperation across segments (e.g. sustained strategic alliances or partnerships across service provider types). The artisan guild tends to regard newcomers with suspicion, and many forward-thinking incumbents are embarking on long-range initiatives to future-proof their businesses against down-market threats. In this, the incumbents engage in completely rational competitive behavior: many new entrants seeking entry points into the corporate buyer ecosystem are essentially positioned to displace corporate legal spend that has historically been held captive by the artisan guild.

In the legal industry, very real differences are present at many different resolutions: across segments, firms, practices, case teams, and individual roles. The resulting translation barriers add opacity to an already complex ecosystem, and that opacity is fractal in nature. In other words, you can take any subpart of the legal industry and it will display structural features that make each part just as opaque as the whole.

Even when we want to, many of us working in legal businesses find it challenging to relate meaningfully to each other. The emergence of new types of businesses and the continuing proliferation of new roles for allied professionals add more dimensions of complexity and friction in communication:

If innovation is a process by which new ideas spread across a social system, see Post 004, then legal innovators and change agents would be well served to recognize that the legal industry is not one single monolithic social system.  Rather, it is a complex and complicated network of distinct and disparate subsystems, with almost every organizing principle conspiring to create friction in the diffusion process.

In an illustrative comparison, our close cousins in accounting have a slightly easier time. About 50% of accounting jobs are concentrated in firms of 500 employees or more. The perennial focus in legal press on the fates and fortunes of the richest firms, see, e.g., “The Super Rich Are Getting Richer” in American Lawyer (April 2018), also conspire to give a broad sense that the legal market is exceeding top-heavy.  In short, the legal market appears to be a textbook example of the top 1% claiming the lion’s share of clients, revenue and profits, but this turns out to be a distortion of reality. The legal market most likely suffers from a slower pace of innovation because it is not top-heavy enough.

Though an apples to oranges comparison, the Big 4 enjoy much greater advantages of scale and scope relative to even the largest global law firms because they’ve consolidated a much larger portion of market share. Collectively, the Big 4 clocked about $130bn in global revenues in 2017 – more than revenues of the Am Law 200 combined.

Historically, the Big 4 draws roughly 40% of its revenues from the Americas and about 30% from audit.  To match the Big 4’s Americas topline, the largest 32 Am Law firms would need to pool their collections. Because each of those 32 firms is organized into its own unique matrixed structure of regions and practice areas, the adoption decision must be made many times over, whether on a collective or authority basis, see Post 008 (type of decision affects rate of adoption). Either way, overall cost and effort required to spread new ideas through law firms are exponentially greater.

Market Inefficiencies → Innovation Inefficiencies

These structural barriers to the spread of new ideas are very real, even for the vast majority of the market conducting business as usual and merely looking for ways to drive incremental improvements to how they work. However, their adverse effects are perhaps felt most keenly by those trying to drive significant change in the industry.

In the aggregate, these structural barriers are experienced as friction in the procurement process and as inefficiencies in the marketplace. What do I mean by inefficiencies?  In classic economic theory, an efficient market is one in which asset prices accurately reflect true value. Clearly, the ongoing dialogue around the need for pricing innovation – as well as the anecdotal evidence of high price dispersion for similar services – suggests the legal services market is highly inefficient.

But I also think the current makeup of the legal services market makes it highly inefficient in the literal and colloquial sense of the word: it takes too much time and effort for buyers and sellers of specific services to find each other, and once they meet up it also takes a great deal of time and effort to agree upon a fair rate to exchange money for services.  More often than not, buyer and seller arrive at some accord using highly technical methods best described as “eh ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ looks about right.”

Assessment and evaluation of new substitutes implies an even greater burden of time and effort, along with the added element of risk in what is defensibly an environment of exceptionally low tolerance for failure. Moving fast and breaking things is great for startups… until Cambridge Analytica happens.  Generally speaking, breaking things is less great for lawyers who are often hired to prevent bad things from happening or to argue over liability for bad things that have happened.

To succeed in this unforgiving ecosystem, innovations must offer an undeniable value proposition that functions as a complete solution to a material customer problem.  In the next post, we will revisit the five adopter types with the goal of understanding the specific and unique contributions each type can offer to the would-be change agent seeking to cross the chasm.

What’s next?  See A playbook for innovation magic (052)


The legal industry wants more innovation. The missing ingredient is strong leadership.


Several years ago, a good friend threw me to the lions, though that was not his intent.

My friend, who works in legaltech, asked me to show up at the headquarters of a Fortune 100 company to present some prototypes I had developed on giving feedback to law firms.  Cost pressures were rolling downhill to the legal department.  Thus, in an effort to better manage costs, the senior leadership winnowed their outside law firms to a panel of preferred providers.  In theory, the firms were supposed to work cooperatively with each other to deliver world-class quality within a large predefined budget.

From a distance, this all sounded innovative. But up close, implementation was a challenge. The only management tool was an annual rating system that measured law firms on a 1 to 5 scale (1 = poor, 5 = excellent). Because performance was aggregated across dozens of lawyers and dozens of matters, the narrative comments were too general and lacking in context to be helpful. Further, all the quantitative scores were clustered in the 4.8 to 4.9 range, making them useless for making merit-based adjustments.  Indeed, if in-house lawyers gave scores any lower, they’d be tacitly admitting a problem with their own oversight.

I had approximately 90 minutes to present my prototype to a room full of BigLaw relationship partners.  Basically, my proposal was to have in-house counsel complete a monthly survey tool for each significant matter they were managing (a 10 to 30-minute commitment per lawyer who managed outside counsel). In turn, the results would roll up to a centralized knowledge management system that would generate practice group, firm, and legal department-level reports.

Although the proposed prototype required the in-house lawyers to do all the work to generate the feedback, the law firm partners disliked everything they heard, arguing that the work to review the feedback would be burdensome and counterproductive. One especially vociferous partner remarked, “If there’s a problem, I’d rather have a phone call.” He would not concede that there was any value to timely bucketing specific examples of good and bad behaviors, nor that the resulting data could provide a roadmap to help the client and create a factual basis for higher fees.

As I was getting pummeled by the BigLaw partners, the in-house lawyers looked on in silence.  And in hindsight, I really don’t blame them.  They, like me, were learning the depth of the opposition to systematic measurement of performance.  It would have been a different dynamic if the general counsel, who operated at a level above these lawyers and was not supervising this initiative, had communicated that the company was going to use a feedback system to better manage millions in legal spend and that the purpose of this meeting was not to question the premise, but collaborate on implementation.

At this juncture in my career, I had not witnessed many examples of strong and decisive leadership among lawyers and thus did not appreciate how essential it was to organizational progress.  Over the next several years, however, I began to see the pattern.

Who should run the feedback process?

