We turn the tables and Rick Hellers interviews Bill Bice on his foray back into legal technology. Founder of ProLaw Software (acquired by Thomson Reuters), West km (used by 70% of the top 1000 law firms worldwide), and Exemplify (acquired by Bloomberg Law), Bill discusses the challenge law firms face today around integrating multiple systems to create a cohesive solution.
Rick Hellers: Hello, everybody. I’m with my friend and partner, Bill Bice. Bill, how are you doing?
Bill Bice: I am doing great. It’s good to be here with you.
Rick Hellers: Yeah, great. It’s always good to talk, talk, talk via video in the new world that we live in. Bill, you came back into Legal Tech in 2019, but before we talk about that, let’s talk about your first venture, ProLaw Software.
Bill Bice: Yeah, I started ProLaw when I was 18. So I was just like you, got sucked into legal very early in life, and was just working with a local law firm here where I’m at right now in Albuquerque, New Mexico. And, they wanted a time and building system that worked on these newfangled networked PCs. And, so that’s what we built. So it came, like many of the great things that we’ve worked on that get developed in Legal Tech, it comes directly from client feedback, and that was the genesis of ProLaw.
Rick Hellers: Yeah, client feedback is always positive, because they’re often trying to solve a problem and they don’t quite know how to do it. So, what problems did ProLaw really tackle from the beginning?
Bill Bice: Well, the thing that was different is that we didn’t just stop at the time in building system. We just sort of kept going at each additional problem as we added more firms and found additional issues that they were doing, that they were running into. We didn’t add more products, we just added on to ProLaw so that we ended up creating what was really the first integrated practice management system that automated the whole firm. So in a mid-size firm, we would typically come in and replace six, seven, eight, nine different niche products with one integrated system, which is just a huge relief when you don’t have a massive IT budget. And then in a larger firm, it was much more front office-focused, but still had the same effect because there might be three or four different systems that you were using in order to manage the practice of law, and we could do exactly the same thing.
Rick Hellers: Yeah, I remember the tag word or the catchphrase was, front office, back office, one office. That was really a novel concept back in the day, and I think the challenge remains and has simply become harder as technology has become more utilized in law firms. So, what problems today are different from what existed in the past, with-
Bill Bice: Well, it’s honestly the same. It’s the same problem, it’s just that it’s more difficult to solve now because… So what we did with ProLaw was great, but it was one encapsulated system, and you’ve really got to build everything with the idea of integration, just at the DNA level of that product. So everything’s got to be built to round APIs. And we’re in this challenging place right now where every firm has a lot of older core technologies that are difficult to integrate with, and then you have a lot of new stuff that’s coming in. This is actually a really exciting and amazing time to be in Legal Tech, and part of that’s because of all this new technology. There’s a lot of practice area-specific technology, and we’re really recreating the problems that we came into in the ’80s and ’90s in this market, which is all these individual niche solutions that if we don’t come in and tie them together with one platform that is able to speak to all of these disparate systems, we’re kind of back to where we started.
Bill Bice: We really changed the industry with ProLaw in creating this kind of integrated approach. Now, we’re at risk of getting back to the same place, so it’s going take a new approach in order to solve the new version of this problem.
Rick Hellers: Yeah, I can hear the excitement in your voice, and I’m sure happy to have you back in Legal Tech. So, it started with Zebraworks, and then transitioned into nQ Zebraworks. How are we going to solve the problems you just talked about with nQ Zebraworks?
Bill Bice: Yeah, so we had lot of fun in bringing the original ProLaw team back together. We did that with Zebraworks, and then of course the first person I brought the plan to was you, and we know the punchline, which is we ended up merging the companies to get us right here with nQ Zebraworks. And so where we have started is one, leveraging the great technology that we have for the document workflow that is the long history with nQ and we’re adding to that and leveraging our practice management experience in order to take the investment that firms are already making in practice management, and essentially solving the new problems that have come up and adding on to those practice management systems, in order to fix those issues. So pulling those two things together, the document workflow plus adding onto the practice management system, is the way that we’re starting to tackle the problem I was just describing.
Rick Hellers: Yeah, so talk a little bit more about the team. You were in Legal Tech, left for a little while, but the team that built ProLaw and you’ve worked with for a long time is back together again. And that’s got to be a huge headstart towards tackling the problems that we’re trying to tackle.
