Crossing the Divide
Published on Wed, June 22 byLegaltech Hub

As roles in law firms and other parts of the legal ecosystem evolve, it is becoming more common for talent to cross the divide between firms and vendors, bringing new perspectives and experience to both environments. This is a development that should be heralded with fanfare and applause as it stands to benefit all stakeholders in the ecosystem, bringing greater transparency to legal technology procurement and sales.


As innovation teams proliferate in law firms, the relevant skillsets for prospective talent have broadened. A range of experience is now recognized as useful for KM and innovation professionals in firms, including technical product management, service design, client value, and more. Many of the new skills that innovation teams are hiring for cannot be found through the traditional recruitment avenues used by law firms, who have had a long tendency to hire from other firms or look for lawyers to fill roles even on the business side. The expansion of desirable skillsets in various law firm teams is thus giving rise to a burgeoning trend of law firms looking to legal technology vendors for new talent.


At the same time, as KM and innovation leaders in firms develop relationships with external vendors, it is becoming more common for vendors to hire senior business professionals from law firms to bring new perspectives to the sale side. For these companies, hiring talent from law firms provides them with insight into the procurement processes and the customer context that they otherwise would not have. For the professionals who take this step, the cross-over is a unique opportunity to update their technical skills and work on new challenges.


Ultimately, an increased cross-over in talent between law firms and vendors provides opportunities for significant benefits to the ecosystem as a whole, with potential arising for better partnerships, greater transparency around procurement, and improved adoption of technology by lawyers.


Conservative Approach Historically Prevented Cross-Over


Although knowledge sharing is a competitive advantage, sharing talent has not traditionally been viewed in the same way. Law firms, and particularly recruiters within firms, are still catching up to the reality that the traditional talent route is no longer the best one for all professional services personnel. The increased importance of multi-disciplinary teams within firms is a fairly new phenomenon, and one with which many recruiters are still grappling. They have yet to update their processes to reflect the changes that are happening in the legal talent market.


Given that vendors have traditionally been viewed as sales organizations that have little in common with the law firms they sell to, it’s a full about-turn for recruiters to look to them as potential treasure-troves of new talent. Recruiters are still more likely to look to other firms in recruiting senior business leaders, often seeking to poach prospects who are already occupying the same type of position that the recruiter is trying to fill.


Unfortunately, this short-sighted view – particularly when it comes to modern roles that involve driving culture change and leading technology innovation efforts – is unlikely to result in an optimum pool of candidates. An innovation team will always be more successful if it is diverse, which includes diversity of experience, perspectives and skill-sets. Using a checklist approach to recruitment for roles that are required to think outside the box may limit a firm’s ability to hire the most effective talent for these positions.


Due to the persistence of these conservative recruitment approaches, it has continued to be unusual for law firms to hire for innovation roles from vendors, especially at senior levels. A few forward-thinking law firms led the charge in this respect, paving the way for others. One early such hire was Shearman & Sterling’s recruitment of Glenn LaForce from Aderant, where he was Vice President of Knowledge Management. Shearman installed LaForce as Global Director of Knowledge and Research, where he has successfully led a 40+ person innovative team for over three and a half years. This notable departure from traditional recruitment paths by Shearman & Sterling was spearheaded by the firm’s forward-thinking Chief Knowledge and Client Value Officer, Meredith Williams-Range, and its success has opened the door for other firms to similarly break from tradition.


Recently, there have been more of these moves, with an increasing number of firms appearing to recognize the benefit of bringing in a broader perspective to their innovation efforts. In order to gain insight into the impact that crossing the law firm-vendor divide can have on legal organizations, we interviewed Kate Cain, Alma Asay and Cheryl Wilson-Griffin.


Kate Cain began on Sidley Austin's KM team, transitioned to Foundation on the vendor side, and is now back to the law firm side again leading KM and Innovation at Fenwick. Alma Asay was previously the CEO of Allegory, which was sold to Litera where she became an Evangelist before moving into her current position as the Senior Director of Practice Innovation at Crowell & Moring. Cheryl Wilson-Griffin was a former Director of Legal Technology Solutions at King & Spalding and is now COO at Lupl. 

