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What’s the Most Important Syllable in ‘New Legal Tech Software’?

November 28, 2023

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Too often, law department and law firm leaders and legal ops professionals overlook what we and our colleagues consistently find to be the decisive factor in whether implementations of new legal tech software succeed or fail: the ‘soft’ component.

Before we proceed, we are not talking about ‘soft’ in the sense of ‘programmable’ or ‘modifiable,’ as opposed to the ‘hard’ in hardware denoting ‘physical circuitry that is rigid and unchanging.’ As we explain below, we mean ‘soft’ in the sense of interpersonal skills that underlie human interaction. And make no mistake: human interaction is the core activity in selecting, designing, and implementing legal tech software. Whether making decisions, creating and approving budgets, or training on a new system, these critical activities require communication between stakeholders and inevitably involve lots of opinions, people, and processes. Time and again, we and our Elevate colleagues find that integrations go best – smoothly, on time and on budget, and with strong adoption and high ROI – when implementers leverage ‘soft skills’ to connect the impacted individuals, teams, and departments and to ensure that they feel heard, become collectively aligned, and adhere to optimal processes.

What are soft skills, and why do they matter in legal tech?

The term ‘soft skills’ refers to personal attributes and behaviours that enable someone to interact effectively with others. Soft skills differ from technical or hard skills, i.e., a person’s trade or trained skill set. Rather, they encompass communication abilities (both verbal and non-verbal) and the facility to get people to share ideas and collaborate to reach an outcome. While many in legal tech are justifiably proud of their technical abilities and find ‘fast and shiny’ technology entrancing, our experience assisting law departments and law firms has taught us that in legal tech, soft skills matter just as much as technical skills and a particular technology’s features. The reasons are two-fold:

  • The Nature of Software. Because software is configurable, its implementation involves decisions about modifications. This means that human communication and choosing among alternatives are prerequisites to successful implementations of legal tech software. An implementer must, therefore, possess the soft skills that facilitate sharing ideas, thinking through options, and reaching a consensus on how to proceed. Indeed, the value of legal tech software depends in large part on improving communication – how people interact, connect, and share information and ideas. Soft skills are a prerequisite for configuring new legal tech software to become a department’s or an organisation’s communication centre, with everyone leveraging the technology to maximum effect as a best practice.
  • The Human Factor. Successful legal tech implementations involve people changing their behavior – mainly, how they interact with new technology to accomplish their work. That change begins with effective stakeholder communication during the design phase. A critical part of that is implementers facilitating stakeholder communication to reach consensus around process — specifically, one that incorporates best practices and achieves a customer’s success criteria. Soft skills are always involved in helping guide stakeholders as they examine old processes and design new, more efficient processes that take best advantage of new software’s capabilities.

But what if stakeholders prefer to overlay their old processes on top of the new software?

Even when stakeholders are largely content with an existing process, soft skills remain crucial. Every legal tech software implementation involves communication around process design, which makes soft skills indispensable. Even if the changes to a process are minimal, redesigning old processes typically feels like a daunting and unwelcome task. People become accustomed to existing processes – they know how to follow them and accept the effort required to use them. The very fact that a new system is novel means that stakeholders do not initially fully grasp its power and potential. Making stakeholders aware of the new system’s features, advantages, and benefits is crucial to getting people to use the system to its full potential instead of reverting to familiar but inefficient processes and becoming entrenched in a ‘but this is how we’ve always done it’ approach. The endeavour requires soft skills to communicate and persuade stakeholders to change their ways.

How, in practical terms, can I address the ‘soft’ issues involved in system design and implementation?

The importance of the ‘soft’ side of things means that the design phase of an implementation should be less about technical questions like how to make data populate and more about issues (like data architecture and flow) that impact the system’s capabilities and how it will operate. A crucial initial step is to bring stakeholders together and facilitate communication and discussion around those overarching design and implementation issues. That helps stakeholders define and align on their goals.

Those discussions should include talking through what works well – and what does not – with their current system and processes. Other action items include educating stakeholders about the new software’s capabilities, helping them understand how best to leverage the new system to resolve the deficiencies of the status quo, and working with them to design new processes that improve efficiency and communication.

So, soft skills are a must-have for implementing legal tech software?

Yes, if you want to do it right. During the design phase of an implementation, soft skills:

  • Help stakeholders understand the capabilities (and any limitations) of the new system
  • Aid stakeholders in redesigning their processes when needed to take full advantage of the new system while still ensuring their needs are met
  • Assist in translating between the stakeholders and the technical team to ensure that the final system design fully addresses the stakeholders’ functional requirements
  • Spur stakeholders to talk, share ideas, see their ideas flow from start to finish, and understand how their ideas can have an exponential impact by utilising the new system
  • Provide guidance, honest feedback, and guardrails on communications
  • Prevent communication breakdowns that may lead to a failed implementation

Throughout, it is important to reinforce the concept that legal tech is a conduit – a tool for communicating information from one party to multiple parties to fulfill a need, share ideas, set standards, and exchange ideas.

Ironically, by utilising soft skills in the design phase of a legal tech implementation, you can better facilitate the communication and collaboration that legal tech enables and thereby ensure that the configuration of a well-designed system, in turn, facilitates better communication. In that sense, the new system becomes a way to improve the use of soft skills across an entire department or organisation.

Stay tuned for future articles in which we’ll discuss why legal tech implementations fail, what happens when communication breaks down, and how best to communicate with stakeholders throughout the implementation process.

What matters more than features and performance when implementing legal tech? As our Elevate colleagues know, the ‘soft skills’ of implementers are the make-or-break factor, for two reasons.

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