Adoption of legal tech — why it doesn’t happen on its own and how to deliver it

Jack Shepherd
15 min readSep 27, 2021

Why is adoption important?

Lots of discussion about legal technology is driven by buzzwords. Things you could do, the promise of artificial intelligence and complex data science. Legal tech startups are widespread now, producing apps that look like they were designed by Apple.

Against this background, it is easy to forget that less sexy topic of “getting stuff used”. But technology is useless if nobody uses it…

I know what it feels like to spend an all-nighter doing proofreading. I know what it’s like to re-paginate four volumes of a court bundle because you have to insert a new document at the start. And I know the sinking feeling you get when you make errors on these things. I believe that legal tech can help make things better for law firms, legal teams and everybody who interacts with them. But it has absolutely no hope of doing this if we are talking about technology in the absence of why anybody should ever care about using it.

The graveyard of unused legal tech (aka shelfware)

The graveyard of unused legal tech is where legal tech goes to die. This can happen when people get too excited about how the technology is working, at the expense of what it can achieve for people.

Why is this a problem?

The graveyard of unused legal tech is a real problem for a few reasons.

  • 💰 Financial. It is a financial problem because legal teams and firms spend money on tools that are not used. This can be exacerbated when usage metrics are not tracked properly, meaning money is spent on tech that is not used — but nobody knows about it.
  • 📊 Resource. It is a resource problem because technology takes time to implement. You might have the security team looking over it. You might have development teams integrating it with other tools lawyers use day-to-day. Support teams will have to get up to speed in case there are any problems. All this time and resource goes to waste without usage.
  • 😢 Trust. It causes trust problems because lawyers have an ability to detect when software is brought in but never used. They see the emails and comms go out with new tools, but don’t see the usage among their peers to go with it. They get into the habit of ignoring emails about new tech, because they don’t believe any of it ever gets used. As a result, they lose trust in the ability of legal tech to deliver value in the way they work.

Is it a software problem?

So technology needs users. It might be tempting to characterise a lack of users as a software problem — should we blame clunky interfaces and badly designed apps? As long as the technology is intuitive, surely people will use it and enjoy it?

Users + great technology = magic…?

This was my inkling when I first ventured into legal technology. It is undoubtedly the case that you will lose users if your technology just doesn’t work, or if it’s just looks too hard to use. But there is a problem with casting a lack of adoption as a software problem.

The issue is that this approach assumes you got people to look at the tool in the first place and decide it didn’t work or was unintuitive. That is not always a given. At times, trying to get people to pay attention to the existence of legal tech can feel like you own a coffee shop that serves amazing coffee, but nobody ever walks in to taste it.

The tech matters, but only if you can get people through the door in the first place

If we agree that usage of legal tech is not just down to the technology itself, some missing piece must be at play that we need to add into the equation…

Users + missing piece + technology = magic

The missing piece

Excuses v. reasons

If you have ever tried to work in any change role in a law firm or legal team, you will have heard these kinds of things:

  • 🦖 Dinosaur / luddite. “I’m a bit of a luddite when it comes to technology”
  • 🧒 Young people. “You need to talk to the younger people, I’m too old”
  • 😤 Busy. “I’m just too busy to try or learn anything new
  • 🌎 Everybody has to use it. “But this only works if everybody uses it”
  • 🌲 Culture. “But this requires a culture change

Some of these things are valid concerns that need to be addressed. But often you need to dig deeper. Do so, and you will likely find that these things are not always genuine reasons, but excuses masking the actual underlying reason. That underlying reason is nearly always that somebody is uncomfortable with the idea of change at all. People mask that underlying reason as a symptom/excuse, often as a way of politely saying “no thanks”.

Another common way of doing this is to raise feature request after feature request…

  • 📱 Phone. “It has to work on my phone, or I won’t use it”
  • 🔌 Integration. “It has to integrate with [other system], or I won’t use it”
  • 🔑 Login. “I won’t use it if I have to remember another login”

If these things are the genuine reason why somebody is not using a piece of technology, your problem became a lot easier because all you need to do is remove that particular barrier. Similarly, feedback on a piece of software a lawyer has spent time considering should be taken seriously.

However, if users are saying these things without investing their own time in the technology, addressing these concerns can be a fool’s errand. Solve one thing and another pops up. It can be like playing a game of legal tech whac-a-mole, only less enjoyable, more frustrating and more expensive — especially when you are no further along in actually getting anybody to use the tech.

Building trust

So what should you do instead? The first thing you should do is build trust with the relevant user group. This is especially the case if you are in an IT or innovation role, and you spend your days thinking about change. Bear in mind that lawyers do not generally have much time to do this. While it can be frustrating that people do not share your view that change is for the better, the last thing you must do is take that frustration out on your users. You must build trust.

