CEO Roundtable With Ari Kaplan: Legal services and legal tech CEOs reflect on 2022 and offer perspectives for 2023
Ari Kaplan talks with his 2022 CEO roundtable.
Ari Kaplan recently spoke with leading chief executive officers in a year-end CEO roundtable discussion on Zoom.
Ari Kaplan: Welcome to the 11th Ari Kaplan Advisors CEO roundtable. I am the principal of Ari Kaplan Advisors, which is a 16-year-old consulting firm that helps legal services and legal technology companies engage their clients and prospects more effectively through market research, events and various types of content. Tell us about your background and your role.
Haresh Bhungalia: I am the CEO of Casepoint, which provides discovery technology to law firms, government agencies and corporations.
Dean Brown: I am the CEO of IPro, an e-discovery and information governance software provider to major law firms, corporations, government agencies and legal services providers.
Kelley Castell: I am the CEO of ProfitSolv, which delivers technology solutions to multiple professional services verticals, such as accounting, architecture, engineering, IT consulting and legal, which is the largest industry that we serve.
Dana Denis-Smith: I am the CEO of Obelisk Support, which is a marketplace that employs 2,000-plus lawyers serving a range of enterprise clients. I also run a charity—Next 100 Years—that focuses on celebrating women in law and have been elected to the council of the Law Society of England and Wales.
Eric Friedrichsen: I am the CEO of Emburse, which focuses on software for spend management, including Chrome River, which 19 of the Am Law 100 law firms use for travel and expense management, invoice processing and overall spend automation. Overall, we have about 18,000 customers across the globe in a range of industries.
Mark Hawn: I am the CEO of Trustpoint.One, which is a tech-enabled diversified legal services company that offers e-discovery document review, legal staffing, court reporting and translations.
Soumya Nettimi: I am the CEO of Paradigm, which provides practice management solutions with embedded payments that serve primarily small and midsized law firms. Our suite of products includes PracticePanther, our flagship product, as well as Bill4Time, MerusCase and LollyLaw.
Joey Seeber: I am the CEO of Level Legal, which is an e-discovery managed services provider based in Dallas, with a team of about 250 lawyers on various projects.
Jerry Ting: I am the CEO of Evisort, which is an AI contracting company that I started when I graduated from law school.
Mark Williams: I am the CEO of Magna Legal Services, which provides support for jury and trial consulting, court reporting, records retrieval, language services, social media surveillance and trial graphics in 20 offices around the U.S.
Ari Kaplan: Where have you found opportunities in the past year?
Eric Friedrichsen: Spend management has become more of a focus to eliminate the need for employees to complete expense reports or collect receipts. It has been difficult to recruit attorneys over the past few years, so leveraging technology to streamline any unnecessary administrative work has been a way to increase the appeal of working at an organization. We have also been helping our customers save money by giving them access to our data to better negotiate with vendors, drive policy compliance and ensure the satisfaction of contractual obligations.
Dana Denis-Smith: In the U.K., we now have legislation permitting a flexible work schedule from Day One, but it is still discretionary and you don’t necessarily receive it automatically. Still, there is a lot of movement around how people work and what is acceptable, which creates uncertainty that makes it more difficult to recruit. A key theme for me as a female founder is supply diversity, which is coming to the fore as a recognized challenge that I hope will bring opportunities for us next year.
Dean Brown: We see a lot of change in our law firms, with some spinning off into smaller practice groups and a lot of consolidation among others, which has been driving a massive amount of uncertainty. That has allowed us to advise them on longevity and risk reduction. In almost every case, the prospect of change turned into a discussion about the value of building a long-term relationship. While I expect 2023 to feature even greater change in frequency and magnitude, it is hard to stay static right now. There has also been a lot of positive momentum from our customers around ESG initiatives.
Kelley Castell: We have seen an acceleration of the adoption of technology in legal and in the other professional services on which we focus. There is also an increased expectation about delivering a really good experience for the attorneys with whom we work and for their end clients, so we are bringing different features together from multiple platforms while ensuring that the experience is seamless.
