Image [cc] Dale Gillard

At the prompting of fellow geek, Scott Preston, I joined in on the #legalchat Twitter feed this morning and really enjoyed the conversation. As with most Twitter conversations, we all are smart, good looking, and can answer almost any difficult question in 140 characters or less. At least that was my interpretation (your mileage may vary.) By the time we got to Question 4: “Are you or your firm working on developing an app?”, I got pretty confident here and make a broad statement that most of the apps I’ve seen coming out of law firms don’t have a lot of substance to them, and are essentially marketing products that bring very little value to the clients they are aimed at attracting. Perhaps the biggest reason for this strategy is that the “idea” for developing an app comes from the firm’s Marketing Department.

Now, before all my Legal Marketing Association friends start balking at that statement, I think that for firms to initially buy into the idea of developing an app, it logically flowed from the Marketing Team because it can be a great marketing tool. Where most of these apps fall short, however, is that they tend to only be a marketing tool, and not an actual productivity tool that clients can benefit from using. In fact, if you look at almost any law firm app that’s hit the market, they tend to have the following resources in them:

  • Law Firm PR materials (alerts, articles and firm news feeds)
  • Office Location Trackers (advanced ones use the device’s GPS to show the nearest office)
  • Employment Information (hey, we’re hiring!!)
  • Attorney Contact Information (just in case you can’t find my number… here it is!)
What we’ve done so far is made a sophisticated mobile website. Not that there isn’t any value in that… but, really, it’s not that great of an app if it simply repackages your website data.
Off the top of my head I thought, “has anyone created a mobile app that allows clients to track their open matter information?”  Now that would be useful. Imagine that I’m a GC at one of our major clients and I can pull up billing information, contact information, docket status, and documents related to all my matters that the firm is currently managing. That would be a useful app! 
Right now, we conduct our application development process within the silo of the firm’s internal structure. All the bright minds of IT, KM, Marketing, Lawyers, etc. going into a room together and deciding what would be a cool app to build. The missing piece, however, is that it doesn’t seem that anyone is asking the client what they would like to see in a law firm mobile app. Do you really think the clients want an app that will show the closest office location? Do they want a list of current jobs available at your firm? Well… maybe, but probably not. Yet, do we take the time to actually ask them a question like: “What kind of useful information or resources could we provide you on your mobile devices that you would find valuable?” I don’t think most of us are. Perhaps we’re afraid that they’ll actually ask us to produce something that we are afraid to provide them. 
I know that a lot of people at this point are probably writing this post off because they think that firms cannot provide such products due to ethical or potential security reasons. I’d argue that if that is stopping a firm from developing a valuable mobile app that their clients would actually use, then you probably should scrap any idea you may have of developing a mobile app. Playing it safe and relying upon Marketing to come up with a design for a mobile app that regurgitates what’s already on your website will result in an app that no one will use. If you really want it to be used, you have to make it useful. If major companies like HBO, Westlaw, The New York Times, and others can produce secure products that are useful to their clients, so can law firms. It’s just a matter of stepping out from beyond the idea of “mobile app as marketing” and stepping into the idea of “mobile app as beneficial to our clients.”