Bill Bice: Yeah, it’s great having a team with so much experience that we’ve worked together for so long. And it wasn’t just ProLaw, we created the West KM Division within West. You were part of that. We had a lot of fun taking really the first widely-used knowledge management system into the market. That was when KM was really a new concept. We created another company in between there called Exemplify, which was knowledge management on the transactional side. That’s now part of Bloomberg Law. And so we’ve been building products together this whole time. Built another company, a SAS company outside of legal. And so now we’ve brought that SAS experience plus this long history in practice management together, with the long history of nQ on the document workflow and cost recovery side. Put all that expertise together in one company, which makes it a ton of fun.
Bill Bice: My co-founders in Zebraworks, Ben Warren was the CTO of ProLaw, has that role with us today. Steph Odom did many things at ProLaw, was Product Manager, is our VP of Operations. The Lead Developer for ProLaw, Sharon Fincher, is a Lead Developer for us now. So, we have just this incredible experienced team that we’ve put together to go after this.
Rick Hellers: Yeah, it really is a great team, and a great group of clients that we’ve assembled through the years as well, that I know is excited about some of the things we’re working on. Talk to us a little bit about cloud versus non-cloud. The cloud is here to stay for real, but some firms seem to still be hesitant, and having a hard time embracing it. So, where are we headed with development in terms of architecture?
Bill Bice: Well, this is, I wouldn’t wish the pandemic on anybody, but this is a silver lining of the pandemic. It has accelerated firms’ adoption of cloud technology moving to SAS. We seriously looked at coming back into the legal market in 2011, and I just didn’t feel like firms were ready to make the jump to the cloud. And that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to build SAS products for this market. The reason I was attracted to join forces with you is because of the incredible team that you had put together. And so, putting those two pieces together so that we could go build these products, which is already, we’re what, nine months into this adventure now and we’ve released our first set of new products based on this combined team, which has been a ton of fun.
Bill Bice: So, it is going to happen. And, small firms have already gone to the cloud. Mid-size firms are all over the board. There’s a bunch that have made the full jump, there’s a lot that are in process. Large firms, it’s a much more challenging issue. And there, it’s more about building a bridge to the cloud, and enabling you to leverage the investment in on-premise technology, but have access to it and take advantage of it from the cloud, which is particularly important, given this new work from anywhere reality that we’re all living in.
Rick Hellers: Yeah, work from anywhere is great, as long as you can have access to the information and data that you need to have access to, right?
Bill Bice: Yeah. And the way that our partner, Kim, puts it is, it really works the same from anywhere. That’s the goal that we’re after. We all got to work from anywhere, you never know on a given day where a particular attorney or staff member is going to be. We’ve got to enable the firm’s infrastructure to work in such a way that they can be as productive, whether they’re working in their home office, in the office, at a client’s office, and that’s difficult to do. It was actually easier when everybody was just remote. We knew where they were, we could just deal with that. Moving around is more challenging.
Rick Hellers: Yeah, moving around creates more synchronization across more devices and more demands for speed and access to more information.
Bill Bice: We talked about this a little bit in our first episode, but I think another silver lining of the pandemic has been the way in which IT has really performed for firms and the respect that has garnered with attorneys of the value of the investment that they’ve made in IT. And we’re seeing that in terms of how firms now see IT moving, moving forward.
Rick Hellers: Yeah, right. No longer a bottleneck, but instead a great resource. So, back to cloud for a second. One of the concerns in legal has always been, but continues to get even greater focus, is security. And so I think that the hesitation with firms five years ago, 10 years ago, maybe even still today is, “Will I be secure? What is my security in the cloud? And, everyone claims that it’s secure, but some aren’t, and some are, and there’s a philosophy towards how it needs to be developed to be secure. Talk a little bit about that.
Bill Bice: Well, I think when you’re developing SAS products, really the only way that you can make them secure is if you’re thinking about security from the first line of code-up. Security is not a feature you add later, which unfortunately is how it’s often thought about. Security has to be integral to the design and architecture of the products that you’re building. And I think it does matter for the firm size, in terms of how you approach this problem. So, the challenge that we’ve always had in mid-size firms is, you have a lot of the same issues and needs of large firms, but you don’t have the significant IT staff and budget.