A few years later, in December of 2014, I spent the afternoon with two law firm insiders who were in charge of strategic initiatives at their respective firms.  Both believed in the importance of client feedback to not only enhance the quality of service but also deepen relationships with clients and build a path to more meaningful and sustainable growth.  Yet, they expressed frustration at its limited value to drive firm-wide or industry-level change.

Here’s why.  Imagine a large corporate client that uses 20 outside law firms.  In most cases, that means that there are nearly 20 different ways that the client provides feedback. One firm sends the managing partner for an annual dinner with the general counsel. Another sends the relationship partner. A third sends the Chief Value Officer. A fourth has an annual client survey system, albeit only 30% of the in-house lawyers reply. Several other firms use a third-party service, such as Acritas, Wicker Park Group, BTI, or PP&C Consulting.  And a surprising number of firms are content with feedback in the form of paid bills and continued work.

Virtually all of these feedback mechanisms are fragmented and lacking in context, making it easy for lawyers to rationalize away negative information. Under the best case scenario, only 20-30% of the total feedback time will result in significantly better performance.  That means that 70-80% of feedback has zero ROI. That’s an enormous amount of waste.

Yet, what if clients took control of the feedback process? As my colleagues pointed out, if clients rigorously evaluated their outside counsel, the information would be too direct and specific to be ignored. Then we laughed at our Panglossian idea, “This is never going to happen.”

Sometimes it’s good to be wrong

One of my law firm friends in the December 2014 meeting was John Fernandez, who was at the time was the US Chief Innovation Officer at Dentons (now Global Chief Innovation Officer).  One of John’s projects was the launching of NextLaw Ventures and NextLaw Labs, which identified promising new legal technologies for investment and piloting within the firm.

In June of 2015, John fielded an inquiry from a corporate GC who had, over the course of eight years and two different companies, developed a feedback system for managing his outside law firms.  The general counsel, Mark Smolik of DHL Supply Chain Americas, was looking for guidance on whether this idea had commercial application. John asked if I wanted to join a meeting with Mark to help vet the opportunity for NextLaw.  I said “sure.”

That meeting was very fateful because (a) John and I had already identified that this was a problem worth solving, and (b) Mark Smolik had years worth of data showing that his system worked.   Miscommunication and derailments were going down, value per dollar spent was going up, and Mark had more bandwidth to focus on other company priorities.

Borrowing from HR

I think readers will benefit from understanding the origins of Smolik’s system, as it reveals the power of simple ideas and insights.

The first insight occurred to Mark over a decade ago when he was general counsel of Safelite Auto Glass, a national company doing on-site windshield repair.  In addition to running the legal function, Mark was also in charge of HR. One day, Mark became a Safelite customer when the windshield on his wife’s car got damaged.  While at work, Mark took a call from his wife, who told him that a somewhat frightening looking guy claiming to be with Safelite showed up at the house to repair the damage  “I have no idea who this person is. Why should I open the door?” Wanting to reassure his wife, Mark contacted the Columbus service center and asked them to send their best technician to perform the work. “Please tell me his name and at least what he looks like.”

That incident gave Mark an opportunity to experience Safelite through the eyes of the customer.  Shortly thereafter, Safelite developed a standard practice of sending a technician profile email to all its mobile customers that included name, photo and credentials of the auto glass technician.  Safelite also implemented a client feedback tool to track the quality of each service call.  By the time Smolik left Safelite in 2009 (two years after its successful sale to Belron), Safelite was planning a national ad campaign that would make the quality and friendliness of their glass technicians the centerpiece of the company’s branding.

The systematic tracking of the customer-facing personnel at Safelite created a desire in Mark to apply the same logic to the many law firms that he was managing.  “If the company is going to spend a few hours each year reviewing the performance of each of its employees, then why aren’t we devoting at least that much attention to the large sums we spend on law firms?”

Thus, Mark applied basic HR principles to his outside counsel, developing performance criteria, applying it to firms, sharing results, and collaborating on a plan for improvement.  Mark used this methodology to winnow and consolidate the number of firms he worked with. This reduced his overall communication overhead while increasing the value of each dollar Safelite spent on legal.

Building a company around scorecards

By the spring of 2016, Mark Smolik’s outside counsel scorecarding system became the basis for Qualmet, one of the first companies in NextLaw Ventures investment portfolio.

Along with John Fernandez, the other law firm insider at my December 2014 meeting was Jim Beckett, who at the time was Chief Business Development Officer at Frost Brown Todd.

Beckett started his legal career as a Frost Brown Todd associate before going in-house at RJ Reynolds. A few years later, he moved to the business side, running an RJ Reynolds operating unit in Puerto Rico.  Jim came back to the firm partially because it enabled him to raise his family in his hometown of Louisville.  But having spent eight years inside a large company, he felt he had a roadmap in his head for how a law firm could grow market share. Jim and the firm’s chairman, John Crockett, had worked together when Jim was an associate and John was a young partner.  John wanted to give Jim’s ideas a try.

Jim’s business development strategy was very simple.  Spend time with your clients and listen to what’s on their mind.  Then make their problems your problems, using all your creative energies to identify, anticipate, and solve what’s happening in their world. This may sound obvious, but many lawyers struggle to get out of their comfort zone and then blame the lack of immediate returns on client resistance.

At his core, Jim is an impatient person who wants to change the industry.  Thus, in December of 2014, when we discussed the possibility of the client owning the feedback process, Jim couldn’t get it out of his head.  By the time Fernandez and I met with Smolik, Jim was sketching out a business plan.  Thus, during the June 2015 meeting, I told Mark, “There is a guy, Jim Beckett, who you’ll want to talk to. He has been on both the buy and sell side and is already fixated on this idea.”  John nodded in agreement, “I can’t think of a better guy to run with this.”  After several months of additional vetting, Qualmet was formed and Jim was named CEO.

CEO in legaltech may sound glamorous, but in reality it’s just more stress, a pay cut,  a chaotic mix of product, marketing, and sales, 6 am flights, bad airport food, and guilt over how your career decision is affecting your family. But if you think this is your big opportunity to make a difference, you’re willing to pay that price.


Disclosure: Through NextLaw Lab, I gave input to Qualmet during its formation, including sitting on its Board. Qualmet also became a client of Lawyer Metrics, where I served as Chief Strategy Officer.   When I left Lawyer Metrics in late 2016, and before I started Legal Evolution, I resigned from Qualmet’s Board, as I viewed fiduciary obligations to any legal industry business as incompatible with my role as editor. In addition, I have no financial or investment interest in Qualmet or any legal industry company.


We’re entering the management age for lawyers

Leadership and management are not part of the legal education canon.  Yet, that is bound to change as more lawyers stumble forward into these disciplines to cope with the relentless growth in complexity we face on a daily basis. In the meantime, however, we are at risk for misinterpreting the tides of change.

