Image for post
Image for post
“I’ll throw in some AI if you sign up for our annual subscription”

What’s old is new: platforms, Reynen Court, Atrium and more from Legalweek 2020

The best part of Legalweek NYC is connecting with others. The second best part is that it inspires me to write and share. The worst part of Legalweek NYC is Legalweek NYC, but I digress.

Last year I shared my thoughts on data, innovation and feeling of change in the air. This year I’m left wondering if things are really changing or if we are simply repeating ourselves. Here I share the highlights from my annual trip, this time comparing notes with myself from the past in hope of spotting real change. This post might be a bit more technical than usual, but detail > vagueness.

I ended the week at the second edition of Inspire.Legal, an “un-conference” attended by many of the most progressive thinkers and doers in legal technology and innovation. Many thanks to Christian Lang, Matt Homann and many others for designing and running an amazing event and for inviting me to participate.

The first session I joined was on platforms and interoperability. Platforms are indeed a hot topic, but like “legal operations” and “artificial intelligence” we lack universal agreement on what a “platform” is or should be. The answer largely depends on whether you are a buyer, seller or user, and more importantly, what problem you are trying to solve.

The participants and conversations in the session were great, but many seemed to conflate technology platforms and platform businesses. Both are platforms by some definition, but it’s important to understand the difference.

A technology platform is a group of technologies that are used as a base upon which other applications, processes or technologies are developed.

A platform business is built on a model that facilitates exchanges between two or more interdependent groups, usually consumers and producers. This has also been described as a marketplace business model, often relying on “network effect” to scale and grow.

We all know and have likely utilized platform businesses these days. Facebook (for content), Uber (for rides), Amazon (for all the stuff). There are even some platform businesses in legal, some more successful than others. LegalZoom, Clio, Avvo and UpCounsel (RIP) come to mind.

Product suite ≠ platform. Many vendors describe themselves as a platform but are often actually describing interoperability (or lack thereof) across their collection of products. Offering a product suite, however integrated, does not make a platform in my world, and being called a “platform” doesn’t matter to anyone except the vendor’s marketing team. From a buyer’s perspective, what really matters is problem/solution fit and budget just like any other technology purchase. In other words, start with a clear understanding of your problems then evaluate the right technologies to address them like you’ve always done.

Real platforms are for creators, not consumers. That said, there are true technology platforms to consider if the problems you are trying to solve cannot be addressed by existing “point solutions” or product suites. Many such platforms have existed for decades and cater to a range of users and skillsets, from software engineers to less-technical business users. Today, developers build software on development platforms such as Java or .NET, and business users create customized solutions on business-focused platforms such as

Legal has technology platforms too. Over the last several years we’ve seen legal-focused platforms emerge, including “no-code” commercial offerings such as Neota Logic or Community.Lawyer, or more technical but open-source tools such as Docassemble. Even Microsoft SharePoint and HighQ (now with Thomson Reuters) are platforms commonly used in all parts of the ecosystem. These are all positioned as the tools and components a buyer needs to build their own customized and unique applications for internal use or to meet client needs. In short, tech platforms are solutions looking for problems by design.

Build faster, but buyer beware. All of these technology platforms aim to enable creation of new solutions to problems and bridge the gap between buy vs. build to some extent, depending on the platform and problems being addressed. They can significantly reduce costs and accelerate time-to-solution, but buyers must fully understand the capabilities provided, the skills required, and the costs beyond the platform to get to something of value.

And remember that just because something can be created, doesn’t mean it should be created. In my experience, the greatest challenge faced by buyers of these platforms and tools is knowing what to build and how to “get it to market”, so to speak.

Interoperability is a related but different topic than platforms, and having a platform does not automatically imply interoperability. Platform or not, clearly not all technology solutions were “made for each other”. Whether a business uses one or one hundred apps that best meet its needs, the overarching need for data to securely and reliably flow between them is critical to gain efficiencies and insights. Particularly in the age of analytics and data-driven decision making.

Throughout the Inspire.Legal session it was clear the room was discussing the challenges of interoperability more so than platforms by any definition.

