This week I was at the Legal Tech conference in Chicago to present on knowledge management. One the first day, I attended the keynote address by Christine A. Edwards, a partner at Winston & Strawn. Until recently, she was the General Counsel of Bank One Corporation and, prior to that, of Morgan Stanley. She gave a very good talk about “Accountability at the Speed of Thought,” which dealt with the role of technology in compliance, what GCs need from technology, and the role of tech decision makers.

She made what I thought was a very interesting distinction between how lawyers view decisions and how business people do. While the comment was in the context of technology decisions, it applied more generally. Ms. Edwards said that when business people face something new, for example, a new product or expansion opportunity, they ask “What are the benefits and the costs and how will this help our strategy and bottom line?” In contrast, she has observed that when lawyers are faced with something new, they inevitably ask “Who else is doing this?”

And therein lies a big problem with how law firms decide. Rather than assess decisions on their own merits as businesses do, they look left and then look right, then decide. Given how they make decisions, one has to wonder why they think there is safety in following their peers – do they simply assume peers have done the analysis better?

I have confirmation of this phenomenon from a friend who works for a tech company that sells some infrastructure-type products. He said a couple of years ago they were going after legal. I said it was a tough sell. His response was yes, but if we manage to get two of the top firms, the rest will follow. And he was right. In this instance, it was probably a good decision all around.

But firms that want to gain competitive advantage from the application of technology to their practice and serving clients need to behave like businesses, not lawyers.