For example, many lawyers and law firms (and initially this professor) are quick to conclude that the goal of scorecards is to save money.  Yet, in most cases, the motivation is scarcity of internal bandwidth. An important task done well and efficiently frees up time and mental energy to tackle other strategic priorities. Saving money, or getting more value per dollar spent, is a by-product of a more disciplined approach to one’s job as lawyer-manager.

The first step in this more disciplined approach is formulating the evaluation criteria.  Initially at Safelite and DHL, Mark Smolik focused on seven criteria:  (1) understands our objectives / expectations, (2) expertise, (3) responsiveness / communications, (4) efficiency / process management, (5) cost / budgeting skill, (6) results delivered / execution, and (7) compatibility with company values.  Each criteria, in turn, is defined by a set of specific behaviors.

What managing law firms looks like

For ideas like scorecards, lawyers need examples rather than abstract descriptions. In 2016, I ran some focus groups for what would later become Qualmet. Below are some of the graphics from those sessions (credit: Evan Parker from LawyerMetrix).

These data reflect the performance of actual law firms, including the AmLaw 200 firm of Conroy & Alexander (a pseudonym). The scores for each criterion are averages of in-house lawyers who used the firm. Obviously, between 2011 and 2015, things moved in the right direction. Conroy & Alexander now exceeds expectations on six of seven criteria and has a clear priority on where it needs to improve.

Below is the trendline of Conroy & Alexander’s average annual performance. This is the ROI that flows back to the in-house lawyers who are providing the feedback — they’re expending less time and attention to get better results.

Below is a picture of how the top seven firms are doing. Conroy & Alexander is firm E.

One takeaway is that expertise — which lawyers routinely fall back on to sell themselves, are table stakes.  Another takeaway is that no firm really stands out on efficiency / process management. Thus, perhaps this is an area where a firm could seek to differentiate itself over the next one to two years. A third takeaway is that firm F is in trouble.  During our focus groups, several leaders of AmLaw 200 firms said they would like this data as a management tool for partners who are all-too-ready to blame the client.

These scorecard graphics above are basic management tools applied to the work of lawyers.

Progress will require leadership

As a profession, have we accepted the premise that working within a well-designed management system would make our work more valuable to clients?

Few of us would debate the general premise, particularly in front of our clients. Yet, we struggle to accept it because, in our own little zones, we fear losing control.  As a profession, we need a handful of lawyers in positions of authority who will make the decision for us.  They will be subject to a lot of blowback and pleas for special treatments.  However, in the long-run they will win our trust and respect.  We will view them as leaders.

I came to this conclusion in December of 2017 during a design workshop in Chicago.  After more than a year in business, the Qualmet team is coming to grips with a common innovator mistake: they had confused why they loved their product with why a client might buy it.  Cf. Post 008 (“[The innovator is] often deeply immersed in the technical workings of the project … [and thus] at grave risk of falling in love with features that are of little practical value to the target end user.”). Fortunately, the Qualmet team includes professionals with expertise in marketing and design thinking. I secured them meeting space at Northwestern Law.  In exchange, I got to observe the workshop.

The key goal of the daylong session was to work backwards from the daily lives of legal department professionals.  A wide variety of legal professionals–not just general counsel–were invited in for 60- to 90-minute conversations.  The Qualmet team wanted to know how they spent their time, their biggest frustrations, what they wanted most out of their jobs, etc.  Yet, very rarely were these questions asked directly. Instead, they were asked for their reactions to a series of crude prototypes (the vast majority that had nothing to do with outside counsel scorecards).

For me, the most surprising revelation was that in legal departments with several lawyers, the general counsel spends less than half of his or her time managing the department.  Instead, they are focused on being a fully contributing member of a C-suite management team.  One GC of a publicly traded company put the percentage at 70%, with less than 15% that touched on anything related to outside counsel.  Among the department professionals, the common theme was lack of time and budget to operate at a strategic level.

Indeed, I did not realize it until later, but Qualmet was running the design work shop to test their thesis that scorecards were a tool to put the general counsel into alignment with the CEO, as the performance data could be used to show how decisions regarding outside counsel were being made. The use of quantified performance puts the GC in more of a business place than a “legal place.”

One question to a general counsel that I especially enjoyed was, “Do you want to be a CEO some day?” Reply, “yes.”

Follow-up, “What about your general counsel friends — do they want to be get promoted?” Reply, “Probably. Otherwise, why do this job? Once you become a general counsel, you are more a manager and leader than a practicing lawyer. Thus, you have to develop those skills to excel at your job. Why not embrace the career path?”

We need to talk more about leadership

Leadership in legal departments is different than leadership in law firms.  Unlike a law firm leader, a general counsel can make an unpopular but necessary decision and not worry about losing revenue and triggering a proverbial run on the bank.  This reality is what is driving the consolidation of law firms into global giants. The hope is that global reach and the support services that a large firm can afford — technology, project management, process improvement, data analytics, etc — will wed the client to the firm.

I would like to see more general counsel collaborate with law firm leaders. Scorecards are just the start.  The goal should be to bring out the best in the lawyers and legal professionals they lead and manage.

What’s next?  See Confusing conversations about clients (048)

Legal education is in the early stages of remodelling and renovation. Thus, we are living through a period of messiness. Evidence of this is a virtual Symposium at PrawfsBlawg, a forum of law professors for law professors.  The symposium is called “The Futures of Legal Education.”  The organizer is Dan Rodriguez, dean of Northwestern Law and a legal educator with an excellent track record of leadership.  Dan was inspired by an epic five-part series on legal education by Pitt Law Professor Mike Madison at Madisonian (Part I here).

There is no way to summarize or boil down the conversation except to say (1) all the contributors are legal educators, and (2) the desire to do good is pervasive and sincere.  Design thinkers might counsel us to try rapid prototyping, but in the legal academy, our go-to move is a symposium.  Fortunately, several of the posts reveal real progress at home institutions.

There is not a lot overlap between the readership of Legal Evolution and PrawfBlawg.  Thus, I am republishing my contribution here, in part because it explains the paucity of recent Legal Evolution posts (which will soon change), and in part because because my post reflects a Legal Evolution perspective.  I hope you enjoy it.


“Every good idea sooner or later degenerates into hard work.”

This quote comes from writer Calvin Trillin, but I first heard it from NYLS Dean Rick Matasar over a decade ago as he shared some realism regarding innovation, in legal education or elsewhere.

I wanted to participate in this forum earlier, but alas, I was stuck doing hard work that followed a good idea.  A handful of innovators, including myself, have created a new nonprofit called the Institute for the Future of Legal Practice (IFLP, called “i-flip”).  Details online here.  I have been matching IFLP law students with summer employers. Unless this gets done well and quickly, the IFLP idea will fail.  So writing about the future of legal education had to wait.

I’ve been reading all the symposium posts and wholly appreciate the growing intellectual ferment.  Legal education is going to transform itself. I’m confident we’re in the early days of something great.

