Crossing the Chasm of Innovation Adoption in BigLaw – Part 1


If nothing else, the 2017 edition of Altman Weil’s Law Firms in Transition Flash Survey confirms that law firm innovation continues to merit prime coverage and legal management mindshare. While the survey finds that over 50% of the surveyed law firms are “actively engaged in creating special projects/experiments to test innovative ideas or methods,” that actually represents a slight downward tick from the 2016 survey response. Undaunted by the non-increase in activity, AW’s 2017 survey analysis highlights the innovation findings, making room in the results to do so by dropping its analysis of all other previously covered “strategic groundwork” topics. Greater mindshare is a good thing, I suppose, but until we start talking about how to establish and spread real innovation and not just “special projects/experiments,” the discussion will continue to perpetuate low expectations and fixate on missed opportunities and structural impediments. What is missing is a good conceptual framework and shared vocabulary for analyzing innovation adoption in the legal domain, but that is starting to change. In particular, Bill Henderson’s  looks like a promising platform for exploration of the complex dynamics of innovative legal operations, practices and technologies based on innovation adoption theory. By way of supporting that effort, in this blog post I provide a brief summary of the best known innovation adoption lifecycle model and describe a well-established strategy for overcoming a critical structural obstacle to innovation. To illustrate and test the model I discuss how enterprise search technology established itself in BigLaw over the course of the past 15 years. In my next post I will show how the theory can offer useful guidance for successfully innovating inside of BigLaw firms.

The BigLaw Enterprise Search Story

Back in the early 2000s large law firms were beginning to experience a proliferation of content search challenges:

  • Document management libraries were growing in size and dispersal across firm offices. Especially in international firms, WAN-based global searching of all document libraries was cumbersome, slow or otherwise impractical. Users tended to settle for limiting search scope to local libraries.
  • Collaboration and content management tools like Microsoft SharePoint and Lotus Notes were being deployed in law firms and beginning to accumulate valuable content. However, these tools lacked sophisticated search functionality and provided no practical way to search all relevant content repositories.
  • Personal and shared email+attachment archives were simultaneously becoming a management problem and a rich source of content. Again, search functionality was limited.
  • Law firms were beginning to systematically collect valuable firm data in relational databases, including useful information about clients, matters and timekeepers. This mostly isolated data had unrealized potential to directly answer end-user queries and to facilitate searches of all the other content noted above.

When enterprise search vendors like Recommind, Verity and Autonomy started knocking on the legal market’s door shortly after the turn of the century, they found a few innovation geeks and “visionaries” (like me and several other law firm KM leaders) who were willing to “experiment” and then deploy a universal/unified search solution. Those of us who were early adopters of enterprise search encountered extensive problems related to user interface and system performance and significant limitations in connecting to and ingesting source data. In turn, this made the task of “selling” the solution to our internal users that much harder. Consequently, the initial results were mixed at best for early adopters. We were effectively forced to double-down on our innovation investment by cycling through challenging upgrades (recrawling millions of items and handholding users through multiple UI/UX changes). In short, early adopters of enterprise search technology led the battle to slay the BigLaw content monster but paid a heavy price for the privilege.

Meanwhile, later adopters experienced fewer implementation stumbles and benefitted from enhanced features and functionality developed from early adopter feedback, but they also paid a heavy price for their delaying strategy in terms of ever-growing user frustrations and inefficiencies associated with unbounded content growth and siloing. Even today, though, some BigLaw holdouts still refuse to implement enterprise search. How is it possible that there is a such a wide adoption spectrum within a relatively homogeneous market?

Rogers’ Innovation Adoption Model

The basic innovation adoption model originally described by Everett Rogers is well established and a good way to frame the issue. No doubt, you have come across it before:

The table below describes the attributes of the five stages of the model (left column) as it has been applied generally to technology use cases and instantiates them (right column) to the adoption of enterprise search in BigLaw firms with a focus on the leading legal enterprise search vendor (Recommind).

Innovation Stage  Applied to Enterprise Search Adoption in BigLaw
Innovators are excited by new technology. They have strong technical skills and want to get their hands on new technology as soon as it’s available. They demand access to tech support and documentation. In exchange for getting access to new technology for little or no upfront cost, they expect to provide feedback that affects further development and refinement of the technology.  As Recommind’s first legal market customer in 2003, Cleary Gottlieb works closely with Recommind’s CTO and developer team to spec and debug a working iManage connector, produce a UI suitable for law firms, and tune the search engine for legal content. Cleary goes live with Mindserver and Recommind gains a foothold in the BigLaw market.
Early adopters seek to adopt breakthrough technology to gain a competitive advantage. They are visionaries with the ability to connect new technology to a business goal. They willingly accept the risk of unproven innovations and are easily sold on new technology. In exchange, they expect their pilot projects to be well supported by vendors willing to make responsive adjustments to the technology. Morrison & Forster and other early adopters promote Recommind as a visionary product and work with Recommind to introduce the Matters & Expertise module. Enterprise search as a foundational legal KM platform gains credibility as competitive offerings from Verity, Autonomy and other vendors work to attract other early BigLaw adopters.
Early majority is the pragmatist camp. Productivity improvements and effective management of mission critical applications, not great leaps forward, drive the early majority. They focus on a vendor’s market position (the more established, the better), the product itself, supporting infrastructure and compatibility. They orient vertically rather than horizontally, meaning they rely on references from peers inside their market segment rather than the claims of visionaries and innovators.  Recommind matures, releases more connectors and Sharepoint integration. Templates and “out of the box” solutions are introduced to simplify implementation. Recommind focuses primarily on the legal market and rapidly gains market share, experiences mounting tech support and professional services demands that necessitate alliances with third-party consultants/integrators.
Late majority is the conservative majority, looking to minimize risk and adopt new technology defensively to avoid significant competitive disadvantage. They are risk averse and price sensitive. They lack technical savvy, which makes them depend on trusted advisers, packaged solutions and long-term vendor relationships. Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM (or Microsoft)… Recommind growth in the enterprise search segment (and related product development) slows as it begins to turn its corporate attention elsewhere (e.g., ediscovery and email archiving). Eventually, OpenText (a large EIM company) acquires Recommind. Major legal platform vendors like HP (iManage) and Microsoft offer viable enterprise search products that integrate into their product suites widely used by BigLaw. Vendors like Handshake and BAInsight promote their (mostly) SharePoint-based enterprise search solutions. By 2015 approximately 75% of BigLaw firms have implemented an enterprise search solution. A few BigLaw firms are still looking at enterprise search options, especially solutions bundled with their DMS or intranet platforms at minimal cost and effort.
Laggards are the skeptics and contrarians who take pleasure in debunking marketing hype and productivity improvement claims. They resist adoption until technology is virtually commoditized and unavoidable. Even today, some BigLaw firms remain skeptical, citing security and complexity concerns, unproven ROI and other technology priorities.

