Legal tech entrepreneurs talk success strategies for 2018
Ari Kaplan speaks with some participants from the LexisNexis Accelerator Program for legal technology startups.
They are: Ryan Alshak, the CEO of Ping, Alex Hewitt, the director of operations for vTestify, Tunji Williams, the co-founder and CEO of dealWIP, as well as David Schnurman, the CEO of Lawline and author of the upcoming book, Break through Your Walls: Bring Your Entrepreneurial Sledgehammer.
This Q&A has been condensed.
Ari Kaplan: Tell us about your company.
Ryan Alshak: Ping is using artificial intelligence to solve the biggest pain point of every law firm lawyer, which is manually tracking billable hours. We’re leveraging our in-house data science team to understand what we can learn from that time and billing information. As the industry shifts to more flat-fee billing, we could use that data to help firms more accurately price their services.
Alex Hewitt: vTestify is a videoconferencing application that allows attorneys to schedule and conduct depositions, share exhibits, and receive formal transcripts from their laptop computers and smartphones at a fraction of the cost of traditional depositions. We’re trying to disrupt the court reporting industry with speech-to-text that allows attorneys to get an instant replay of testimony as it’s taking place and are increasing access to justice with better video evidence.
Tunji Williams: DealWIP is to corporate transactional attorneys what Google’s productivity suite is to the rest of the world, as it is a cloud-based workflow integration platform for corporate legal matters. It provides a secure, frictionless, and transparent environment for corporate transactional attorneys to plan, manage, automate, and streamline every element of any matter.
Ari Kaplan: David, tell us about Lawline and the premise of your upcoming book, Break Through Your Walls.
David Schnurman: Over the past 11 years, Lawline has grown from zero to 120,000 attorneys using us for continuing legal education. Break Through Your Walls is for people who get too comfortable in their good life to achieve their great life. Once you have achieved a little bit of success, you often can’t push yourself to the next level because you hit walls that come up in front of you. Over time, those walls end up forming a box around you. I’ve developed the fast-forward mindset, which shows readers how to become more fearless and focused to break through their walls so they can achieve greatness in their businesses and in their lives.
Ari Kaplan: What lessons did you learn about the legal industry in 2017?
Ryan Alshak: There were two major lessons that we learned. First, the legal industry seems to finally be ready and open to technology really changing law for the better. Legal evolves slower than almost any other industry, maybe outside of government. I really think that we’ll look back at 2017 as the true tipping point for when that paradigm shifted. Second, law firms are finally embracing the cloud as a meaningful and real alternative to their on-premises solutions. This is leveling the playing field for young legal tech startups like ours to meaningfully take on the incumbent players in the space, and I think both of those trends will continue into 2018.
Alex Hewitt: We learned that the legal tech industry has seen a massive amount of momentum in trying to solve the age-old problem of there not being enough hours in the day, especially since about 48 percent of an attorney’s time is spent on basic office administration, which is time that could be better spent on billable tasks. If you factor in business development, an attorney ends up with about 2.5 hours of actual billable time each day. This information has helped us validate our mission of providing better evidence faster and at a lower cost than traditional methods used by court reporters. Another important lesson that we learned is that just because you have great technology that makes a firm’s life easier, and saves time and money, doesn’t guarantee your success; a big factor for driving change is changing habits.
Tunji Williams: One of the most important things we’ve learned is that things seem to have reached an inflection point in the legal industry with respect to what Richard Susskind described as the “more-for-less challenge,” which means that corporate legal clients are asking for more value from their traditional law firms at a lower cost. There’s less of a willingness to absorb unnecessarily elevated legal costs for tasks that can be performed more efficiently. Corporate clients are increasingly willing to jettison traditional offerings in search of value. Legal technology companies that are able to address that challenge in a meaningful way have an opportunity really be very disruptive and useful to traditional law firms.
Ari Kaplan: David, how should entrepreneurs that learn these lessons use them to break through their walls?
David Schnurman: When I consider the past 11 years, the number of walls that I’ve hit and not broken through is higher than the walls that I have broken through. The most important thing is recognizing that there is no shortcut to experience. When you realize that, you realize there’s no winning and there’s no losing. There’s just gaining more experience. Things take longer than you expect. There’s a saying: “Good thing, bad thing, who knows?” A situation is not bad unless you label it that way.
Ari Kaplan: How do you see the legal industry shifting in 2018?
Ryan Alshak: I really believe that firms will start to look at technology as a true differentiator to appeal to both prospective and current clients. Clients have made it very clear that they are going to demand more of their law firms in terms of price transparency, predictability, and efficiency. The firms that leverage technology to give clients those things are really going to set themselves up to flourish in 2018 and beyond, and firms that don’t, frankly won’t. I also think we’ll see a lot more venture capital and mainstream interest in legal tech.
Alex Hewitt: We see a massive paradigm shift toward virtual testimony being led by 100 percent acceptance of virtual notaries in all 50 states. The significance of a virtual notary is the premise that when a law or legal opinion requires the presence of a notary, a virtual presence will, in fact, be admissible and acceptable.
Tunji Williams: We’re seeing young Gen Xers and older millennials who are used to leveraging technology in their consumer lives coming to positions of power at law firms and within enterprises. Unable to find tools equivalent to what they use in their consumer lives, there is an opportunity to provide those solutions. There is also an opportunity for legal technology companies to begin to rethink the law firm sales cycle.
David Schnurman: I can tell you what’s going to stay the same: Lawyers need to get to keep getting educated on things that can serve them in their practices. A lot of lawyers are in transition and constantly need to learn new things to help them stay current or get into a new area of law. I see lots of opportunities for companies who are trying to support lawyers in transition and help them build their own brands as they go off on their own.
Ari Kaplan: Is there a single piece of advice that you would give to startups interested in taking advantage of new technology, changing expectations, or general market trends in 2018?
Ryan Alshak: AI and machine learning have become quite the buzzwords, and as those technologies mature, they’ll become a prerequisite for getting software deployed in a law firm. As a result, startups should look as early as possible to invest in that type of talent.
Alex Hewitt: Focus your development specifically on law firm pain points. Being nimble, staying ahead of the trends, and developing around those pain points are key principles.
Tunji Williams: Any legal technology company looking to really improve and have an impact upon the way the legal industry works must meet attorneys and law firms where they are.
Ari Kaplan: David, how does a person, organization, or team create an entrepreneurial sledgehammer to achieve some of the items that our panelists highlighted?
David Schnurman: Many entrepreneurs forget that they are not alone, even though a lot of people are trying to solve really important problems all at the same time. That’s where the entrepreneur’s sledgehammer exists. You’re going to keep hitting your wall until you get through it in one form of another. You also need to play the part of whatever is needed in that moment, whether it’s being a fearless leader, a dynamic public speaker, or a great entrepreneur. Most importantly, don’t be concerned about what anyone else is thinking about you when you’re playing the part. Too often, we’re concerned about other people, which prevents us from taking the sledgehammer and breaking through the wall.
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 Reinventing Professionals.