To help the cause, I would like to share a story about another idea that degenerated into nearly a decade of hard work.  The idea came from the initial publication of NALP’s bi-modal distribution, which revealed some very peculiar features about the market for entry-level legal talent.  We can argue over how we define legal ability or potential, but there’s little doubt it’s normally distributed.  Therefore, as noted by Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, labor markets should not have two distinct modes.

That insight led to the creation of Lawyer Metrics (now LawyerMetrix, owned by AccessLex Institute), an applied research company that, among other things, sought to bring analytics and measurement to legal hiring.  Of course, to make the idea work, we needed clients.  In the early days, I was very fortunate to be placed in front of the Chair of an AmLaw 50 law firm. To prepare, I circulated a four-page, single-spaced Moneyball memo.  I also created a PowerPoint.  Because I had sailed through tenure at Indiana on the strength of my empirical work on law firms, I was confident I could impress.

Yet, the meeting did not go well.  The Chair was certainly receptive, but she found my approach “too academic,” both orally and in writing. God love her, she was kind enough to tell me so.  If I wanted to do business with her firm, it was entirely up to me to close a very large communication gap, as she had other tough business problems to solve.  Suffice it to say, you don’t get too many one-hour meetings with law firm chairs. That was beginning of a steady diet of humble pie.

Around that same time, Marjorie Shultz and Sheldon Zedeck used gold-standard IO psychology methods to empirically derive 26 lawyer effectiveness factors.  See LSAC Final Report. One of the key takeaways was that academic predictors (LSAT, UGPA, 1st year grades) were correlated with only a handful of the effectiveness factors, with some of the relationships being negative (e.g., UGPA and practical judgment; LSAT and business development).  In contrast, a handful of well-validated assessments (e.g., Hogan Personality InventoryHogan Development Surveybiodata instruments) had much better correlations with lawyer effectiveness, and all of them were positive.

The Shultz-Zedeck findings strongly supported the business premise for Lawyer Metrics, which I documented in a lengthy 2008 memo.  But that is not the point of this story. If I scored myself on the effectiveness factors, I came up short.  For Lawyer Metrics to have any chance of surviving, I had to develop skills that were far beyond what tenure required.  Acquiring those skills (more specifically, attempting to acquire them) was the hardest and best thing I have ever done. However, on the front end of the “good” idea, I saw none of it coming.

I am not going to risk obliqueness here.  The narrative on legal education won’t materially change until one or more markets get moved.  And there is an ocean of distance between a good idea to better legal education and one’s ability to plan, finance, and execute that idea in a way that redistributes things that law schools care about (e.g., jobs for students, applications, philanthropic dollars, prestige, etc.).  What are the odds of that happening if we approach these challenges in our familiar academic way?

In Post 37, the wonderful and thoughtful Mike Madison asks the question, “How do we bring non-academics [legal tech, legal practitioners, access to justice advocates] meaningfully into the dialogue?”

My answer is simple.  We don’t. This is because academic dialogue is not what is needed.  Instead, we leave the building and visit these legal industry stakeholders in their natural environment.  We bring sandwiches.  We observe what is happening.  And we ask thoughtful and respectful questions, so we can come closer to seeing the world through their eyes.  Then we go back home and build prototypes that fit this new world.  Then we repeat.

This journey starts very messy. That is more than okay. What I am offering is a friendly admonition that our symposium won’t have an impact unless it degenerates into hard work – work likely beyond our current academic skill set, though hard work can fix that too.

Many thanks to Dan, Mike, the PrawfsBlawg editors, and the many contributors for a thoughtful month of dialogue.

What’s next? See My long history of law firm scorecards (047)

Well, that is not exactly what I used to say when I was a kid. But had I known such a thing existed, that would have been my saying. The truth is, I wanted to be a lawyer as far back as I can remember. Yet, I never knew how much I’d love it until I became one. Then, as the years progressed, it morphed into something even better.

In January of this year, after more than 13 years at Microsoft, including my last role as Assistant GC of Legal Operations and Contracting, I embarked upon a new chapter in my professional life. Much to my delight, I have received countless congratulatory wishes and kind words of praise.

What has surprised me, however, is the number of times people expressed to me their envy. In very honest and genuine conversations, many of my colleagues throughout the industry have expressed to me how jealous they are that I took such a leap. They often added “I’ve been thinking of doing something similar for a while but have not had the courage to do anything about it.” Thus, when Bill suggested that other mid-career professionals would be interested in how I chose to make this move, I agreed to write this post.

I am not writing this post to describe what a great leap this has been and to recommend it to everyone. I have no idea if it was, in fact, a great leap. I’ll only know years from now when I can reflect and assess my success, and judge whether it met my standards. I am writing to explore what it is about the current market that made me think it was in fact ok to take such a risk.

Our mental habit of ‘Playing it Safe’

Lawyers are known to be risk-averse, “play it safe”, “consider everything that can go wrong” kind of people. We are trained that way for 3 years in law school. Then we are rewarded for helping our clients think about all the bad things that could happen and try to help them avoid those things from happening or mitigate the damage if they do happen.

But when the universe starts sending signs and hints, and tangible viable opportunities appear, I suggest that it is time to listen. In my case, I listened with one ear while my inner lawyer was saying, “keep doing what you’re doing” and “that’s crazy – look away!” I have always seized opportunities when they arose in the context of my regular career path. I also didn’t shy away from challenges. But like many lawyers, I am not one to seek out great risks. Yet, the cumulative signs and hints were too compelling to ignore.

The legal industry is going through an intense period of unprecedented change. To really be a part of that exciting journey, I had to decide what role I wanted to play. That was obvious for me… I wanted to be a game-changer. I wanted to not only provoke spicy conversations about the practice of law, but I also wanted to help change the delivery of legal services.

So how was being in one of the world’s most innovative companies not enough of a platform to impact such change? Here is the inconvenient truth: Impacting broad-scale change is hard anywhere. Further, the bigger the entity (law firm or in-house department), the bigger and heavier the boulder we have to push up on the hill. Everyone’s journey is different. But for legal professionals, I think something is happening across the industry that is causing us to re-think our careers and our goals.

The satisfaction of sharing knowledge and know-how

After more than 13 wonderful years at Microsoft, I felt that I had reached a point of achievement that was very satisfying. Yet, the interest from others in what I had accomplished began to send signals that I could not ignore. At first, it was flattering to be called for advice and insights. I was called by very prestigious companies and law firms wanting to know how I had carried out what I saw as quite obvious and necessary. Every conversation was energizing, promising and just plain exciting. I found myself getting great satisfaction in helping other people think through their problems. After enough of these conversations, I had to admit they were becoming a highlight of my day or week.

