Note: for the full essay click here.
If you build long-term relationships, you will have more influence than any amount of short-term relevance will get you. Bill Henderson, a very influential legal innovator himself, has modelled this rule exceptionally well. One of the foundational articles on his website reminds us that “the change agent is a marginal figure”.While this may sound demoralizing (especially if, like myself, legal technology is in your job description), it doesn’t have to be. Instead, it takes some of the pressure off. Nobody is expecting you to start blasting your way upstream; and trying to force changes will probably lead to disengagement, or worse. It is far more effective over the long term to focus on building relationships before trying to change things.
Establishing yourself as a trusted advisor gives you the best chance at long term influence. Just take a look at the list of factors affecting change agent success:
- Frequent contact with clients
- Try to solve client’s problems instead of advancing your own agenda
- See the world through the eyes of the client
- Act like the client would act
- Gain credibility in the clients’ eyes
- Work through others
- Improving technical competence of clients
Given that six of the seven factors include the word “client” it’s safe to say that the most effective action a change agent can make is to become more client-centric. If you’re working in a firm, this means being lawyer- and staff-centric. All gaps between market segments are credibility gaps. Jumping into improving technical competence probably feels most natural, given you probably know more about legal tech than others. But if you are committed to being most effective, then I suggest starting with the six other factors.
Henderson exemplifies this relationship-based approach through his blog and (from what I can tell) his limitless capacity for speaking to lawyers of all kinds and trying to see the world through their eyes. His website and articles are full of anecdotes of listening to lawyers. And instead of pushing an agenda, his articles more often feel like exercises in empathy. For example, Post 68 (“Can Microsoft hit ‘refresh’ on client-law firm relations?”) commends those for their efforts, outlines some potential challenges, and ties it into Everett Roger’s framework. It does not, for example, say anything about how far ahead Microsoft is, how behind other GCs or law firms are, or how new technology needs to lead the way.
In bringing acknowledging the challenges faced by these lawyers he strengthens those relationships. By proving to lawyers that he thoroughly understands and cares about their problems, he gains credibility and support for his own endeavours like the Institute for the Future of Law Practice.
Relationships are fundamental to successfully introducing new products. You are asking people to try something new. You are probably making them uncomfortable, no matter how small the change. Relationship bears the shock of change. People don’t like to feel like they have a lack of choice or freedom – as if they’re being forced to change. But they do like to have someone take ongoing responsibility for the success over a new joint endeavour.
 “There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new order of things… Whenever his enemies have the ability to attack the innovator, they do so with the passion of partisans, while others defend him sluggishly, sa that the innovator and his party alike are vulnerable” – Niccolò Machiavelli. The Prince, as quoted in Rogers, Everett. Diffusion of Innovations pg 1.