Startup Lab's leader has 3 lessons for legal innovators

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As he said last month Google Ventures partner Rick Klau thought he was a curious choice to be the keynote speaker at this year’s ABA Techshow. After all, he has never practiced law professionally and has spent most of his professional life running Internet startups. Indeed, since 2011, he’s been in charge of Google Ventures’ Startup Lab, which links up entrepreneurs from portfolio companies with experts at Google.

However, Klau’s time in the ever-changing Silicon Valley has given him unique insight into what legal professionals need to do in order to innovate and stay ahead of the curve. During his keynote address on Friday at ABA Techshow, Klau shared some of his insights and experiences with conference attendees and encouraged members of the legal industry to follow Google’s example when it came to bringing about change.

Klau shared three important lessons he has learned during his time in Silicon Valley, and told conference goers that they could easily be applied to the legal industry. First, Klau emphasized the importance of using data to make decisions and argued that facts and figures were exponentially more important than gut feelings and informed opinions. Klau, who worked on then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, mentioned how the campaign relied on data to determine what combination of website graphics and verbiage generated the largest amount of donations. Everyone had their own opinion as to what worked and what didn’t, but what mattered in the end, said Klau, was cold, hard fact. “You can take the smartest people in the room and they’ll always be wrong,” said Klau. “We have to look at the data to get us to the conclusion. Anything else is a guess.”

Klau’s second lesson: The customer is not always right, so learn to say no. Klau spoke about his time at Google Inc., where from 2009 to 2010, he served as product manager for Google subsidiary Blogger, one of the first blog publishing websites, used the antiquated FTP system. Klau realized that less than one percent of Blogger’s users still used it. Despite that, FTP support took up a disproportionate amount of Google engineers’ time. The people who still used FTP were furious when Google eliminated it and migrate users to a different platform, Klau said, but the decision allowed Google to free up resources for most important matters. “The customer is sometimes wrong,” he said. “You need to be the expert and know your product better than anyone else.”

And Klau’s third lesson was that incremental change is the enemy of true innovation. Klau encouraged all legal professionals to think big and refuse to settle for anything less. For this, a video of Sergey Brin showed how, as a grad student in the early ’90s, he nearly settled for incremental change—a business that would allow people to order pizza via fax machine. Luckily for Brin, his fax left him and his fellow students hungry, and he turned his interest to other things that led to his co-founding of Google. “When you commit to only 10 percent improvement, then the profession never changes,” said Klau. In that vein, Klau argued that small firms are actually in a better position to take substantial risks compared to big firms, because big firms have too much money and resources at stake.

“You should not be limited by what others in your shoes have done before,” said Klau. After all, Klau noted, law firms didn’t always put timekeepers on matters so that they could bill thousands of hours; someone came up with that innovation. “I would bet that many of the trends driving startups, such as lower cost of infrastructure and easier access to capital, are similar in law,” he said.

Reaction to Klau’s speech was mostly positive from those in attendance. Fastcase CEO Ed Walters tweeted that he thought Klau had delivered a great keynote. ABA Legal Rebel Richard Granat, CEO of SmartLegal Forms and DirectLaw, tweeted that Klau gave a “good talk about core business strategy every #legalstartup should heed.” But Scott Greenfield, a criminal defense lawyer and blogger at Simple Justice, noted lawyers should be careful before thinking big. “Interesting stream of @rklau’s keynote,” Greenfield tweeted. “Some ‘big’ ideas just totally suck. Learn difference before you bet the farm.”

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