8/13/15

Embracing the Beta



Good enough.

Two words that are anathema to law firms.  After all, we produce perfect legal product. (cough, cough) We strive to eliminate risk for our clients, and especially for our firm, and as such, 'good enough' Is. Never. Good. Enough.  

I can't and would never comment on whether a contract or agreement should be considered 'good enough'. I would assume that no firm would ever accept, "Meh, it's good enough", when it comes to their legal product. But traditional legal products like contracts and agreements are, by their very nature, finished products.  They are essentially static and unchanged until they expire or are actively and deliberately supplanted by new contracts or new agreements.  That means that there is tremendous risk to the client and to the firm in not getting it 'perfect' at the time of delivery.

The problem comes when legal products leave the world of static documents behind and enter the world of software.  No software company in the history of the world has ever delivered a perfect product out of the gate.  They plan for bug fixes and schedule for upgrades.  Those of us in Legal IT are very familiar with Patch Tuesday. If you use an iProduct, you know that little red circle with a 1 above the settings icon that has been blinking at you for three months...? Yeah that one... that means you need to update your device ASAP. This is a way of life in the software world, users may be annoyed by it, but they expect it and most understand that these updates are meant to improve the user experience, or security, or give them additional functionality.  In fact a 'perfect' software that never updated would be highly suspect and most people would assume that it was derelict and no longer supported.

So how do we reconcile the traditional 'strive for perfection up front' approach to legal products with the reality of the software world?  We must embrace the beta.

Beta is the designation given to software which is still in development, but already deployed to at least a small community of end users.  Generally beta software is considered not yet ready for prime time, but still usable.  Google, one of the most innovative companies in the world, has taken the beta concept to new heights. Gmail was in beta for five years from 2004 to 2009.  By 2009, everyone's grandmother had a beta Gmail account.  

Google isn't charging for most of their products, so it's easy for them to get away with the prolonged beta.  I'm not suggesting that we do the same, but I do think we need to learn to deliver admittedly imperfect software products, and systematically upgrade and improve those products over time.

Now, to be clear, I am not talking about compromising on the quality of legal output.  If you create a tool that outputs a standard contract for a client with your firm's logo on top, it had better be a solid contract.  There is no compromise on that.  However, in most cases, the actual legal part of these types of tools is relatively minor and it's the extraneous crap that holds up deployment.

If we can deliver a product with somewhat complicated navigation features next week, and it's going to take 2 months to put a better navigation function in place, deliver the complicated navigation next week.  Explain to the client that this is a work in progress.  Show them screen shots of what is coming in the near future and give them a rough timeline.  Most importantly express how much you value their feedback, and appreciate their support during this beta development period.  And let them know that they are getting a deal on the pricing by participating in the beta.  Other clients coming later will pay the full price.

This is not rocket science.  This is software sales 101.  

With traditional legal documents, we do the legal work and hand them off to trained document specialists to format to the firms standard.  Unfortunately, we don't have that luxury when it comes to legal software.  When you've contracted development, or cobbled together multiple SaaS tools to create a new product, there is no specialist to hand it off to to make it conform to a firm standard.  There may not even be a firm standard to cover every new mechanism you've created, which means someone needs to make up the standard as you go.  

By embracing the beta, we can deliver functionality to clients as quickly as possible, and focus on continually upgrading and improving their experience over time.  I don't know for sure, but if I was a client of a law firm, that's what I would want.  And if the product provided the functionality that made my working life a little bit easier, I'd probably be willing to jump through a few hoops or look past the occasional formatting snafu, to get the product on my desk more quickly.  

That's what software companies do by necessity.  And like it or not, law firms are, or soon will be, software companies.

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