Please Don’t Try to Disrupt Anything, Just Build Useful Stuff That Helps People Work Better

Once in one of my law and technology LL.M. classes at UdeM, we had a dare: how many times can one possibly include the word “mayonnaise” in a class presentation. I feel that there is something similar going on with the word “disruption” in law-related talks.

The following are random thoughts about building and positioning products for the legal market which are drawn mostly from lessons learned (read: things that didn’t work out), but also from some stuff that turned out not so badly.

In order to not sound skeptical, I will deliberately not go into my memories of how artificial intelligence was about to disrupt everything in the legal field around the time when I touched down at Dorval for the first time fifteen years ago … or even before that.

Three wrong reasons for tech entrepreneurs to be on the legal market

It’s an XXX-billion dollar global market opportunity – Or, in other words, with a cash flow so immense, there must be a small place/share for my product. It sure makes the market very enticing, and market size is definitely sine qua non for the success of any business. But the fact that there is a lot of money floating around doesn’t necessarily make it easy to get. Why would customers spend their money on your product? Because of the abundance of wealth in the industry? Think about military spending – would you be planning on launching a start-up in that sector?

The legal services market is ready for disruption – Maybe this is true. Maybe there has been relatively little innovation in this market, I am not really sure and I can argue both sides. Comparatively, other technologies have improved quite a bit – facial recognition, voice recognition, natural language processing, self-driving cars, new fly-by-wire for planes, smartphones, etc. But still, how does the alleged relatively modest pace of innovation on the legal market make a business case for your product?

It just can’t go on like this! – This statement pops up very regularly – the industry status quo is unacceptable. Really? I don’t think it’s all rosy either, but “unacceptable” for whom? Big law? Solos? Self-reps? Big clients? Small clients? Courts? The question is: who is going to join you on your journey to transform the industry? This statement also makes me wonder about what the general satisfaction level is with the telecom or the airline industries and what this led to in terms of business opportunities…

Whether I agree or disagree with all of these affirmations is irrelevant. What matters is that they don’t make a business case. They don’t sell products. The above statements are context – somewhat important – but legal entrepreneurs need to go much further in their thinking and fact-checking.

Instead, find THE guy with a problem

Forget how big the industry is and how it implores to be disrupted. Find someone who has a real problem, focus on them and try to help them. This is a product business case. This is your potential customer. After all, a product makes someone’s life easier by alleviating some kind of pain.

Make sure they understand they have a problem

The existence of a problem can be subject to everyone’s agreement …except the guy who has the problem. Educating a potential customer about their problem is an option, but it can take time and the outcome is uncertain. And during the education phase, your product does not evolve and, most importantly, it does not sell.

Make sure they are ready to move to solve their problem

“Yeah, I know, I know, you are right, I have a problem, but I’ll live with it.” This is something that’s not fun to hear from potential customers. It basically means that they’ll eventually consider your product when they are ready to move to solve their problem. This is a deadline that you cannot afford to build in your product schedule.

Convince them that your solution solves the problem

Agreement on all of the above is not enough; a potential customer needs to see you as his saviour. It is heartbreaking to do all the previous steps just to see that the customer makes a move to solve his problem that is totally unrelated to your product, e.g. by buying from a competitor or building something in-house.

Make sure there are enough of these guys sharing the same problem

Finally, check that enough people can be qualified as potential customers before starting to pour money into development or marketing. An early confirmation of a revenue model is important for the viability of the product.

Don’t assume, ask

Assumptions are great – they are relatively easy to make and often involve a pleasant setting: a meeting room, a discussion with colleagues, a panel at a conference, a roundtable. It is a fun process. The thing is, assumptions are not facts and need to be verified to become facts. The only way of doing this is by asking your potential customers. It is easy and they will give you the answer without any reservation. No matter how cool you think bubbles and timelines in visualized search results are, what’s important is how your customers see them. And if all they want is text, trash the bubbles.

Lawyers are no fools

Actually, they are very smart people. They will change, adapt and adopt when they have to, which is (1) when they face a problem (profits are shrinking or customers are not happy or research tools are poor, etc.) AND (2) when they are convinced enough that what’s being proposed to them as a solution truly promises to solve the problem. Change without evidence of (1) and (2) is irresponsible.

Don’t try to disrupt anything, build useful stuff that helps people

In my view, a good approach in product development and positioning is a very pragmatic and incremental one. Perhaps there is someone out there that will deliver the legal industry’s iPhone or Uber (I like the former and I dislike the latter not for its concept but for its business practices). However, most businesses, small and big, will simply offer useful products that add value, offer a pleasant customer experience and help people work better – and this already is a huge achievement.

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