Lawyers-Turned-Tech Developers' Biggest Problem Is Their Own Experience

June 23, 2021
by Frank Ready
law.com

Attorneys-turned-entrepreneurs can bring hands-on experience to the development of legal tech. But absent a willingness to engage outside stakeholders, there's a good chance their efforts will be too narrowly tailored.

 

No one understands the workflow of a lawyer quite like another lawyer. That’s one of the reasons why buyers of legal tech are drawn to products developed by current or former attorneys.

However, without the wider input of the audience they are trying to serve with a new piece of tech, even the most experienced attorney-turned-developer can still wind up bringing an ineffective solution to the market.   

Jason Broughton, chief design officer at LexisNexis, opined that attorneys sometimes get into legal tech because they have the “entrepreneurial bug.” However, problems can arise when attorneys-turned-legal tech designers become too “self-referential”—in other words looking at the problem they are trying to solve exclusively through the lens of their own experience or world view. 

“The problem is they end up building the wrong thing or it’s something too focused on their specific need. … This kind of myth that this Steve Jobs-like person can have this tremendous insight to just create this beautiful product that works is just not the reality,” Broughton said. 

To be sure, one attorney’s career experiences can’t necessarily be used as a barometer for how everyone in the industry encounters a given pain point or problem—or how they want to see those issues solved with tech. 

Mathew Rotenberg, a former law firm associate who is now CEO and co-founder of productivity software provider Dashboard Legal, noted via email that every attorney has their own set of nuanced processes and work patterns. He stressed that it’s important for products built to address needs around project or process management, for instance, to be able to accommodate any number of use cases. 

Per Rotenberg, every attorney will try to input their own unique set of priorities or workflow processes into a product idea, which can easily lead to problems—such as building too far in the direction of one team or one firm’s unique set of needs.

“And that can really distract or even ruin a product, so there’s got to be a balance between taking advice, listening to customers hearing what they want and then identifying the real patterns of those things and adapting those patterns to a product that it can really accommodate a broad set of needs,” Rotenberg said.

But life as an attorney may not be the ideal training ground for a more collaborative design approach. Jasmine Gavigan, founder and CEO of the collaborative legal product workflow platform VrtuLaw, believes that tech developers need to be looking at everyone from the people involved with the supply chain to the product’s end user. 

Not seeking the opinions of a diverse perspective is kind of like a learned behavior from the law firm culture that isn’t really present in the rest of the business world,” Gavigan opined.

For instance, many legal tech companies deploy tools such as focus groups and user testing, or even involving potential clients in early brainstorming sessions to help fine-tune products before they hit the sales floor.

Joe Borstein, CEO of market collective LexFusion, noted that in his experience, tech developers who don’t hail from an attorney background are more open to working with stakeholders to ensure that “what they are doing makes sense.” In this instance, their outsider status in the world of law may actually be something of an advantage. 

It’s just more obvious to them that they need [stakeholder input] and it doesn’t hurt their ego in any way,” Borstein said. 

And while it’s true that tech entrepreneurs who lived a prior life as an attorney may have a running start when it comes to understanding some of the problems or workflow inefficiencies plaguing the industry, the shelf life of those insights may be shorter than some assume. 

Borstein argued that the “clock starts ticking” on how relevant an attorney’s experience is to modern workflows fairly quickly. “The second you step away from practice to build tools, the experience you have starts to become more and more obsolete,” he said. 

Some attorneys turned entrepreneurs may be more aware of this than others. Nicole Clark , a former business litigation and employment attorney who is now the co-founder and CEO of the legal intelligence platform Trellis, indicated that technology changes too quickly for lawyers to simply rely on their own past experiences.

What may have been a cutting-edge approach to solving a problem three years ago may now be clunky and obsolete by comparison. Clark noted that lawyers will sometimes erroneously assume that technology can’t be approved or iterated upon. 

“We don’t have the same ability to imagine what it could be. We’re almost in some ways limited by our own—to the extent it’s a lawyer without a technical background—by our own limitations of what we know about technology,” she said.

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