The model nicely fits the history of enterprise search in the BigLaw market and explains how widely differing behaviors and adoption attitudes can exist in the same market.

Look Before You Leap

OK, so now we have a model that works in the legal market, but we need to consider an important finding made by Geoffrey Moore and described in his groundbreaking book, Crossing the Chasm – Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers. Moore observed that the transition between innovators and early adopters (visionaries) and between early majority (pragmatists) and late majority (conservatives) posed minor marketing challenges (“cracks”), but the transition between visionaries and pragmatists was a much bigger and far more perilous discontinuity. He called it a “chasm” to emphasize the dramatic impact it has on adoption progress beyond the first two stages.  We need to adjust the graph:

Successful transition of the first crack (innovators → early adopters) requires that the technology be strategic and not just cool. Successful transition of the second crack (early majority→ late majority) requires that the technology be user-friendly and simple to adopt and not just productivity-enhancing. These are both problems within the power of the technology vendor to internally solve. Successful transit between early adopters and early majority would also be a vendor-controllable crack if it only required a refocus on productivity, stability and compatibility of the product. However, a far bigger challenge at this point in the adoption lifecycle is the marketing one caused by pragmatists’ distrust of visionary testimonials and references. Pragmatists look to market leadership and positive references from their market peers. Accordingly, new technology vendors looking to enter the market are stymied by a high reputational barrier that does not come down simply because the new technology is a better mousetrap.

It is a classic Catch-22 for technology vendors looking to grow beyond their early installed base. They typically (and wrongly) respond to the encountered resistance by expanding the markets “served” in search of new sales and by trying to incorporate too many early adopter development/support requests. The resulting 80% solution for all and a 100% whole product solution for none is exactly what scares pragmatists away. Again, Recommind serves as case study for this behavior. While Recommind eventually crossed the chasm by concentrating exclusively on the legal market segment, it was hampered for a number of years by its failure to build out a robust, bulletproof backend with a full suite of administration tools and templates for quick implementation. Pragmatic IT managers were frightened by the daunting effort required to get the system up and running even while visionaries were applauding Recommind’s front-end features like Matters & Expertise.

Moore’s rules for crossing the chasm requires the technology vendor to concentrate all of its efforts on creating a D-Day like beachhead:

  • Target a specific market segment as your point of attack. Make yourself the big fish in a small pond.
  • Assemble the invasion force by creating a whole product (includes all system requirements, integration, installation, training and support). Match the product/solution to the market/problem you have targeted. Utilize “allies” (other vendors with compatible products and platforms, integrators and professional support services) to appear bigger and more complete.
  • If your technology is a platform make it look like an application (e.g., hook up a search engine to user-facing systems like SharePoint or other intranet solutions). When you are attacking the early majority/pragmatist stage, application end-users (e.g., KM managers and practice support personnel) are easier to convert into sponsors than are IT managers.
  • Define the (marketing/selling) battle with a highly focused message (the elevator pitch) that not only explains the specific market segment problem you solve but also differentiates your solution from who you (realistically) define as the competition.
  • Launch the invasion with skilled direct sales supported by technical staff capable of working with targeted prospects to identify their needs. Propose solutions that work well for the target’s specific business problem.

Yes, it comes down to discipline and focus, which seems like the obvious thing to do, but technology companies fall into the chasm and never dig out with surprising frequency. Consider, for instance, the numerous standalone enterprise search vendors who have flirted with selling into the legal market over the years. Excluding the recent entrants like Ravn and Sinequa all of the previous players have abandoned the market, save for two. Autonomy only “succeeded” by being absorbed into an established legal market platform. The other exception, Recommind, succeeded in becoming the preeminent legal enterprise search solution precisely because it focused exclusively on the legal market during its chasm-crossing phase of existence. Ironically, its loss of momentum and decline can be directly traced to its shift of focus into other markets and other offerings.

Again, this technology-specific version of the model and associated adoption strategy appear to hold up nicely. Next up, a look at how this conceptual framework can assist us innovators and visionaries to time our innovation adoption efforts and successfully execute them in the BigLaw environment.