Avoid lawyer bashing

In the legal context, avoid lawyer bashing. Resist telling people they are stuck in the dark ages. Don’t come across as preachy. You need to come across less as an innovation/tech guru, more as somebody that is there to help people in a meaningful way. You need to be likeable, and you need to be trusted. Otherwise, you can add another reason to the above list — i.e. “[x] comes across as preachy, and I don’t like them…”.

Once you have built trust, your next inquiry should focus on why they should take time out of their days to change how they work.

Crossing the zone of apathy

I once worked on a transaction management tool designed to entice lawyers away from using Microsoft Word to manage large transactions. To me, using a word processing tool for this purpose was madness. I was very frustrated when people insisted on working this way. I was faced with the usual:

  • 📄 Export. “I won’t use it unless it exports to [Microsoft Word] and I can reimport changes back from [Microsoft Word]”
  • 🎨 Formatting. “I won’t use it unless I get complete control of the formatting, including ability to add new columns”
  • 🔒 Locked-down. “It needs to work so that I can be the only person who can make changes at a given time”

…and many more than these. At first, I blamed the lawyers for being backwards and being behind the times. But I eventually realised that my own views on the best ways to manage transactions were largely irrelevant to the challenge of getting others to use the technology.

I dug a little deeper, and realised that many comments were directed towards making the technology work in exactly the same way people worked now. In other words, they weren’t looking to change. So instead, I directed my efforts towards answering the question “why should they care about changing?”.

This approach is perfectly encapsulated in a common sentiment people express in law firms towards change or tech: “we will never adopt something new unless we can see the value of it outweighs the burden of changing”. People saying this kind of thing are likely sizing up the burden of learning a new tool, the difficulties bedding it in and the uncertainty as to whether it will be worth it. The only way you can convince them to cross this “zone of apathy” is to build trust and convince them to care. This is the missing piece.

Why should they care?

Why should *who* care?

If you are going to answer the question “why should they care”, you have to know who “they” is. You get corporate lawyers, litigation lawyers, tax lawyers. You get juniors, seniors and partners. You get people who are great with clients, you get others more focused on the detail.

Each type of person involved in a process area is likely to care about different things

Change is probably only going to appeal to a subset of people. In the general area in which you have chosen to focus, start with the people likely to care the most or who have voiced concerns over a particular problem. Also know that your technology is likely to impact more than one group — even those who do not use it. And don’t make the mistake of only focusing on lawyers. Understand the process area you are about to tackle and find out about all the different kinds of people involved in it.

Illustration of how you might go about understanding the different people involved in, e.g. transaction management processes

In my transaction management example, the main group was people working in corporate, financing and restructuring teams who were on the junior end of the spectrum. But the partners were also important, because even though they wouldn’t use the system themselves, it was important to convince them that the new tool would not adversely impact their transactions. It’s not just the actual users who have a stake in things.

Step #1: Pull factors / bottom-up

Once you have identified the people involved, you can start to answer the question of why they should care. You have to do this for each type of person you have identified as being affected by the problem area you have in mind.

Mapping what people care about in, e.g. a transaction management process

The goal here is to understand the individual pain points of everybody involved, so that you build a story around how much better their lives will be if they decide to use your new tool. These are sometimes known as “pull” or “bottom-up” factors. They are things you can point to on an individual basis that makes people want to change how they work.

You need to establish the pull factors for each type of person you identify

The best way to do gather this information is to speak to the people you have identified as needing to care about a new tool. If you don’t do this, your messages around why people should care about your new tech may not land properly.

Talking to people as part of this exercise can be controversial. I often get pushback to this premise for a few reasons:

  • 😤 This is your job. As an ex-lawyer, I have heard this a lot — “you’re meant to be the subject matter expert, why do you need to speak to others?”. It is certainly true that I have felt pain points directly when I was practising. But my views are not representative of everybody — I practised in one practice area at a particular firm at a specific seniority level. Also, my own views are largely irrelevant — I am already sold on the tool. The task is to make others care.
  • People don’t have time. This may be a valid concern, because lawyers are very busy people. However, if you can‘t find any volunteers to spare you any time about a given subject, this can be an indicator of adoption difficulties further down the line. If they won’t spare a mere 15 minutes, what makes you think they would adopt a whole new way of working?
  • 🎁 We need to show them something first. This is perhaps the most common pushback — “let’s wait until we have a product to demo”. But the goal here is not to get feedback on a particular product. The goal here is to hear how people work now, and to extrapolate their main pain points from what they say — then use this to convince them that any solution in this area has value. There’s no point showing somebody a product if the problem it solves is not a significant one. Instead, start with what they care about. That is what this exercise is about.

Unless you speak to people directly, at best you are guessing at what their motives might be and at worst you are imputing your own motives upon them. A reluctance to talk to end-users about working practices, and deducing from these discussions how you can deliver value to them, is one of the principal causes for failure of tech adoption in law firms and legal teams. In an ideal world, it should be done prior to any purchasing decision.

Pull factors + communication

The final thing to note on pull factors is that they help when it comes to communication. For example, which of the two ways would you find more convincing around a new communication tool?

