I recently gave a ‘client case study’ presentation at the HighQ Client Forum in NYC (recapped here). On the day, I opened my talk thusly:

I am of the opinion that I could tell you absolutely everything I have done at the firm for the last three years in excruciating detail, with charts, graphs, and full step by step explanations and you could take that back to your firm and it would be of almost no value to you. Except in so far as it may provide you with a bit of inspiration to try something similar, or a map to avoid some of the pitfalls that I have encountered.

That was the set up of my opening joke to explain why I was speaking in extremely generic terms about my ‘case study’ and also to justify why all of my screenshot examples looked like this.

In short, my firm did not share my generous opinion on sharing.

That is certainly their prerogative and they are by no means alone.  I find that most law firms feel similarly about their various technology projects. Most people who work in law firms are to some degree fearful of speaking publicly in detail about any projects they are working on. Not because they think they are somehow giving away the farm, but because they don’t want to raise the ire of the managing partner or the marketing director.

One low level techno-peon, whose firm belongs to a knowledge sharing consortium of non-competing regional firms, told me that she was told to forward any information she receives from the group to the managing partner, but that she was never to share anything with the other firms.   I’m willing to bet that most staff in the consortium have received similar instructions from their firm’s management.  In the upper echelons of law firm management, it seems to generally be believed that the use of specific technologies, in a particular way, to solve a problem or build a product, constitutes a ‘competitive advantage’ of some kind.

It does not.

We are all using the same tools to build the same kinds of products and services for the same potential clients.

If I tell you that I am using tools A, B, and C to develop a solution that does X, Y, and Z. Even if I show you detailed screenshots of my final product, or give you a demo of its various features, you cannot recreate what I’ve done.  Even if I gave you the completed product itself, along will full rights to use it as you saw fit, you couldn’t get anyone at your firm to sign off on it.  Trust me, it’s hard enough to get two lawyers at the SAME firm to agree on simple introductory wording for a product let alone actual legal interpretations; lawyers from different firms agreeing on anything is nearly unthinkable.

The competitive advantage, the ‘secret sauce’ if you will, has absolutely nothing to do with the technology or how I/we/you put it together.  The advantage is in the knowledge and intelligence that your firm’s lawyers bring to the product/service/solution and that will be different at every firm. Even if the outward appearance and general construction of the eventual product is identical. (Which it can’t possibly be.)

In addition, it is highly unlikely that your technologists or consultants have discovered a unique combination of tools and resources that no one at any other firm has ever thought of.  The one exception would be if your in-house development team built something entirely from scratch, but then I would argue that any immediate advantage you may gain is more than offset by the long term headache of software maintenance and support, and you’re actually digging an innovation hole.

Now, to be clear, I am not advocating for a mass uprising of technologists to start spilling their firms’ secrets. Nor am I suggesting that I would ever share details of what my former firm was working on against their wishes. Nor will I ever share details of anything that I work on for any company in the future without explicit permission to do so. However, I truly believe that in most cases a strict devotion to the ‘competitive advantage’ myth actually does a big disservice to the secretive firm itself. They struggle to learn through trial and error what could simply be learned by talking to others who have gone before. Although, if you don’t share, no one else is going to share with you.  Those good old kindergarten values at play.

It strikes me that this bizarre behavior is like construction contractors jealously guarding their secret use of wheelbarrows, nail guns, and wooden framing.  Those things constitute baseline technologies for building a house.  However, the fact that a crew uses those technologies has almost no bearing on the eventual quality of the house.  It’s the work of the specialized craftspeople that ultimately determines the value of the end product.

The same is true for law firms. Firms should have faith in the skill of their craftspeople (lawyers) and encourage their construction foremen (technologists) to talk to others in the industry about construction (legal technology innovation) best practices.

Otherwise, what is the message we, as an industry, are sending to our clients?

“We’d rather spend our time and money reinventing the wheelbarrow than using technology to solve your legal problems.”

I hereby relinquish any claim to copyright on that phrase. If any firm wants to adopt that as their marketing slogan, be my guest.

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Photo of Ryan McClead Ryan McClead

Ryan is Principal and CEO at Sente Advisors, a legal technology consultancy helping law firms with innovation strategy, project planning and implementation, prototyping, and technology evaluation.  He has been an evangelist, advocate, consultant, and creative thinker in Legal Technology for more than…

Ryan is Principal and CEO at Sente Advisors, a legal technology consultancy helping law firms with innovation strategy, project planning and implementation, prototyping, and technology evaluation.  He has been an evangelist, advocate, consultant, and creative thinker in Legal Technology for more than 2 decades. In 2015, he was named a FastCase 50 recipient, and in 2018, he was elected a Fellow in the College of Law Practice Management. In past lives, Ryan was a Legal Tech Strategist, a BigLaw Innovation Architect, a Knowledge Manager, a Systems Analyst, a Help Desk answerer, a Presentation Technologist, a High Fashion Merchandiser, and a Theater Composer.