At the same time, something else was brewing. Legal tech was exploding. I had very quickly become quite capable of filtering out the “vaporware” (techie speak for software that provides little actual value in solving business problems). There was a lot of focus in the legal industry on legal technology and how it was changing the legal profession. Unfortunately, writings about robolawyers, blockchain and automation are outpacing the ability of most readers to absorb this new information.

Although new innovations can be very energizing, new technology also creates a bewildering array of complex choices for buyers who are generally not well-versed in technology. Lawyers certainly fall into this group.  What is real? What is useful? What will be here five years from now? All of those questions began racing through my mind. I wanted to be the one that companies and law firms would turn to for answers.

I was also getting some subtle, and not so subtle, hints from experienced, well-respected industry leaders. They were telling me there was more I could offer and that my biggest challenge would be picking amongst the many opportunities coming my way. Although these conversations boosted my confidence, I still convinced myself they were just saying those things to be nice.

Taking the leap

Then one day it happened – a revelation – like that proverbial light bulb going off in my head. I realized it was time for a change.

The light bulb was one particular conversation that solidified the comments that I had stored in the back of my mind for the previous many months. A group of lawyers from an in-house legal department were sitting in my office taking notes on the ideas I was suggesting. And then they asked if I could recommend a consultant to help them. Of course, I could and would send them a few trusted names.

“Wait a minute!”, I said to myself, “I can do this. …  I should do this.”

Meanwhile as that light bulb went off and shone so brightly, I was having conversations with a small but powerful start-up called LawGeex. They were offering advanced AI-based automation for the review of contract terms. I was VERY familiar with reviewing contracts and had been desperately exploring solutions for the contracting work I was overseeing in my job at Microsoft. I was impressed with their approach to content marketing, the founders’ philosophy on building a company, the reputation it had so quickly gained in the industry and of course their advanced technology. Candidly, I had always felt like I missed out on that start-up adventure that others had always spoken so fondly about. It sounded thrilling: fast-paced, high-energy, all-in, purposeful. I really wanted that experience. Contracts + AI + start-up. Could there be a better fit for me?!

So, I decided to be really frisky. I wanted to try both – start my own law firm & consultancy (more on that below) and be a part of a start-up. I was fortunate that LawGeex saw the potential of having me on part-time basis and engaged me as their Chief Legal Strategist, while still allowing me the time and space I needed to develop my own new business, InnoLegal Services PLLC.

InnoLegal Services, Inc.

You may be wondering, “So what is InnoLegal Services? A consultancy? A law firm?” Well, it’s both. Let me explain.

I am a strong believer that law firms today can’t just practice law and hand off artifacts, output and advice without also providing a more holistic solution on the real needs of the business that the lawyers are trying to support. Every law firm should also be a consultancy. Lawyers need to provide sound legal advice, coupled with operational insights about HOW the engagement runs.

The HOW covers a variety of aspects of the practice of law that were often ignored or happened organically. For example, why should a corporate client have to ask a firm to tell them how many litigation matters are pending with that firm? Or how many contracts have been negotiated? Or how long either has taken? There should be basic sets of data insights that are always being provided. Beyond that, the law firm should work with its clients to figure out the best ways for taking in work assignments and returning deliverables. There should be feedback loops created, and collaboration technology used (not that Outlook isn’t amazing, but it is not intended to be a workflow system, though that is what lawyers use it for). The list goes on.

You see, operating as a law firm, I can deliver all sorts of other professional services under that umbrella. But the reverse is not true. So, why limit myself to a consultancy, if I can also be in the position to provide legal advice on the HOW? Yes, that’s right. There is an element of legal advice that is part of the HOW. Helping a legal department figure out what legal risks it can reasonably take in its contracts, will inform their corporate policy, which then informs the process for contract review. So, the practice of law and consultancy are actually very clearly connected. At least that’s my theory!

One engagement at a time

Even as opportunities presented themselves with large prestigious firms, I learned how painfully slow any change in those big institutions would be (not for lack of interest, but because of the difficulty of implementing broad scale change). Thus, I decided to start simple.

I am very excited about the idea of experimenting with the mix of technology, law, and process and thus helping law departments and law firms engage more effectively, one engagement at a time. Equally exciting is my role as Chief Legal Strategist for LawGeex. In that role, I work with all aspects of the company and product. I also get to consider interesting business models and operational scalability, all while applying my years of experience in contract negotiations, team-building and providing solutions. Come to think of it, I am also applying many of these new skills to my own business.

I suppose I am Chief Legal Strategist of two start-ups: LawGeex and InnoLegal Services. I’m not sure it can get more exciting than that!

What’s next?  See Legal Academics Grappling with the Future of Legal Ed (046)

Earlier this year, Lucy Bassli left her position as Assistant General Counsel of Legal Operations and Contracting at Microsoft to become Chief Legal Strategist for LawGeex, a promising legaltech start-up, and to open her own hybrid law firm-consultancy.

Why would one of the legal industry’s most respected legal ops professionals leave the safety and prestige of the world’s most successful software company to try her hand in the legal start-up space?  Many of us have been asking ourselves this question.

Fortunately, in Post 045, Lucy has agreed to provide us with answers.  It is a wonderfully personal and candid story that I hope will spur a lot of beneficial conversations within the industry.  Virtually all legal professionals want a career where they feel they are making a difference.  Yet, we are at an inflection point where it is not obvious how to make that happen.  To make sense of this complex new environment, we need a generation of trailblazers to take the road less travelled and clear out the brush for those who might follow.  I believe Lucy Bassli is part of this elite group.

Thank you, Lucy, for sharing your story.

What’s next? “When I grow I up, I wanna be a Chief Legal Strategist” (045)

I am pleased to introduce readers to the Institute for the Future of Law Practice (IFLP), a new nonprofit collaboration between law schools, law firms, corporate legal departments, NewLaw service providers, and legal technology companies.  Details of this new venture can be found online at www.futurelawpractice.org.

Per the picture above, IFLP (“i-flip”) will be hosting training bootcamps in May 2018 in Chicago (at Northwestern Law) and Boulder (at Colorado Law). The bootcamps are designed to prep law students for sophisticated legal and business work settings. Each student admitted to the program is paired with a legal employer for either a 10-week summer internship or a 7-month field placement. All internships and field placements are paid. The IFLP program currently includes four law schools — Northwestern, Colorado, Indiana, and Osgoode Hall (Toronto) — though the plan is to build an infrastructure that will support and serve a significantly larger number of law students, law schools, and legal employers.

Rather than summarize the contents of the IFLP website, I am going to use this post to answer four questions:

  1. What problem is IFLP trying to solve?
  2. How will IFLP be successful?
  3. Where did IFLP come from?
  4. How can industry stakeholders become involved?

1. What problem is IFLP trying to solve?

Legal education and the legal profession are at an inflection point where traditional models of education and practice no longer fit the shifting needs of the market. The biggest driver of change is increased complexity. Historically, the legal profession has dealt with complexity through specialization and division of labor.  However, the legal profession is now at a point where its members need to learn new tools and methodologies that were not, and are not, part of traditional legal education.

