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Lessons from a Legal Tech Startup: One Month as a “Lawyer in Residence” at Clio

Desk photo provided by ClioThis February, I headed up to Vancouver, B.C. to have a kid and spend some time as a “lawyer in residence” at the legal technology startup Clio.

Regarding objective number one: my wife is a psychologist who practices part-time in B.C., and we decided free healthcare for the new baby sounded pretty good. Joshua Lenon, who serves on the WSBA Future of the Legal Profession Task Force, heard about the trip and offered to let me pilot Clio’s new incubator initiative. Essentially, Clio generously invites attorneys to share coworking space at their office. In exchange, Clio gets to benefit from bouncing ideas off lawyers who use their product.

Clio, for the uninitiated, is a cloud-based law practice management platform. Originally, they started as a collaborative project with the Law Society of British Columbia. After later spinning off as a private enterprise, Clio raised an astounding $27 million in venture capital, making it the most well-financed legal technology startup in the world.

The product offers an all-in-one solution for calendaring, invoicing, and communication/document management. Crucially (from my perspective), it provides a secure environment to exchange documents and messages with clients anywhere they can get an Internet connection. Full disclosure: I’m an avid Clio user and find it integral to the operation of my firm, but Clio hasn’t given me any carrots for writing this blurb.

Spending the better part of a month at Clio was an interesting window into the caffeine-fueled world of a tech startup. (To bring employees back down, there’s also a keg on tap.) Here are a few thoughts about how lawyers might borrow from the way Clio works.

1. Track personal and organizational goals. Like another small tech startup called Google, Clio uses “Objectives and Key Results” (OKRs) for all employees and divisions within the organization. The key idea behind OKRs is to set measurable targets so everyone can meaningfully judge success or failure. Teams and individuals set both actionable objectives (stuff they want to do) and measurable results (stuff they want to see happen). The OKRs are a big deal at Clio. They’re revised on a quarterly basis and organizational OKRs are reviewed weekly at a companywide meeting. (Which meeting, it should be noted, comes with a catered lunch that may or may not involve beer on tap).

  • Take-away: Lawyers often have laudable goals like, “Do great work for clients,” “Deliver value,” or “Grow my firm.” What does that even mean? Unless we set measurable goals for ourselves, we are guaranteed to neither succeed nor fail. If client satisfaction is the issue, put together a poll (use a freebie like Google Forms) that measures the operationalized version of that concept, and set a goal for improvement. Maybe your poll will reveal clients are already highly satisfied and you can set other priorities. If you want to think really big: what would happen if we stopped talking about “increasing diversity in the profession” and “improving access to justice,” and restated our goals in terms where success or failure is measurable? Maybe lawyerdom itself needs some OKRs.

2. Have priorities — and know what they are, too. Last year, on another trip to Vancouver, I sat down with Derek Rawlings and some folks from the software development team. I (selfishly) pointed out that it would be helpful if Clio could draft immigration forms based on questionnaires. Derek immediately understood the value, and riffed on how the concept could work for other form-driven practice areas like bankruptcy. But when I came back to Clio this year, nothing had happened to make that feature a reality. Why? “The Clio dev team keeps a database that currently has 3,203 improvements that we want to add to our product,” says Derek. “Each quarter we sit down as a team and decide which feature we’re going to launch, based on how big of an impact it will make for our users.” In the technology world, says Derek, “it’s better to get one thing 100% done than four things 25% done.”

  • Take-away: We lawyers have drunk the Kool-aid of the busyness cult. Being perceived as nauseatingly busy is some sort of credibility ante in our circles. Has a colleague ever responded to, “How are you doing?” with an enthusiastic, “Great! I’m really limiting my involvement in unimportant committees and I’m turning away most prospective clients to avoid undue stress.” Instead of focusing on doing a lot of stuff in our firms and our professional lives, what if we shifted to doing the right things? And maybe fewer of them. There are a million professional development activities you could do, but how do they stack up to your personal objectives? You did define them, right (see above)? I found myself inspired to say “no” to recent invitations to do some committee work, and have spent precisely zero seconds regretting those decisions. Thanks, Derek.

3. Institutionalize out-of-box thinking. Over lunch, I Clio employee walking white dog in lobbyasked Neil Shankman, who heads marketing at Clio, to explain the difference between the marketing and business development departments. “At Clio,” he explained, “our Biz Dev department exists to pilot new ways we can build the Clio brand. So, for example, the fact that you’re here, testing out the incubator concept, that’s a Biz Dev initiative. Once the program is established it will be handed over to another department and Biz Dev will be working on something else new and interesting.”

  • Take-away: Think about carving out some of your time/money resources to pursue far-out ideas. Last year a bunch of law geeks, led by Dan Lear, threw a lot of energy into Seattle’s first Legal Technology Startup Weekend. None of us really had a clear idea of what was supposed to come of the event — it just seemed like a good idea at the time. But interesting projects and relationships resulted. (Miguel Willis, for example, an exceptionally motivated and creative law student at Seattle University created an app to help law students buy and sell textbooks). Think about reserving some resources in your organization and professional life for totally new things that will probably be a waste of time, but might open new doors.

4. Open lines of communication. The Clio office is built physically and operationally to facilitate cross-pollination of ideas within the organization. All employees, including CEO Jack Newton, work in an open-plan office, sitting collectively at long desks. (There’s debate about whether open design facilitates or hampers productivity).The company uses Google Apps (me too) for email and calendaring, and employees use the chat function for quick real-time exchanges. And every Friday, the company takes a big chunk of time to sit down together in a community meeting. Each department checks in and reviews its OKRs (see above) in front of the whole company; each month, the CEO gives a more granular presentation on where the company stands.

  • Take-away: What are you doing to make sure you hear the best ideas from everyone in your organization? At my own tiny firm, we have a Trello board where ideas for improvements can be posted, and we’ve instituted a policy of reviewing the board each Tuesday morning. Chances are that support staff and associates are best positioned to know where an organization is ineffective day-to-day.

Open invite (by proxy). If you find yourself visiting Vancouver, consider stopping by the Clio
office and taking advantage of their incubator program. It’s a great place to hang out (and maybe
work), and there is a lot that lawyers can learn from the legal technology sector. And regarding the main purpose for that trip to Vancouver: Kai McLawsen was born healthy and strong on March 7. He’s already hard at work at his dad’s law firm.


[This post first appeared on the Washington State Bar Association’s Sidebar blog]

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