Tensions in Liminal Space: The Vendor – Law Firm Dynamic

I once wrote a Master’s thesis on the interstitial spaces between colonials and those colonized (it was riveting). Recently, for the first time in many, many years, I thought of interstitial or liminal spaces again, though in a very different context: the relationship between law firms and vendors.

The notion of interstitial spaces as a place of productive discourse was developed by cultural theorist Homi K. Bhabha in his book The Location of Culture. I remember staying up all night with that book, wrestling with the ideas in it and the language. It’s one of the most difficult books I’ve read, but as with many things, high effort = high yield – the “yield” in this case being quality insights. Bhabha writes that: “it is in the emergence of the interstices – the overlap and displacement of domains for difference – that the inter-subjective and collective experiences of nation views, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated… Terms of cultural engagement, whether antagonistic or affiliative, are produced performatively.” Rather than focusing on the opposition between colonizer and colonized, Bhabha says – a focal point that inevitably generates a reductive, binary perspective – we should instead focus on the faultlines themselves: “the border situations and thresholds as the sites where identities are performed and contested.”

Now bear with me here, as I take those thoughts out of the colonial context and re-locate them instead in the dynamic between vendors and law firms.

As with colonizer and colonized, there is an inherent power dynamic between buyer and seller, and a risk that focusing on the oppositional nature of the relationship reduces it to one that is purely binary. After all, there are the very real issues of sales pressure and money changing hands that sit between the two entities. However, this reductive view sets up vendors and firms against one another and presupposes that they have entirely antithetical goals.

All too often, many of us succumb to this simplistic view. Law firm folks, how many times have you been cautioned about letting a vendor give an educational presentation in-house because “all they want do is sell”? More than that: how often have you heard language used in the law firm context that considers the vendor an “other”, a hostile entity to which we are reluctantly beholden for new products? There is a cynicism I’ve heard all too often from IT, knowledge and research staff in firms, a sense that vendors can’t be trusted to provide accurate information because they are motivated to oversell their products. And vendors, how many times have you been asked to provide assurances or make functional changes that appear to make no sense? How often have you been pummeled with questions in a demo that appear to be adversarial rather than genuinely inquisitive? How many times have you been pressured by your company into pushing for a sale on a schedule you know makes no sense for your customer?

I am not naïve. Of course vendors need to make a profit, of course they are motivated by sales. And law firms move slowly, are politically driven, and looking for the best fit for their environment from all tools on the market. There are motivations on each side that are indeed oppositional in nature. But firms that treat every new vendor with suspicion miss out on the possibility that there is more value to be had from a different approach, a more considered view of the vendor perspective.

What would happen if instead of focusing on the oppositional interests of vendors and firms, we examined the “faultlines”, the liminal space where these interests rub up against one another? Could we crack open a dialogue that complicates the vendor-law firm relationship and adds value to it? By consciously tearing apart the binary and engaging in active discourse at the point of contact, could we not find a new way to characterize this dynamic?

There are firms who have already successfully navigated this kind of an alternative path, who have, for example, made a conscious decision to establish vendor relationships as true partnerships. To do this, both the law firm and the vendor must be on board, and a recognition made on both sides that what each entity primarily wants is aligned: to provide a better experience for lawyers. It behooves a vendor to partner with a firm and improve their product accordingly, because the outcome will be positive references and more sales. Similarly, law firms benefit from a partnership model because they can help guide the direction of development for a tool that has the potential to solve their specific problems.

Given these aligned interests, why aren’t more vendors and firms establishing their relationships as strategic partnerships?

Many firms regard vendor relationships as purely transactional. And I would suggest that not all vendors put themselves forward as potential partners. The vendors who approach firms in a way that shows they are genuinely curious about the way our lawyers work, and interested in what they and their tools can really do to help firms solve internal use cases, are more likely to be accepted as partners than those that attempt to falsely amplify the true value of their products simply to make a sale.

Finally, to regard the vendor-firm relationship as a binary is false in any case because it omits the essential third party – the law firm client – who, increasingly, should be a part of buying decisions.

So, let’s break open the vendor-firm dynamic, shall we? Let’s see if we can move the dial on a strategic partnership model. Below, an opening volley – horror stories from both sides of the current divide. And in the coming weeks, posts that move past horror stories and oppositional tension to a more productive discourse.

Horror Stories from Law Firms about Vendors

“A few years ago, I saw a demo by a relatively new tech company. The founder was very well-spoken, but the guy he sent to do the demo was not. In fact, he had really poor presentation skills, but I liked the tool, so I wanted my boss to see it. Before the next demo, I gave some advice to the presenter, to help him clean up his presentation before meeting the decision-maker. He ignored all of my advice, and my boss told me afterwards it was the worst demo she’d ever seen. Needless to say, the vendor didn’t get the sale – even though I still think the product was good! The vendor clearly didn’t understand that when we recommend a product to the next level up, or open the door to a second demo, we’re putting our reputation on the line too.”

“We gave feedback during a demo that, while the product looked promising, a lot of the functionality seemed tailored to the EU/UK market, rather than the US legal market, and our closings for transactions worked differently. The product at the time didn’t seem to respond to US-specific needs. One of the presenters, also a co-founder of the project, proceeded to brush off our concerns instead of addressing them head-on as something they had to work on. A customer is not going to buy your product if you let pride and salesmanship get in the way of improving your product’s functionality.”

“This isn’t something that has happened once, but often. If I reach out to a vendor for a demo, and explain why I want them to come in and what I want them to demo for the group in the room – then demo that! Not all of the other tools you also have, or different functionality I haven’t asked to see. I told you what problem I want to solve, show me how to solve that problem.”

“I was sitting in a demo with a number of people from my team. The vendor was presenting virtually, and there was more than one person on the line. Our team was very active in asking questions. At one stage someone clearly forgot to mute their mike, and we could hear two people on the vendor side laughing hysterically at a question one of us had asked. We should have shut down the demo then; it was never going to go anywhere.”

Horror Stories from Vendors about Law Firms

“I was in a long negotiation with a potential customer. Along the way, I got the green light to offer a really good deal – but only within a particular timeframe. That deadline came and went and negotiations were still ongoing. Eventually, the customer signed the contract for the price that was available at the time – but then they came back to me and said, actually, can I have the deal that you offered me months ago? I was stunned. First of all, no you can’t have that deal – I only had a certain window when I could offer that. And secondly, you signed the contract! Aren’t you lawyers? You know what that means.”

“I was working with a firm that had decided to pilot three different tools at the same time, and choose which one to proceed with based on the outcome of the pilot. As our pilot approached, I asked what criteria the firm was using to determine success of the pilot – what were they looking for from a successful product? The firm refused to tell me! I suppose they thought it would be a more level competition if all of us were in the dark, and none of us knew the pilot criteria. But I know our product better than anyone else, I tried to explain – I can help you solve the problem you need to solve. If you won’t tell me what that problem is or what you need from us, how can I help you?”

“I sometimes feel like firms are asking to see or pilot our product as a kind of scientific experiment. They are testing the technology, rather than actually trying or planning to use it. That’s really demoralizing.”

“I know that firms are not beholden to our sales cycles. That’s fine. I don’t want to be the person who is constantly chasing you. But if you don’t tell me what’s happening, you make it hard for me. Just shoot me an email and tell me – “hey, it’s not going to happen 3rd quarter, check back in 4th quarter.” Tell me what to expect – I don’t want to wear you out anymore than you want me to.”

 Tune in next week for demo pitfalls and how to solve them.