Unfortunately, law schools are unable to make this transition on their own. This is because (a) the shift in practice requires an integration of law with problem-solving methods that are not legal in nature (e.g., data, process, project management, technology, and team-based collaboration); and (b) the state of the art for these new approaches to practice are currently being developed in the field by practitioners and other allied professionals.

IFLP can help fill this void by identifying industry-leading practitioners and distilling their know-how and experience into an organized body of knowledge that can be taught to law students and mid-career legal professionals.

2. How will IFLP be successful?

IFLP will be successful if it can create training and internship programs that serve law students (through high-quality employment) and legal employers (through a rich pool of applicants with an expanded set of skills and knowledge). In its simplest form, our goal is to use education to build demand for new and better pathways to sophisticated modern practice.  The larger the demand, the clearer the signal to legal education on how to retool to meet the needs of a changing market.

IFLP is fortunate to have an anchor set of legal employers who want to create a talent pipeline that combines traditional training in substantive law with foundational training in data, process, technology, and business  (T-shaped lawyers). Further, as we develop IFLP curricula and training modules, these resources can be used to cost-effectively upgrade the skills of mid-career professionals.

IFLP is designed to be an intermediary organization that coordinates the interests of law schools and legal employers. We want to improve the content and quality of legal training in ways that widen the pathway to practice.  Under the best case scenario, students, law schools, and legal employers will converge on an industry standard that better serves the interests of all stakeholders. A half century ago, organizations like NALP, LSAC, and NCBE sprang up to fill an important industry gap. Similarly, in 2018, IFLP fills a pressing industry void.

3. Where did IFLP come from?

The founders of IFLP were inspired by their experience with the Tech Lawyer Accelerator (TLA) program at Colorado Law.  Since 2014, approximately 80 students (most from Colorado Law, some from Indiana Law) have participated in a 3½ week bootcamp at the end of their 1L or 2L year. The TLA focused on technology, process, and business skills, with students spending the balance of their summers in 10-week paid internships. In some cases, the internships were extended to seven months (the summer and fall of students’ 3L year). Colorado Law’s TLA is the foundation for the first iteration of IFLP. For additional background on the TLA, see Post 018 (summarizing topics covered in the 2017 TLA).

During four years of operation, TLA has garnered very favorable feedback from students and employers. But more significantly, we received “pull” from several employers to expand the program’s breadth and capacity.  In response to this pull, a small group of us conducted a needs analysis during the fall of 2017. This involved the formation of several exploratory committees drawn from our professional networks. One committee focused on law schools; a second on legal employers; and a third on the viability of an ongoing nonprofit business model.

Based on the feedback we received, in late 2017, we made the decision to go forward with the creation of IFLP.  As we embark upon this journey, we are very grateful for the support of our volunteer board.

4. How can industry stakeholders become involved?

IFLP is not an exclusive club.  However, to be successful, we have to meet a market test. This means offering an educational product that is valuable to students and employers while also generating revenues in excess of operating costs.  In our first iteration, we are limiting participation to a small number of schools. We need to work through the myriad of issues associated with cross-school collaboration. This is complex and requires us to go slow.  The goal, however, is to create a foundation that can support future growth.

At present, we are most in need of legal employers. If your organization wants to co-create a world-class educational program that can fill your need for world-class talent, please contact us.  We are also in need of industry sponsors who are willing to subsidize IFLP in its early days.  We are fortunate to have a handful of benefactors who are getting us off the ground.  The payoff is affiliation with a promising nonprofit working to align the interests of industry stakeholders. Announcement of our full roster of participating organizations and sponsors will occur later this spring.

For law schools and law faculty, we encourage you to visit the programs in Boulder and Chicago.  We value your input and are willing to share what we are learning.  With success, we will be able to expand to include more member schools.  If you are interested in getting involved, please contact us at this link.

What’s next? Lucy Bassli shares her thought process behind her major career move (044)

When David Cambria sat down with Eric Elfman to discuss his willingness to try Onit software, he stated that if ADM in-house lawyers were required to engage “in a single unnatural act,” the implementation would fail.

Cambria elaborates, “Why are we all so comfortable with Word, Excel, and Outlook? Because these tools don’t have an opinion about how we do our work. Enterprise software, however, always has an opinion.”

Hardened by 25 years of work experience in consulting and legal operations, David communicated his need for workflow tools that did not require his lawyers to change. Further, he needed significant productivity gains and a steady stream of clean, reliable data to better manage the department. A high bar for success.  Yet, according to David, Onit managed to deliver.

Cambria, Global Director of Legal Operations at ADM, recounts this story during Week 6 of “How Innovation Diffuses in the Legal Industry.”  Eric Elfman, Founder & CEO of Onit, was also present, giving his own entertaining version of a project that went on to win a 2017 ACC Value Challenge Award.

By inviting Cambria and Elfman to class, I hoped students would get a glimpse into the type of buyer-supplier relationship that enables a legaltech company to successfully “cross the chasm.” See Posts 024026 (discussing chasm framework, its connection to diffusion theory, and its applicability to the legal industry).


For a summary of Week 2 guest lectures (Pangea3, Practical Law Company, Hotshot), see Post 032. For week 3 (consultative sales at Thomson Reuters), see Post 034. For Week 4 (a deep dive into Axiom), see Post 036. For Week 5 (law firm examples of intrapreneurship), see Post 039.


Crossing the Chasm

I knew I hit pay dirt when Elfman came to class with a dog-eared copy of Crossing the Chasm.  Naturally, I had to ask, “Have you ever crossed the chasm?”  With an enormous grin, Eric replies, “Twice.”

The first time was with Datacert, an e-billing company Eric founded in 1998 with $1,000 of his own money.  The timing and concept were right, as Elfman quickly landed five Fortune 500 clients, making it relatively easy to attract investor money to build out the product and scale. When Eric left the Datacert in 2008, it was valued at $60 million. In 2014, Wolters Kluwer acquired Datacert for $290 million, merging it with TyMetrix to create what is now known as Wolters Kluwer ELM Solutions.  (The acronym “ELM” stands for enterprise legal management.)

The second crossing was with Onit, a business process automation company Elfman founded in 2010. This time, Eric put $1 million of his own money followed by four rounds of outside investment (a mix of debt and equity) totaling $16.4 million.  Eric stated that the company crossed the chasm approximately a year ago when operating income could more than cover ongoing R&D and sales efforts.  “That is not to say we won’t raise more money,” added Elfman. “Simplicity is extremely expensive to create. You also need to have high quality products when customers want to buy them.”