Interop flashback. In many ways the conversations brought me back to the early 2000s when I started a technology company called XMLAW. Our mission was data interoperability and standards across the industry, and creating “one view” across all systems and content. Over several years we built a product suite appropriately branded OneView and bravely set out to integrate everything. The product and vision resonated with law firm clients and we ended up working with many of the AmLaw 200 before being acquired by Thomson Reuters in 2009.

But the challenges in getting systems and vendors to work together, or even to “share” at all, were formidable. We embraced standards at different levels to unify data, including top-down standards such as the OASIS Content Management Interop Spec (CMIS) and low-level standards like SOAP and REST. We made it far, but relied heavily on our ability to deeply understand each system we connected and translate it into our own standards. This, in my experience, is too much burden to place on an individual customer and was a significant cost to bear for our business. The best solution is to develop open standards that vendors can/will adhere to.

Fortunately, we’ve made progress on this front. There are increasingly new (de facto) interop standards such as APIs and data formats, largely driven by demand for interconnectivity and data across systems and sectors. There have long been standards for exchange of data between firms and clients such UTBMS codes, though these address only some interop challenges if at all. And there are new and promising standards such as those from SALI that support better interoperability and analysis. But until vendors have sufficient motivation to open up their systems and adhere to non-proprietary standards, interoperability remains a challenge.

Reynen Court (RC) is a relatively new vendor getting a lot of attention. In the last several months they’ve announced an impressive backing consortium of large law firms, raised more than $10M USD from those firms and other investors, and last week announced the commercial launch of their initial platform. Yet the most common question about RC I heard last week was “what do they actually do?”. So, what do they do and what makes them so interesting?

To answer that for myself, I was fortunate to spend time with Andy Klein, CEO of RC and others on their leadership team to learn more.

RC positions themselves as an solution store for legal technology, making it faster and easier to discover, evaluate and deploy new applications in a secure and reliable environment. They claim to decentralize IT sourcing, purchasing and knowledge sharing. This is interesting in and of itself, as I know many firms wish to understand and evaluate a growing number of new apps and tech on the market today but for many reasons cannot simply “install” these apps and go. RC removes many of the barriers here, making it faster, easier and safer to evaluate or purchase a range of applications.

To sum up RC today (in my opinion):

  • RC is a modern infrastructure service that accelerates acquisition and secure deployment of new applications while providing tools that monitor the licensing, performance and usage of these applications
  • This is achieved, in part, by leveraging “application containers”. You can think of these containers as lightweight virtual machines in which applications can be packaged and run securely and consistently in any environment; on premise, in the cloud, or both.
  • Containerization is widely considered a big step toward cloud infrastructure and away from the expensive and expansive private data centers that firms (businesses) are operating, while allowing for an incremental approach that effectively bridges both.
  • This approach addresses several challenges faced by firms, including security and data privacy concerns and the cost and complexity of introducing new applications to their already complex environments.
  • There are some challenges to this approach, however, though I believe RC is focused on overcoming them. These include the need for application vendors to adapt and change to this containerized approach, and the natural incentives of many large vendors not to participate as they desire to “own the platform” themselves.

What is even more interesting to me is RC’s future potential as an ecosystem that encourages and even facilitates interoperability and insights across applications and app/data silos:

  • In many ways, RC is creating de facto standards and best practices for infrastructure, application architecture, licensing and deployment. This is good as inconsistency across vendors only detracts value from customers.
  • It also encourages evaluation and adoption of new applications and services by reducing risk and breaking down barriers between customers and vendors, particularly new and relatively unproven vendors.
  • Beyond infrastructure standards, the potential for interoperability standards and tools is even more valuable. RC described to me the solution store and application infrastructure is initial steps toward a broader vision that addresses application and data integration. In other words, they aim to provide an environment that enables cross-application data and workflow, and ultimately user experience. “One view”, anyone?
  • The platform, or marketplace, they are creating creates incentive for application vendors to embrace these standards and common services, which ultimately benefit the customers of these apps and the overall platform.