Mark Williams: We host a lot of legal proceedings, including court reporting and jury trial consulting. Pre-COVID, 5 or 10% of our work focused on virtual legal proceedings, and now that is closer to 80 to 85%, which is a big change that significantly impacts our workforce. A lot of that will continue, and we will make sure our clients are receiving the best experience. We are seeing some proceedings return in person, but I do not think we will ever go back to what it was.
Ari Kaplan: Where do you expect to focus in 2023?
Haresh Bhungalia: Focusing on company culture is a different equation now than it was before. Since we derive energy from our peers when we are together, we are bringing our team together for working sessions, but we are still trying to figure out the best approach. With respect to customer engagement and building trust, that tends to happen in person, but many prefer to interact remotely.
Joey Seeber: My intent for 2023 is to focus more strategically on our culture and values and make sure that we are staying true to who we are as we scale.
Eric Friedrichsen: We have adopted a concept that we call a hybrid super-commuter because we have over 900 employees across the globe and now ask our leaders at every level to travel once a month to a city where we have an office and schedule multiple things while they are there. Meetings where you can whiteboard are done better in person, so they will have at least one customer meeting, a partner meeting and some type of social or charity event. While people are not going back to the office full time, they do want to spend time together, and if they can be cost-effective when they do it and can group several together at one time, it could be pretty productive.
Ari Kaplan: Are there particular skills that have been in highest demand and that you expect to continue to seek out in the coming year?
Jerry Ting: Our goal is to scale as quickly as we can, and it is about designing systems, rather than reacting to what is directly in front of us. We went from a small handful of customers to companies now in every part of the world in two years, and I always tell my partner the amount of work it takes to build a bigger company is the same, but the pace is faster. In terms of skills, it is important to find a stage appropriate operator because as a company grows, some employees pass their natural sweet spot. Those who join startups because they like that environment may need to adapt or change roles as the company grows. We are trying to build a cohesive new management team very quickly.
Soumya Nettimi: One thing we’re looking for very specifically right now is professionals who have experience operating in capital-constrained environments. Many have learned how to operate in businesses where capital is very cheap and they can spend freely. We have been profitable from Day One, but we still want to find folks who have that capital allocator mindset and the ability to really think about the highest ROI, especially at the leadership level because if you can think like a capital allocator, you can focus your time effectively.
Kelley Castell: We now have a very concerted effort to hire professionals that are highly adaptable because the rate of change that we live in just seems to continue to accelerate. None of us knows what is going to happen in 2023, but if you don’t overreact and you focus, you can solve the problems in front of you, which is what success is going to look like.
Ari Kaplan: Where do you see the legal profession headed in 2023?
Mark Hawn: The direction varies in each one of our business lines. We saw a slowdown in capital markets, which drives a lot of document review, but the increased political activity in D.C. drove investigations, while rising interest rates definitely slowed the deal market. We have a lot of interesting dynamics happening in the marketplace that are affected by geopolitical risks, and I don’t think the supply chain has been worked out. I think we are going to have more shock through the system for a while, but we just don’t know where it’s coming from.
Mark Williams: We think there is going to be a continuation of legal demand on the dispute side, so whether it is credit, interest rates or the economy, I think it will stay strong.
Dean Brown: We increased our hiring during COVID for a lot of remote roles, and when there are a lot of people in the office, everyone who is working remotely could feel like a second-class citizen, which is not an easy problem to solve.
Eric Friedrichsen: Clearly, the macroeconomic situation is causing people to be careful with spending money, and while they tend to want to invest in new solutions, the objective is to implement in 30 to 60 days and deliver value quickly.
Ari Kaplan: Thank you all so much.
Listen to the complete interview at Reinventing Professionals.
Ari Kaplan regularly interviews leaders in the legal industry and in the broader professional services community to share perspective, highlight transformative change and introduce new technology at his blog and on iTunes.
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.