Onit’s core product is configurable software that can be deployed relatively cheaply and pointed at a wide range of legal department needs.  Established applications include legal spend management, matter management, contract management, legal holds, legal service requests, NDAs, and virtually any type of work flow involving knowledge workers.

Onits’ major competitors are enterprise software providers that serve corporate legal departments. However, most competitor offerings are built around a single problem. This means that legal departments tend to have several enterprise systems that can’t talk to each other very well. As discussed in more detail below, legal departments are perennially underwhelmed with their enterprise software incumbents (my observation, not Elfman’s).

Onit currently has 105 employees in the US, UK and India, and $10 million in annual revenue. According to Elfman, for the last three years, the company has been growing at a 50% annual rate.

Corporate legal departments as a target niche market

As I listen to Cambria and Elfman share their experiences, I am surprised by how well the narrative fits the crossing-the-chasm framework.

To refresh readers’ understanding, a company starts life with a generic product that likely impresses technology enthusiasts but lacks the features needed for broad mainstream adoption. Thus, to cross the chasm and achieve commercial success, a company must (a) target a niche market that could benefit from the innovation, (b) identify its biggest pain points, and (c) work backwards to build a “whole product solution” that becomes the “the only reasonable buying proposition” for the target market customer.  Moore, Crossing the Chasm (1st ed. 1991) at p. 110; see also Post 024 (summarizing basic framework).

This is Moore’s “big fish, small pond” strategy, which is designed to create focus on the narrow set of clients and conserve the bandwidth of key personnel.  See Post 025. If executed properly, the post-chasm company has successful commercial relationships with “pragmatist” mainstream customers. This sets off a word-of-mouth campaign that dramatically reduces the cost of sales. Further, once inside the mainstream market, the company is well-positioned to develop and sell future products and services.

In short, crossing the chasm is a one-time event that changes everything for the better. See graphic below:

Well, what is Onit’s target niche market (or small pond)?  Here I get an important lesson in framing.

Virtually all legaltech companies target a discrete problem or complex task that exists within a legal department. These problems or tasks include e-billing, matter management, document management, e-discovery, contract analytics, etc.  When evaluating this market structure, the natural capitalist impulse is to integrate these disparate systems into a single enterprise solution, thus achieving economies of scope and scale. Indeed, this is the logic behind many legaltech acquisitions, including the Datacert-Tymetrix tie-up. Framed in this way (which is the way most legal insiders see legaltech), the small pond is one or two significant problems or tasks inside a legal department.

But that is not Onit’s strategy.  Onit is a business process automation company where legal departments are viewed as a small but influential beachhead that can provide access to rest of the corporation. Thus, the addressable market is not all corporate legal departments (which might be $3-5 billion), but corporate knowledge workers struggling to collaborate effectively within and across business units (probably 100x bigger). Framed in this manner, the small pond is legal department operations.

Few tech entrepreneurs would be anxious to have legal as their initial target market. The field is highly technical; the clientele are demanding; and the financial upside is limited. But Elfman sees things differently.  “The lawyers are the laggards. They are the Department of No. If we can win them over, the rest of the corporation is a lot easier.”

I am inclined to take Elfman seriously because he and his team are obsessively focused on delivering a whole product solution. To fully grasp what this means, we need to understand Onit as compared to its primary competition.

Compared to what?

In Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey Moore makes the point that prospective clients are unwilling to strain their attention span to hear your pitch. Thus, a product needs to be positioned against what is familiar and established, thus enabling target clients to quickly categorize your product.  Yet, to generate curiosity and interest, the product also needs to be different in a way that delivers a substantial benefit. See pp. 159-61.

As previously noted, Onit’s primary competitors are enterprise software companies that offer solutions to one or more legal department needs, such as e-billing, matter management, contract automation, or data analytics. In my travels to various industry events involving legal technology, I often hear the refrain, “Everybody hates their e-billing vendor.”  The same tends to be true for document and matter management. To date, no company has emerged as the obvious first choice.

Most of these companies got their foothold many years ago when legal departments were growing rapidly and general counsel and their lieutenants felt vulnerable regarding the lack of basic systems and controls. For example, without enormous manual effort, the department could not answer basic questions related to outside counsel spending; or the department couldn’t generate a useful status report on pending litigation; or lawyers struggled to locate prior work product. In each case, there was an enterprise software solution or platform designed to make that problem go away.

Indeed, Elfman tells the story of how he got the idea for Datacert. After completing his MBA at Rice in 1995, he went to work for a litigation consulting firm that specialized in forensic accounting.  While working on an engagement for Exxon, Eric asked the head of litigation about the size of his total annual spend. The AGC responded, “I’m not sure.  Somewhere between $200 and $400 million.”

Elfman describes this exchange as “the moment that changed my life.”  The business opportunity was large and obvious: use technology to apply basic accounting discipline to corporate legal spending.

Datacert and Elfman were extremely successful making sales to a lot of large corporations. Eventually, Datacert would land 130 companies in the Fortune 500, including #1, #2, #3, and #5.  Yet, Datacert also became part of the large cadre of enterprise software companies that legal departments complain about (this observation is based on my own industry knowledge, not any comments made by Elfman regarding his former company).

Root cause

As I listen to David Cambria and Eric Elfman discuss their collaboration, a deeper understanding of the problem comes into focus.

As David points out, when enterprise software is pointed at a specific problem, it develops a strong opinion about how the work should be done. Invariably, that opinion adds steps to the workflow, often without delivering any immediate or tangible returns to the worker trying to do their job. Naturally, people being people, they find ways of minimizing their interaction with the system. Thus, the resulting incomplete and uneven usage undermines the value of the enterprise solution. It also limits — possibly to zero — the amount of usable data the system produces.

In theory, management can fix this problem by mandating usage.  They can fire people. They can reduce or withhold bonuses.  Political capital, however, is limited.  Few bosses want the troops grumbling about how a six-figure software mistake is hindering their ability to do their jobs. So the natural equilibrium becomes enterprise software that is half used. This is usually a modest improvement over the prior state of affairs, but well short of expectations when the licensing agreement was signed.

This recurring cycle explains why David Cambria has such disdain for business solutions that require unnatural acts. Likewise, this is why Eric Elfman was ready to leave Datacert after ten years at CEO.  This was a game he could not win.

What problem is Onit trying to solve?

Eric Elfman left Datacert in 2008.  Two years later, he started Onit with Eric Smith, Datacert’s longtime CTO.  Yet it wasn’t until 2011 that Elfman and Smith came up with the core idea for Onit, which is “collaborative process automation for knowledge workers.”

Not very intuitive, right?

To Geoffrey Moore’s point, it is very difficult to understand an innovation without one or two familiar reference points. This is particularly true with something as abstract as software. Thus, the graphic below proved to be enormously useful to the class.