As a technologist focused on platforms and interoperability for many years I can see the logic and path forward with RC’s strategy. Though interop challenges have long existed and will not disappear any time soon, creating a marketplace and ecosystem that encourages integration and standards via shared commercial incentives is a smart way forward.

Let’s get back to platform business models. Last year I wrote about Atrium after spending time with Augie Rakow, Justin Kan and others. I was impressed with their thinking and approach and subsequently payed close attention to their business.

Earlier this year we learned that Atrium had terminated the majority of it’s legal staff. Much as been written on this subject, including a lot of speculation and frankly misguided information and opinions. Read this for a good summary of the good, bad and ugly coverage and interpret for yourself.

At Inspire.Legal Augie sat with Christian Lang to generously discuss Atrium and the recent “pivot”. This has also been covered well on social media (see Twitter) and I think shed some light on the Atrium story.

One of Augie’s comments that stuck with me the most was that a firm must decide if they are building a platform for senior practitioners to run their own businesses, or are they selecting target markets and hiring the right talent to pursue it? Much like tech vendors, this is a platform vs. portfolio vs. point solution decision. And like tech vendors, it depends on the firm’s choice of target customer and overall strategy. Is a firm a platform to serve its clients or to serve the partners of the firm?

In my experience, the majority of the market can be described as the latter. At a larger scale, consider global firms like Dentons as platforms for not only senior practitioners but for many independent firms and P&Ls. I’ve had many conversations with firm leaders about which of their clients are “firm clients” or which markets are “firm priorities”, and honest answers often expose the dynamics and risks of being a platform for partners vs. the market itself.

However, more firms appear to be investing in shared capabilities that a good platform should provide, regardless of the primary user of these capabilities. These include adjacent business offerings to clients, such as legal operations or management consulting, and “captive ALSP” services to be leveraged across partners and clients. It’s not a far leap for some of these firms to build a more firm-centric and consistent approach, but for now they are at least enhancing the platform(s) they have.

Clearspire again? Was Atrium simply another Clearspire, replaying the 2008 tech+law approach but with more capital, more tech, a niche market, and possibly without the benefit of lessons learned? Perhaps. Though Atrium’s initial plans have materially changed and I empathize for those who lost their jobs, I commend Atrium’s leadership and shareholders who were willing to test new approaches instead of tweeting about them.

I’m not going to opine on Atrium’s story but I will say this. Last year I described Atrium as a “business by design, but a law firm by regulation”. As it turns out, it appears Atrium was a law firm by design albeit enhanced with some modern business structure and mindset. This includes differences that other legal services providers can learn from, such as professional sales and account management, alternative capitalization and compensation structures, and a market-centric pricing, product management and technology focus. At the end of the day, Atrium was a legal services platform focused on serving clients and markets, not individual practitioners and their own books of business.

Yes, many things haven’t changed. But the ecosystem is steadily evolving. It’s becoming more diverse with new and different competitors, technology choices and methods of buying and selling products and services. It’s becoming more complex yet more interconnected, with greater need for interoperability and product choices that can adapt and scale at the new pace of change. It’s heading toward a digital future along with the rest of the world. Being dragged toward it is probably more accurate.

I’ve previously written about the new competitive landscape and how firms are responding and it remains obvious to me that we’re heading in directions not unexpected. But many firms still seem to ignore these trends. For example, during the conference a large law firm chief declared that “the big 4 are our friend”. Sure they are, just ask the #big4.

There are, however, a small but growing number of firms that are changing their approach to change. They are hiring new professional talent in positions of strategy and influence, they are taking an honest and empirical look at their business and making adjustments, and they are cutting back on the innovation theater. It would seem that some firms are recognizing their inherent competitive advantages and trying to leverage them in new ways.

We feel the “platform effect” all around us. People and businesses are more connected, individually and as partners in long supply chains that increasingly span countries, sectors and technologies. Learning how to best connect what should be connected and to share would should be shared is imperative for all of us. And the key to this, and to change in general, is recognizing and understanding incentives and motivation across the connected ecosystem. And some parts of the ecosystem are understanding this better than others.

Legal industry entrepreneur; builder, investor, partner @ Nexlaw

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store