Bring on the product managers

Law firms need a person who is formally responsible for product success.

Kate Simpson

Law firms need a person who is formally responsible for product success. We need a new role on the operations side of our law firms — an internal function that drives the launch, integration and ongoing use of the new and innovative tools that augment our lawyers’ practices. That role is product management.

“Product manager” is a job title that’s all the rage from the financial industry to consumer and retail to the software and health industries — anywhere a product is purchased, used and adopted. And while we’re not actively doing that for clients (yet), we are doing this internally as firms purchase and deploy technology for use by lawyers in their practices. Like those industries, our legal tech industry also has product managers who are responsible for the success of their newly launched solution in our industry. But there is no one formally responsible for the success of those products within our firms. There is obviously a lot of pressure on the business unit paying for these products to ensure there is good return on investment for the firm. But there is no formal framework in place that specifically focuses on delivering the success and firmwide adoption of those solutions.

We attempt change management practices to build awareness, find champions and attempt the chasm crossing to get more people on board. We identify and remove frictions, we build on short-term wins and sustain acceleration, etc. But change management tends to work best when there is less uncertainty in either the processes, the software or how people will use it, such as document management or time and billing systems. The procedures and tasks that flow from enterprise software systems like these are well established. These capital-expenditure projects and investments require a deep understanding of firm-specific requirements, a laser focus on the enterprise-wide system integrations needed and a very structured approach to planning the path for operationalizing that system. But once the decisions have been made and the development is underway, it becomes a change management exercise to get everyone using the system as intended.

For the new and innovative tools on the market, however, it is a far more uncertain process. It is uncertain that the tool will create the efficiencies, save costs or create new revenue. It is uncertain that this new tool will work as promised in your firm or with your lawyers. It is uncertain that, beyond your early adopters, the tool will be taken up on a firm-wide basis.

We need internal legal product managers who are responsible for the success of the growing catalogue of legal technology at our firms. They would be responsible for ensuring that the tech investment pays off by creating the promised efficiencies or developing new revenue. They would be responsible for operationalizing the innovative technology inside our firms, turning the exciting and the new into the standard and “business as usual.” They would focus on adapting established processes to create smarter, faster and better ways of doing things that fully leverage the power of technology.

None of this happens by itself or by accident. It needs to be someone’s responsibility to shape and manage a product’s rollout internally and focus on the inevitable ongoing design and development required to remain relevant to its users. A legal product manager takes a launched product from a vendor and creates an internal road map for the piloting, communication, training, adoption and ongoing maintenance and improvement.

Product management requires the following core functions:

Be user-focused

They must act as a bridge between the users of the law firm’s tools, the vendor and their development teams. The product manager needs to listen and engage with users and translate both their wishes and annoyances into insights for future improvements. These interactions involve sitting down with users of the tools to watch how they use them, listening to what they say and what they don’t say. They need to be highly attuned to any friction encountered. They need to have empathy to experience what the user is experiencing. These kinds of insights can lead to discoveries of the new and innovative by truly understanding where the pain points in processes exist.

A good product manager is happy scribbling potential prototypes on paper as a way of visualizing alternative user paths or interfaces in the tool. Paper prototyping allows lawyers and product managers to quickly mock up simple representations of wish lists and recommendations in visual form and then pass those on to the vendors for future development.

As law firms’ internal teams get more adept at understanding what lawyers need and don’t need from the tech, they can avoid wasting their time on the cute-but-useless or the cute-but-not-ready-for-prime-time apps that pass their way.


• Be evidence-based

As any student of the lean startup method will tell you, building ongoing improvements require us to measure how users are currently using the product and not just relying on anecdote. Pulling usage analytics and studying these numbers can create insights into future product development. It also allows product managers to identify training needs and gaps in awareness and communication. These numbers can also help expose where users might be encountering frustrations in the journey and at what point they abandon the product.

Data-driven decision-making is a powerful tool for product managers to use in their feedback to vendors in working out future needs and development of products. Understanding how a tool or system is used and at what points during a file helps develop a more intuitive internal journey for lawyers. And as more and more apps come online that attempt to simplify and organize practices, the more internal teams need to create intuitive journeys and interfaces in which to house them all.


• Be communication-obsessed

Creating awareness across a firm about the benefits of any new tool or system is a marathon, not a sprint. And it is just the first step on any adoption life cycle journey. For those in marketing, the need for communication and repeated communication is a fundamental principle. Marketing’s “Rule of 7” states that it takes seven “touches” before someone will internalize and/or act upon your call to action. I find this a useful principle to remember. A single email setting out the benefits of a new technology sent to the entire firm is just not going to capture the interest or imagination of enough users to justify the investment. Communications need to target the lawyers who will benefit the most at a time when they are the most receptive. This requires us to have a tool kit of methods and media at our disposal. A product manager will use a combination of these tools to learn how best to build the awareness and interest needed to persuade lawyers to try out the new technology being piloted and explore the efficiencies created.

There has never been a more exciting time to be a part of this profession. Along with the product manager, Richard Susskind has introduced eight new legal positions in his book Tomorrow’s Lawyers (including the legal risk manager and the legal knowledge engineer). Whether on the practising or operations side of the law, these roles and others will shape the next generation of legal services.


Kate Simpson is national director of knowledge management at Bennett Jones LLP and is responsible for developing the firm’s KM strategy and initiatives. Opinions expressed are her own.


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