On the left side (in green) is enterprise software, which attempts to solve problems through top-down controls.  Although these solutions tend to be complex (requiring IT support) and expensive (big up-front fees and implementation), they hold out the promise of permanently eradicating a serious problem. The implicit assumption is that workers will use the system as designed — an assumption that, experience shows, is often unjustified and unrealistic.

On the right side (in orange) are Enterprise 2.0 tools (like Slack, Zoom, or Yammer). Individual users and work teams like these tools because they increase the velocity of employee communication.  Corporations are happy to support Enterprise 2.0 tools because they are cheap and low risk. But they also don’t produce any structured data that senior managers need to assess and improve organizational performance.

Despite billions of dollars spent on enterprise software and the hype and popularity of Enterprise 2.0, Elfman observes that “virtually all knowledge work and processes are executed outside of these systems.” Instead, in most organizations, workers try to do everything with familiar Microsoft tools:

  • Email is the intake and “collaboration” platform, within and across business units
  • Word documents are the “forms” solution
  • Excel is used for tracking and reporting
  • Sharepoint is used as a document repository

Virtually all legal operations professionals will acknowledge that these tools are breaking down as solutions. They are just not fit for purpose.

Onit (in blue) is trying to fill in the middle ground between Enterprise (green) and Enterprise 2.0 (orange). The key innovation of Onit is that it enables a business process owner to work backwards from how people work (people-centric) rather than backwards from an acute organizational pain point (problem-centric) and thereafter expecting workers to get onboard.

“Bring the work to the people”

When Cambria signed on with Onit, he had a vision to “bring the work to the people.” Where are the people in ADM’s legal department? Probably somewhere near a device where they read their email.

Onit is behind a wide range of automated workflows at ADM, including: (1) matter intake and routing, (2) early case assessments, (3) liability reserves, (4) invoice review and approvals, (5) settlement authority requests, (6) recording of matter disposition, and (7) on-demand NDAs. Yet, for most ADM lawyers, Onit is barely visible:  it’s all point-and-click tasks and hyperlinks embedded inside emails — highly natural acts for lawyers. Cf. Post 040 (per “lawyer theory of value,” lawyers have a strong preference to be left alone to do legal work).

Cambria or a member of his staff are usually the “business process owner” for each of these processes.  Onit is simple and flexible enough for them to do a fair amount of programming on their own — no need to involve corporate or department IT. This is ideal because the legal ops team is close enough to the work to gauge what the workforce is willing to accept. And If they are wrong, adjustments can be made cheaply and quickly.

Nudges and the Onit backend

One way that Cambria drives the broader agenda of the department is to include “nudges” in the Onit workflow.  A nudge makes it modestly more difficult for lawyers to override an established playbook solution. For example, if an ADM in-house lawyer wants to retain a law firm that is not on ADM’s preferred panel list (ADM winnowed 700 law firms down to a preferred provider list of 20, see “How ADM Cut Its Outside Counsel Rosters By 680 Law Firms,” Law360, June 8, 2016), a text box appears that requires a written explanation.  Because this choice requires additional work and invites scrutiny from the boss, it is chosen less often.  Explains Cambria, “I’m always mixing the peas in with the mashed potatoes.”

Although Onit is largely invisible to a substantial portion of the ADM legal department, the Onit applications demo-ed in class — i.e., the backend where David and his staff configure workflows and dashboards — is surprising clean and simple.

David shows us the main dashboard he uses monitor the legal department (16 tiles of information).  He also shows one of the dashboards he built for Cam Findlay, ADM’s general counsel, which provides real-time information likely of interest and value to the C-suite.  Some of the tiles use Tableau to display the information graphically (other data visualization programs can be used).  All of these graphics are generated from data captured by Onit workflow systems.  The data are high quality because Cambria has ruthlessly reduced the number of unnatural acts required by his lawyers.

Diffusion theory wrap-up

Eric Elfman readily admits that Onit targeted Cambria as an early adopter and opinion leader.  Cf. Post 020 (discussing the crucial role of opinion leaders in accelerating innovation adoption).  Eric comments, “David got a whole lot of software for very little money. But we wanted him as a reference client.  And frankly, it’s been worth it.”

Cambria was drawn to Onit because it offered him the possibility of improving the performance of ADM’s legal department without requiring this lawyers to learn new technology or do data entry. This is the novel perspective of a true “visionary” customer as defined in Crossing the Chasm.

These are interesting anecdotes. However, if we want deep learning from this case study, it is important to tie what we see back to the empirically validated principles of diffusion theory.

As discussed in foundational posts 008 and 011, innovation adoption — whether it happens at all, and if so, at what rate — is primarily a function of five innovation attributes. See graphic to right.

In addition, software for managing complexity requires us to evaluate these attributes from two perspectives:

  1. Managers making the purchase decision. These are folks with a serious business problem and a limited amount of time and technical expertise, at least with software.
  2. Workers asked to use a new software solution. These are busy professionals who just want to get their work done.

Arguably, legal departments have historically made the mistake of focusing too much on (1) and underestimating (2). This explains their perennial disappointment with enterprise software.

The table below scores Onit from both perspectives using the simple scoring system developed in Post 011 (fast versus slow innovations):

  • Positive numbers (+1  to +3) speed up the adoption rate
  • Negative numbers (-1 to -3) slow it down
  • Mild effect = -1 or 1; moderately strong = -2 or 2; very strong = -3 or 3
  • No effect on rate of adoption = 0
Factor affecting adoption rate Manager Worker Adoption Analysis
Relative advantage 2 3 Managers get complete, high quality data, albeit after a learning curve. Workers are not asked to perform unnatural acts; minimal change management.
Compatibility -1 3 Managers are business process owners and have to learn cloud software related to workflow; new but surmountable. Workers get to stay within email and Internet browsers; basically this is change that feels like the status quo.
Lack of Complexity -1 3 Managers have to climb a learning curve, but its mostly cloud-based drag-and-drop tools. IT support is minimal. Workers carry on business as usual.
Trialability 2 2 Managers can get started at a low cost (e.g., just one Onit application) and build it out as needed. Worker feedback enables quick and inexpensive changes in process.
Observability 2 -2 Managers can see the high quality data pile up.  For workers, there is a limited ability to observe fellow knowledge workers being more productive. This factor is hard to change. It is also why we laugh at Dilbert cartoons.
Totals +4 +9

The key insight of this analysis is that Onit is likely to enjoy rapid adoption with workers, largely because it places so few demands on them.  Although managers don’t have it so good — they actually have to learn a new technology — it’s likely worth it.  As the ADM example shows, worker adoption occurs in a low friction way; also, senior personnel in the legal department can finally see, measure, and manage essential business processes. From a big picture perspective, this is a potential home run.

During class, Eric Elfman observed that technology start-ups are essentially “a series of experiments until something works or you run out of money.”  According to Cambria, Onit works well.  That is very good news for Elfman and Onit.

What’s next?  See Legal Services and the Consumer Price Index (042)