At the intersection of people and technology

Issue March/April 2016 March 2016 By Susan Letterman White

There have been amazing developments in technology with applications to the practice of law. Different technologies collect and measure information, manage processes, remind us of what to do and when to act and make it much easier and faster to access and organize information. Tech helps manage client relationships and projects, and can even track the patterns of communication within a group for the purpose of improving performance.

For those people who are willing to change the way they think and feel about change in general and about learning new skills, technology improves process efficiency beyond what is humanly possible. They must be willing to change how they think about themselves and their value; how people are grouped together, connected and organized; and how they do what they do. Technology changes a lot of things, but it does not change human nature.

When technology productizes a service, it replaces a person whose professional identity was tied to that service and inevitably leads that person to the hard existential questions about identity, value proposition and personal brand. Consider the effects of Legal Zoom, which has productized many services that a lawyer used to deliver in the community, or Ross Intelligence, which is built on IBM's Watson, and largely replaces the role of legal researcher.

Technology not only changes how we see ourselves and our value, it disrupts our groups and organizational structures by changing how, when and with whom we can form connections. It replaces the processes that took us time to learn and master with new processes that require us to take the time to learn new skills. It is human nature to feel a sense of loss with any significant change. It is human nature to feel a sense of disorientation when faced with having to learn how to use new technology. Superimposed on this disruption is the fact that tech's value proposition and one's ability to use a piece of tech is intuitive for some people and anti-intuitive for others.

Introducing new technology into a law firm or law department is a significant organizational change. Its success depends on everyone in the organization wanting to use it, learning to use it and then using it. Resistance comes because we initially interpret change as a loss, regardless of whether it turns out to be full of new opportunities. Resistance also come comes from lawyers, who layer on top of a general dislike of change, a keen skepticism and honed ability to argue against change. For this reason, Tom Mighell, senior consultant for Contoural, said, "Pushing technology on anyone is always a mistake if you're not also telling them why it's important or why it will help their practice."

He added, "New technology initiatives are almost never successful unless there is top-down commitment to the project, support for the goals of the technology" and communication "early, often and in positive ways about using technology."

At the intersection of these amazing developments and the people who are expected to use them is an obstacle course at the end of which are new opportunities and benefits. The biggest obstacle, the one that prevents most lawyers from seeing those benefits, is the way they think and feel.

The Obstacles

Obstacles show up as resistance to change, refusing to use the technology or complaining about learning new skills and losing old ways of doing things, and are marked by feelings of loss, confusion and skepticism. Approaching obstacles with a rational explanation to address irrational feelings is rarely sufficient. When relied on alone, it often backfires and increases skepticism and general resistance to change. Details and solution strategies for improving the success rate when introducing new technology fall into three categories:

  1. Fear
  2. Confusion
  3. Not seeing the WIFM factor, and being able to answer the question, "What's in it for me?"

Fear: People are afraid of failure and being evaluated by others unfavorably. They wonder whether they will be able to learn how to use a piece of technology. Jared Correia, assistant director and senior law practice advisor at the Law Office Management Assistance Program, explained, "Many firms are reticent to adopt new technologies because of the learning curve. They don't take the long view that while an initial decrease in productivity is to be expected, over time, productivity should increase exponentially."

Attorney Dan Siegel, president and founder of Integrated Technology Services LLC, told of another fear that can get in the way of adopting new technology: the fear of what will happen when the organization has a unified database that allows others in the firm to see what they are or are not doing.

Andrew Arruda, co-founder and CEO of Ross Intelligence, has a slightly different take. He said that lawyers aren't afraid of change as long as you can provide "hands-on proof of the positive outcomes." For example, he said, "Look at the shift in thinking about the risks associated with the cloud versus those associated with life behind a firm's firewall. Now it's unusual for anyone not to recognize that the level of security of a large tech firm is much higher."

This fear of being judged by others as ineffective, low performers has a work-around. Tackle a problem anchored in a feeling with emotional intelligence, the ability to identify and manage the emotions of self and others. This begins with noticing, naming, and accepting without judgment the feelings that arise, and is followed by managing those feelings. Tips to manage feelings include:

  1. Giving feelings time to dissipate
  2. Building self-confidence to balance out fear through positive self-talk and the power poses suggested by Harvard researcher Amy Cuddy
  3. Building self-confidence by diving in -- using your tenacity to learn something new and gradually building confidence by discovering that you are more capable than you thought

Confusion: Many people feel confused about specific benefits from a piece of technology and how to use the technology. Correia sees firms refusing to switch to cloud-based products, which come with subscription fees, because firm leaders mistakenly believe that their previously paid, one-time fee for similar technology is sufficient. They do not bring into their analysis the cost to update the technology or the even higher cost on practice performance of not updating it. Arruda suggests tapping into the interest and curiosity that follows closely on the heels of confusion. Ross Intelligence is solving the problem of clients who refuse to pay for legal research. In response to a legal question, Ross will "read through the entire body of law, and return a cited answer and topical readings from legislation, case law and secondary sources." Arruda does more than just talk to a client about what Ross can do; he shows them what they can accomplish. Siegel pointed out that "there is a great benefit to demonstrating how to use a piece of technology to trigger an 'aha moment' and quickly erase any confusion about how to use the technology and what it can do."

WIFM: Many people don't see the "what's in it for me" factor. Leaders are responsible for creating the conditions to address obstacles, including helping others to see the personal benefits. In the 1940s, Alex Bavelas, a psychologist at MIT studying group behavior and change, explained the positive upshot of including the people, who will be affected by change, in the decisions of what changes to make and how to implement them. It's the best way to let people see the WIFM factor and decide for themselves the degree of personal value. Correia has seen firsthand how this plays out when staff are not included in technology decisions. He advises inviting staff "to suggest and test potential products and provide feedback" if you want them to accept the ultimate result.

The Solutions

Leaders can increase the chances of success when introducing new technology by first understanding the psychological driving and restraining forces. Managing the psychology of the situation means recognizing that even before people are ready to address fears, clarify confusion and care about the WIFM factor, they need to feel dissatisfaction with the current situation. The absence of feelings of discomfort and dissatisfaction is a significant restraining force. Managing the psychology of the situation also means that while people are addressing fears, clarifying confusion and thinking about their WIFM factor, they must harbor the belief that their efforts will be successful and lead to the personal and organizational goals of the technology. Using emotional and social intelligence, leaders can change the way others feel and what they believe about using new technology.

Leaders manage the psychology of the situation by:

  • Acknowledging that the feelings of fear, loss and confusion are normal reactions
  • Creating personal discomfort with reminders of the risks of not using new tech
  • Demonstrating, by example, the behavior they want to see in others
  • Creating incentives that encourage people to try out a technology and share their experiences with others
  • Reminding everyone that they are capable of facing the challenge successfully and attaining personal goals and contributing to the attainment of organizational goals
  • Answering the WIFM question on each individual's mind and explaining the competitive edge they personally gain.

Correia recommends leaders "actually use the technology themselves to set a good example" and also to "identify persons within the firm who can be superstar tech users and teach others how to use it." Siegel suggests reminding people to "just look around and watch as the least techie people, or the most resistant to change, are the ones who generally are shown the door first." Planning your strategy to manage the psychology of resistance that frequently blocks the intersection of people and technology is the first step in paving a road to success.