Excel for eDiscovery Reporting: Driving a Nail with a Screwdriver

When constructing a house, at various times contractors will use hammers, screwdrivers, socket wrenches, table saws, pliers, drills, and more. The tool depends on the situation.

You can drive a nail into a beam with the handle of a screwdriver – but hammers are readily available, relatively inexpensive, and increase efficiency and quality – so why would you?

The same question can be posed to why many players in the eDiscovery space continue to use Excel as the primary vehicle for compiling and updating reports.

Why Excel Is Sticky

Victoria Hudgins recently published a piece in about law firms’ reliance on Excel for as a matter management tool.

Two quotes are particularly insightful for understanding why Excel retains such a firm grip:

  • “I think the drive to Excel is this: Most firms have it in place, most firms have superusers, people that are very comfortable with Excel and use the product to its max, and it’s in-house already.”
    • Beatrice Seravello, Baretz+Brunelle NewLaw practice partner and co-head
  • “I think [a project management software] has to be easier to use than Excel and it has to be less expensive. That’s the big hang-up. Why should we pay for something else that doesn’t really in a meaningful way improve the work people are doing [and] they can do on Excel?””
    • Jordan Galvin, Mayer Brown knowledge management resources lead

I respectfully submit that these two quotes highlight two key areas of resistance for legal tech providers:

  • Humans are creatures of habit, and habits are hard to break
  • A transparent price model and discussing the the payback period are crucial

Evolution, Not Revolution

Habits have evolved for myriad reasons, including to keep us safe, provide rewards, and the ability to devote our mental capacity to novel situations. For example, most people:

  • Commute to work using the same route (well, pre-COVID…)
  • Purchase the same few dozen items from the grocery store every week (average US supermarket carries 39,500 products)
  • Go to the same restaurants out of dozens (or hundreds) of options within 30 minutes of their home

We are more likely to adjust our habits, however, when new information surfaces that feels like a logical step in improving our experience – but not completely rearranging it.

This is a chief temptation of many software providers: to market their products as “revolutionary,” believing that impresses prospects. Surely more bells, whistles and “disintermediation” is a good thing. People will come to us out of fear of being left behind because we’re brilliant and we’re revolutionizing the industry!

But “revolution” often conjures up mental images of bloody wars, deposed leaders, insecurity, and uncertainty. “Evolution,” however, calls to mind nature, logical change over time, and progress.

Naysayers may point to Henry Ford’s quote, “if I had asked the consumer what he wants, he would have said a faster horse.” There are times for moonshot products. But incremental advances are important, too. Cars were the giant leap, but the inventors of power steering, air conditioning, and automatic transmissions did pretty well.

Product/market fit is about more than just features: it’s also about timing. Videocalling was first written about in a newspaper in 1912, and made it’s highly public debut in 1964….yet it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic that it became a primary means of communication. The features weren’t all that different – the conditions of the marketplace were.

Most firms have superusers and Excel is already in-house – so show those superusers how they can get the same information they want with fewer clicks and less time. It’s a natural next step to make you faster/better/more profitable, not a brand new paradigm with unknown financial impact.

Compelling, Transparent Pricing

When there is a workflow fit and IT security concerns are buttoned up, the final bridge to cross is pricing. It would be exceedingly difficult to be less expensive than Excel – if you’re only considering an explicit cost. But opportunity costs are very real (just ask the shareholders of Blockbuster after the Netflix acquisition was declined).

We do back-of-the-napkin math with some of our prospects to walk through the amount of time and money spent on manual reporting and communications that our software automates. The payback period then becomes self-evident. If we can save them X-amount of hours per month, the tool is already paying for itself.

The more complex a revenue agreement is, the more suspicion the vendor invites. Fees for this, overages for that, line items for the other….

Make it clear, talk through the payback period, and connect the value back to the prospect’s business model.

Sure, your software may have a higher explicit price tag vs. Excel, just like purchasing a hammer requires a cash outlay. But if I can drive more nails per hour, build more houses per year, and have happier clients to refer others to me, it’s well worth it. If the improvement is meaningful, your buyer can legitimately discuss the outlay as an investment, not an expense.

A Better Way

Not all the glitters is gold, and Excel is a good, powerful tool. Sometimes it really does make sense to stick with something more rudimentary.

So, if you’re hanging a picture frame and you can’t your hammer, drive that nail in with the handle of the screwdriver.

But if you’re building a house, go buy a hammer.

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