The former founder and CEO of litigation platform Allegory Law, Alma Asay is now an evangelist at Litera, where she serves as a legal technology expert and advisor to Litera clients, helping them to bring innovative ways of thinking and practice to life.
As a legal tech founder, I learned that there were two critical components driving my business forward that proved to be a constant challenge: money and feedback.
Money is obvious and the struggles of raising investment capital (or making sales to generate revenue) are the subject of many startup conversations.
What I found to come up far less often was the criticality of feedback. By this, I mean both constructive (“this is how you fix your problem” vs. “you have a problem, good luck”) feedback from those with experience, as well as candid feedback from users of your product. In legal, both can be especially difficult to obtain.
This background is why I am fascinated by – and a believer in – legal tech incubators and accelerators. Litera has given me and my evangelist colleagues the opportunity to explore a myriad of topics of interest to the legal community on our Litera TV series, “The Changing Normal,” where we’ve invited experts from across the industry to share their stories and perspectives.
Recently, I interviewed the heads of three leading programs that work with legal tech startups, exploring the concept of legal tech incubation and acceleration from the points of view of a BigLaw firm, a Big Four accounting firm, and a law school:
- Nick West, chief strategy officer at Mishcon de Reya (a prominent UK law firm) and founder of MDR Lab.
- Laura Bygrave, innovation and ventures lead at Deloitte Legal and leader of Deloitte Legal Ventures.
- Kelli Raker, coordinator of the Entrepreneurial Law Program at Duke Law and managing director of the Duke Law Tech Lab.
As Raker aptly noted at the end of our episode, “Not every accelerator is right for everyone.” While each of these programs creates value for startups and founders, the origins, approaches, and outcomes differ.
MDR Lab began with a discussion at Mishcon de Reya about what it would take to remain relevant over the next 10 years, including enhancing their tech capabilities. West “looked across other organizations and other industries and looked at what they did well when they wanted to get smarter tech.” He spearheaded the launch of MDR Lab at the end of 2016 with a cohort of six legal tech startups, including Ping and Orbital Witness.
The core proposition of MDR Lab is “to help startups with product-market fit.” Although MDR Lab has invested in three of the 25 companies that have participated in the program, investment is not at the core of the program. Rather, the end goals are to better understand technology in the market, teach lawyers about technology, and help startups build a great product.
As West bluntly noted, “It is very difficult to get really honest product feedback because of course people lie when they play with your product.” MDR Lab was designed to give startups “an immersive experience [to] sit behind our lawyers and watch how they use the product in real life.”
At Deloitte Legal, Bygrave and her team recognized the need to understand legal technologies from a customer perspective, in order to provide recommendations to their clients. They conducted a market analysis of almost 400 legal tech startups and hand selected 14 to take part in the new Legal Ventures program launched last year.
The goal for Legal Ventures, according to Bygrave, is to “start as a customer” and bring more transparency to the POC process, including in assessments of the desirability, feasibility, and viability of products for Legal Ventures and its clients. Legal Ventures primarily works with early stage companies in order to help “shape the future of the industry, rather than just buying products off the shelf.”
To select the participating startups, Legal Ventures looks at three things: 1) market size, to ensure it’s not over-saturated; 2) the team, including the personality and ethos of its members; and 3) scalability, as in, whether the team and product are likely to evolve into something that Legal Ventures could help scale.
Duke Law Tech Lab was founded by a student, who now sits on the advisory board. The goals of the Lab include educating founders on important topics and bringing startups together to support one another (recognizing – as Raker noted – that “being a founder is a pretty lonely journey”). Raker came on as managing director after Duke decided to continue the program and recently launched the fourth cohort of four startups – all focused on access to justice.
Duke Law Tech Lab selects its participating startups by consulting with its network of students, alumni, tech providers, and others in the industry. As part of the Lab, startups learn from leaders across the industry about a range of important topics, including user design, data privacy and security, and regulatory reform.
Despite different approaches to helping startups launch or accelerate their growth, core to all three discussions was the importance of feedback from existing and would-be users. Bygrave suggested getting feedback from companies before ever approaching them for a sale: “Get feedback before you go into the money pit, so you can refine your pitch.” Raker observed that she sees “people spending too much time or money building and not getting enough user feedback,” while recognizing that “lawyers are so hard to get feedback from.” West continuously stressed the importance of product-market fit, urging that “you have to obsess” and “it has to be your everything.”
To get feedback and test new ideas, it’s not sufficient to simply ask questions. As often as possible, startups should be seeking out objective data, including by watching lawyers actually interact with their product. West explained, “You have to iterate time and time and time again – and the only way you’re really going to do that is if you have great usage data . . . watching and listening. Interviewing people is not right, you’ve got to watch, you’ve got to actually understand what they do with the product when you’re not looking because that’s the truth.”
Raker described a startup experience where having a “clear partnership and pilot with lawyers was so essential to getting that feedback.” Bygrave stressed the importance of agreeing on objective measuring criteria with users testing your product, lamenting that startups sometimes “go in and show their products and lawyers play around with it, but they don’t know what success is being measured on.”
Participating in an incubator or accelerator can help legal tech startups overcome certain challenges, but – as each of these guests made clear – these programs are not one-size-fits-all and it’s important for founders to ask questions and consider whether a particular program fits with their needs and goals. Of course, it’s possible that the right move for a startup is to not participate in a formal program at all.
Ultimately, whether startups participate in a program or not, the takeaway from this series is that the best way to accelerate a legal tech startup’s growth is for founders to seek out advice and put the product in front of users to get actionable feedback early and often.