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The key to technology adoption is in your law firm's culture

Before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the workplace and redefined how people work, transformational change was slow. Careful, incremental moves were plotted and tested to ensure employee buy-in before moving forward.

But when the pandemic suddenly closed office doors and sent employees home, change was fast tracked, bypassing many of the stages along the adoption curve. Law firms still needed to serve their clients, so there was greater acceptance of — and patience for — new legal technology.

While the cultural implications of this new landscape remain to be seen, the experience revealed an important lesson: successful adoption of new technology requires a clear understanding of both the workplace culture and the needs of those who will use, and benefit from, new tools.

In a 2020 webinar presented by Thomson Reuters and Lexology, a panel of Knowledge Management professionals from the UK discussed law firm culture and its relationship to legal technology adoption.

Culture change in context

Culture is the way things get done in an organization — the norms, conventions, and accepted codes of behavior. Because many firms have interlocking and overlapping subcultures, introducing a new technology in the legal workplace can be a complicated and often frustrating process.

First of all, people may question the interest and value of sharing their work, their processes, or their mistakes — even when they've learned from them. Second, there is a fear of opening themselves up to criticism. And finally, they may view the transition process as too overwhelming and time consuming. Remember that making a change does indeed take time. For organizations and individuals billing by the hour, any time not spent on forward motion can easily seem like time wasted.

Firms have to be mindful of these influences when making new investments. Rather than expecting wholesale change overnight, leadership must leave room for ironing out all the glitches and reassuring their employees that the disruption is both worth it and tolerable.

“You just have to make life easy for people. And when you make life easy, then that's when change can happen," said Ian Rodwell, Head of Client Knowledge and Learning at Linklaters.

Having the right culture in place will help people move along the adoption curve as quickly and smoothly as possible. It also ensures people's fears and vulnerabilities are recognized, but not overly exposed, which can have unintended consequences like disrupting the transition for others or causing departures.

Success rooted in necessity and urgency

One fundamental problem many firms encounter with new technology is simply dreaming too big. It's easy to become enamored with a piece of legal tech and see all the ways it could fundamentally change the way work gets done. Unfortunately, this visionary approach doesn't necessarily reflect the pragmatic reality of all the firm's “end users" who simply want to get their work done.

The pandemic, however, reversed this trend; arguably for the better. An immediate need to work remotely made people willing to accept any technologies that allowed them to continue doing their jobs. “All of these new technologies we had suddenly found a very willing and grateful audience," noted Rodwell.

Innovation flourishes in crises because people are prepared to experiment and take risks. A firm's culture changes on its own because people have to transition quickly and make it work. This shared mentality of “whatever it takes" ensures success, at least in the short term. Whether the changes are sustainable — or even should be — remains to be seen.

Preparing for a growth mindset

Because culture is about values, customs, and social behavior, it raises the question of whether this virtual environment is a temporary alteration to how law firms work, or something more permanent. One thing is certain: some elements of law firm technology use will never be the same. With white collar professionals across the globe spending a year or more adapting to remote work, attitudes towards things like telecommuting are likely forever altered.

In the long run, a growth mindset toward technology and culture will serve the legal community better. Employees at nearly every level of the firm have a new perspective on how technology fits into the culture. Firm leadership has also been handed a new directive. One that requires actively listening to how people want to work, noting what kind of culture encourages trust and collaboration, and remaining open to opportunities to make the technology we already have work better.

“I see an increased commitment to investing in technology and using technology but also thinking, ‘how can we improve it?’ Are there ways that we can make this smarter or is this a question of looking at our process or our checklist instead of fixing technology," posed Jessica Magnusson, global head of legal knowledge management at HSBC Legal. “What I hope is that it will lead to more imagination, more curiosity, and more bravery to try different things," added Rodwell.

For example, legal professionals showed tremendous enthusiasm for using communication tools to stay connected during the early days of the pandemic. Even still, there remains room for improvement. Pandemic communications were technically successful, but not necessarily as organic or rewarding as they could be.

One notable loss was the “watercooler effect" — the impromptu interactions that can spark new ideas among colleagues that often are a key component of a firm's culture. Moving forward, it's important to find a way to replicate this element of serendipity in the virtual world without creating just an additional channel of business noise; one that could easily fatigue or overload the workforce.

Despite these challenges, the pandemic did have one positive effect on the digital transformation of the legal world: it took some of the fear out of changing. Samantha Steer, Director of Large Law Strategy at Thomson Reuters, summed it up best: “There's a new confidence."

To learn more about how HighQ can fit into your firm's culture, click here.

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