  • 🛠 Tool-centric. “Microsoft Teams is now available for use. It lets you call people, chat to people and carry out video conferencing
  • 🙋 User-centric. “You’ve told us that you spend hours each day filing emails. You’ve told us that you lose track of email threads, and find it difficult to piece together email chains to see what has happened in the past. We have a new tool that will solve these problems for you”

Notice how in the second example, the tool itself is not mentioned at all. Instead, the value delivered to users and the problems the tool solves take centre stage. This is nearly always a far more effective communications strategy, because it not only explains what the tool does, but explains the value it delivers to people.

Step #2: Push factors / top-down

Sometimes it is hard to establish pull factors. This might especially be the case for change that brings benefit at organisational level, but less so at an individual level. To instigate these kinds of changes, you may need to rely on push factors or top-down factors.

If you can’t find pull factors, you may have to rely on push factors

For example, there may be a burning platform to a given process change. Migration to cloud, security considerations or end-of-life of an existing tool are common considerations that may become push factors. While people might not want to use a tool (i.e. absence of pull factors), they still must use it for other reasons — the push factors. Here are some examples where the COVID-19 pandemic has led to adoption of new tools:

  • ✍️ E-signatures. Why did usage of e-signature technology skyrocket shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began? It wasn’t because people suddenly became interested in e-signatures. It’s because they used to do things by printing and scanning. And because everybody was working from home, they didn’t have printers and scanners. The push factor was that they had no other way of facilitating the signing process.
  • 🎥 Video conferencing. At first, many organisations’ audio conferencing facilities could not take the sudden traffic increase from people working remotely. So a more scalable solution was required, e.g. Zoom or Teams. Many used these technologies to replace their traditional dial-ins. The lack of being able to see people in person also led to more using video technology to establish more personal connections.

In an ideal world, you will have both push and pull factors. Some law firms find it challenging to establish push factors for technology (i.e. a business imperative). I do not personally believe that things like “efficiency” or “improving the client experience” are sufficient outcomes. They can be difficult to measure (and so difficult to know when they are achieved) and are arguably not an end in themselves. They do not have enough “oomph” to make somebody push somebody else to back a given tool or process change. You need something more measurable and concrete, such as profitability.

Can profitability be a push factor in a law firm?

Establishing push factors based on technology leading to profitability can be challenging in law firms — particularly those that primarily operate through an uncapped billable hour model. In this situation, time spent has a direct correlation to profit. If technology makes people more efficient, lawyers will record less time.

In uncapped billable hour models, time spent correlates with profit

At this point, you might be wondering whether efficiencies might allow you to re-deploy lawyers onto other work. But law firms do not regularly turn work away because they are too busy — lawyers just have to manage a larger workload. Hiring more lawyers might also be an alternative here.

However, when clients start challenging fees, the correlation between time spent and profit is disrupted. After a certain point, clients stop paying and time spent is no longer equal to profit.

The traditional billable hour model is disrupted by fee caps or challenges to fees

In fact, time spent after the cap is exceeded equates to money directly lost. So any efficiencies here are welcome and can be translated into an actual increase in profitability. This will vary across different partners, practice groups and regions in law firms. Any practice areas that are under this kind of fee pressure are a complete goldmine for anybody looking to introduce legal technology in a law firm, because they can establish convincing push factors.

Preventing fee cap excess and/or fee challenges is a great way to show the value of technology

This is not intended to be an intricate examination of tech v. law firm business models (e.g. I haven’t even talked about alternative fee arrangements). But hopefully this brief discussion illustrates that establishing a push factor in the form of a direct and measurable business outcome will increase your chances of adoption of new technology. Those working in legal technology would be wise to research the areas where things like price pressure could generate push factors.

Push and pull: cashing in on the perfect cocktail

You do not necessarily have to have both push and pull factors to ensure adoption of legal technology. Strong pull factors without push factors (and vice-versa) can be enough. But do not fall into the trap of thinking things will happen accidentally, and that this is a pure technology problem.

Some final thoughts…

  • Getting legal tech adoption does not usually happen by accident. There may be occasions where you show a tool to somebody, they start using it and you can sit back and relax. You need to work hard to tell people why they should care.
  • This is not a technology problem. It requires you to articulate the benefits of a solution at a business level and a personal level. You can only do this if you know your users inside out, and are clear on what success looks like. In fact, there are so many reasons you should be doing this quite apart from adoption anyway.
  • The push/pull framework is a tool you can use to maximise your chances of getting a new tool adopted (or any change, even if it does not involve technology). If you cannot identify strong push/pull factors, treat this as a major red flag to proceeding with the proposed project.
  • Don’t judge lawyers as being backwards for not jumping at all new tech thrown at them. The question, “why should I care” is a valid one you need to deal with if you are to deliver value.



Jack Shepherd

Ex biglaw insolvency lawyer and innovation. Now legal practice lead at iManage. Interested in human side of legal tech and actually getting things used.