Bill Bice: And so, it really makes a ton of sense for a mid-size firm to just hand off those security issues to Microsoft, with thousands of engineers that are focused on that, host that in somebody else’s data center. So, either Azure or a hosting company that specializes in legal and really understands these issues. Because doing that yourself today is really challenging with a small, or frankly, non-existent full-time IT staff. It’s more complicated in large firms, where you have a lot more resources, and where frankly, the demands from clients are, they can really be over the top. Firms are going through, it seems that every day you’re going through a security audit from yet another client. And we see that because every time the firm gets an audit, it translates into an audit for us.
Bill Bice: So, it is more challenging in a larger firm. Over time, that same transition is going to make the same sense because it’s just, it’s too difficult to keep up with that with internal resources. But it’s going to be a longer transition, it’s going to take more time. And it’s going to be complicated in the meantime because you need access to cloud resources, and so you’ve got to manage both: on-premise and cloud.
Rick Hellers: Absolutely. And putting that example to practice management and the complications, and the bigger demands of larger sets of data, what’s involved with extending practice management to the cloud, and being revolutionary like you were with ProLaw?
Bill Bice: Well, one of the huge advantages of SAS and running in the cloud, is that it really gives us a basis for solving these integration issues. And, once again, it has an additional complication because we still have to create a bridge to the cloud and integrate with the core technologies that are within the firm. But, we’re going to see this transition over time, where essentially everything is SAS-based, has an API wrapped around it, and it gives us this ability to integrate everything together. And it gives firms the ability to do customizations that have long been the dream of actually being able to pull the different pieces you want together and deliver a practice area by practice area solution that really matches what your firm needs. That’s finally coming into focus.
Bill Bice: It’s what we really tried to do with intranets in the late ’90s, early 2000, which was the right idea. And there was some success there, but we never fully got to the vision. And, a big part of that problem is that it’s not just integrating the pieces together, it’s having enough intelligence in the end result that you’re not just spending all your time sifting through a bunch of data, that you really are turning it into the right information available with the right person at the right time, wherever they are.
Rick Hellers: Yeah, well that really brings up the term of workflows. So, workflows is where we’ve been focused on. You mentioned nine months into it, we’ve executed the vision, we’ve released our first product. Talk to us a little bit about workflows and we’re headed with those.
Bill Bice: Yeah, so workflows have always been integral to what firms do. Every time we can add automation to workflows and make a process replicable, then we’re improving the process in the firm. And, one of the things that I’m really excited about is that it’s really a way to encourage getting your attorneys and staff to go digital. So, the digital mailroom where we’re starting, that’s built into the workflow. We’re starting with the incoming mail being digital from day one. That sets you off on the right foot, making it so much easier that every time you touch a piece of paper, it becomes digital and you never have to touch the paper again. Once you’ve done it, once your full case file is available to you wherever you’re at, you really never want to go back. But, it takes that experience, it takes that generational jump to fully live it.
Bill Bice: And, the only way you get there, we’re at a point now where if you have to do extensive training in order to get a new process, a new piece of legal technology used in a firm, the likelihood that’s going to be successful is about zero. It just doesn’t work that anyway. We’re all accustomed to downloading an app on our phones and just figuring out how to use it. And, we’ve got to do that same thing with legal IT. And so, how do we do that? We make the workflows much easier.
Rick Hellers: Yeah, workflows are something I think we’ve been struggling with in Legal Tech forever. It’s how do you process data more accurately, quicker, and present the information to the people that need it? And it’s really cool to see that come into the view now with Legal Tech, and it means so much easier than it was. It takes fewer people, it takes less effort. It’s putting all the data together and presenting it, is really just the last hoorah, the last challenge. And I think with tech-
Bill Bice: We’ve developed a core technology that we call [Qs 00:18:09] that underlies everything that we do. It is how we automate workflows, and it gives us the foundation that we tie all of these pieces together with.
Rick Hellers: Yeah, work from anywhere, work from home, work from the office, work the same. Love it. Thanks, Bill, good talking to you.
Bill Bice: Thanks, Rick. A lot of fun.