Increase in Cross-Over as Skill Sets Merge


Diverse teams that include people who have worked with both law firms and vendors have a greater appreciation for the competing priorities on each side. Alma points out that most people in legal innovation attempt to improve the delivery of legal services without a complete understanding of each side's challenges and finite resources. Alma’s experience on the vendor side has provided insight into the limited ability vendors have to upgrade or change a product for a single customer. As a corollary to that insight, due to her experience working in law firms she has an understanding for why firms can only implement so many solutions at any given time, even if other projects might look interesting. In Alma’s view, when skillsets and insights merge from both vendor and law firm experience, there is an increased understanding about what each side can do to achieve value faster, more candid communication about roadblocks, and a better likelihood of realistic expectations. Projects are consequently set up for greater success, benefitting all parties in the long run.


On the vendor side, by contrast, Kate explains that her knowledge from having been a discerning consumer was hugely valuable for product development, bringing essential perspectives to design discussions, development priorities, and overall product roadmap strategies. Her insight from having worked on the buyer side helped ensure that what the vendor ultimately delivered was aligned with what customers need now and in the future.


Benefits of Cross-Over for Law Firms, Vendors and the Industry at Large


Having an individual on the team who understands both the lawyer and the vendor sides of the equation is vital to ensuring successful ecosystem partnerships, streamlining procurement and improving adoption. Now working back on the law firm side leading KM and innovation efforts, Kate says that: "understanding how a software company works, especially from the product management and ongoing development perspective, provides powerful insight into how to evaluate potential solutions."


"When lawyers understand what it is like to be on the receiving end of customers' enhancement requests, bug reporting, and use case questions, they are better positioned to advocate for their team and partner better with vendors." Kate explains that this perspective has helped her to understand how to frame a question or report an issue in a way that will make sense to product or engineering teams. More specifically, she can pre-emptively provide the supporting information the vendor needs, such as relevant examples and helpful context.


This knowledge also improves efficiency around the negotiation stages of legaltech procurement, creating better outcomes for law firms. Frequently, for example, vendors are limited in price but flexible in other aspects of the relationships. Individuals who understand this from having worked on the vendor side are able to leverage their expertise to arrange better terms for their firms. To illustrate, Cheryl shared that she was able to use her insight to help her firm negotiate the best price on a piece of expensive legal technology and ensure the firm had options to protect it against low adoption – precisely, an 18-month no-cause cancellation term. 

For vendors, navigating the complex priorities that lawyers are juggling can seem overwhelming and obsolete. Having the insight of a seasoned lawyer onboard who has experienced multiple procurement processes from the inside of a firm is a tremendous asset. Cheryl explained that knowing how law firms buy allows you to navigate the complex and confusing procurement process more capably when working on the vendor side. For instance, you can prepare documentation that answers the questions you know are coming, implement security protocols you see the firm will need and set better internal expectations about when a deal might close.


Anyone who crosses the divide between a law firm and a vendor company has to be ready for significant change. Our interviewees shared that some of these changes can make your professional life better, but others might make you initially uncomfortable. Cheryl divulged that going from a well-staffed law firm to join a vendor without the same sort of support network and deep resources was a bit of a shock. In contrast, going from a vendor to a firm it can be equally shocking to find how much is done for you on the administrative side. Over time, however, given the many different cultures in law firms and especially at vendor companies, there is the potential to find a fit that will make a candidate happy on either side.


As the industry evolves and recruitment practices develop to take into account the new skillsets that abound in legal, the number of people who choose to cross the law firm-vendor divide at some point in their careers is likely to increase significantly. This trend should be embraced, as it will benefit vendors, law firms, and the industry at large. For organizations currently seeking talent, the suggestion from those we interviewed in relation to this topic is to actively recruit candidates with experience from more diverse environments. Diversity and innovative thought will abound when recruiters recognize that the right expertise can arise out of a variety of contexts, and move away from prioritizing candidates who have only ever worked at law firms.


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