Five Decades in Legal Technology

In the first episode of the Legal Technology Pioneers and Visionaries podcast, Bill Bice talks with Rick Hellers about his long career in legal technology and how the same issues that plague law professionals today, i.e., workflows and processes, were present when he first started in the industry in the 80s. The difference? The tools we have available today and the power of automation in the evolution of powering legal workflows.

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Bill Bice

CEO | nQ Zebraworks
Recognized as a legal tech industry visionary, receiving Thomson’s innovator of the year award. 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).

Rick Hellers

Co-Founder | nQ Zebraworks
For decades, Rick Hellers has been an early adopter, innovator and influencer in legal technology, starting with his first job at a law firm in 1979. Rick is a legal tech trailblazer who has pioneered embedded cost recovery and modernized document management.


Bill Bice: Hi, this is Bill Bice. I’m here with my friend and partner, Rick Hellers. Hey Rick. 

Rick Hellers: Hey Bill. How are you doing? 

Bill Bice: I’m doing awesome. It’s good to be here with you. We are starting a new journey with this podcast and I wanted to start with, with talking to you because you have this amazing history in legal technology. In fact, you annoy me all the time by talking about how long you’ve been in legal tech, because it reminds me of how long I’ve been in legal tech. So let’s talk a little bit about that. How did you get started? How did this happen? 

Rick Hellers: Yeah, it was a little bit of an accident actually. I was a senior in high school and I was competing for some form of competition and a piece of the competition involved interviewing. And I hadn’t been on an interview, a real one for a long time. And so I looked in the newspaper, circled some jobs that I thought I’d be good at, made some phone calls. And one of them happened to be a law firm and I went and interviewed and they hired me as a part-time bookkeeper. And then all through college, I worked there and got involved in some pretty exciting and cool things. This was the late, the late 70s, early 80s, and technology in law firms back then was really hard to define. In some cases, we’d look at it now and wouldn’t even consider it technology, but all the same, problems that we’re dealing with today existed back then. We just had to deal with them very differently. 

Bill Bice: Yeah. And I mean, it’s really the same workflow issues, the same processes. It’s just the tools available were not quite what we’re accustomed to. 

Rick Hellers: Yeah. No, we’ve got so many better tools today, but we also have so much more information and so much more data. Right. I mean, it used to be as simple as I’ve got the word processing date on the Wang. I’ve got the accounting system on the IBM and I’ve got something kind of electronic discovery on some PC or some CD ROM based system. And the trick back then was how do you bring them all together or at least allow everyone to access the information needed to access it. And it wasn’t easy, but I think today the challenge becomes a little bit different. It’s how do you access the right information at the right time for the right people? And so the challenges just continue to grow exponentially as we deal with more and more data from what we dealt with in the past. I remember a law firm that I was within the early 80s. I think our total disc drive capacity was the combined two different devices that house 288-megabyte removal disk drives. And that was the full capacity of our storage throughout a midsize law firm. 

Bill Bice: And it was impressive at the time. 

Rick Hellers: Yeah, it was impressive. And it was, gosh, if you knew how to do backup, you were an expert IT person back in those days. 

Bill Bice: Was this the same firm, or did you move on to a different firm? 

Rick Hellers: Yeah. No, it was a different firm. So the first firm I was with was a seven attorney law firm in Bellevue Washington. And then I moved the jump to downtown Seattle where the firms got bigger and the hours got longer and the challenges got deeper. And then, gosh, I think I took a three year journey away from law firms and went to work for Wagan informatics, which was the leading time and billing provider and the leading hardware producer of law firms throughout the world at the time. Jumped back into law firms in the 90s. It was an Am Law 200 firm in Los Angeles. And really met the challenges of now, how do we distribute PCs to everybody in the firm and how do we get people to use them and want to use them, and how do we get them to embrace them in a positive way, as opposed to simply thrust it upon them? 

Bill Bice: And is that how you saw the opportunity to start TechLaw? 

Rick Hellers: Yeah. That’s funny you say that because in the firm I was within the 90s, we went from Wang to Banyan Vines and skip the word perfect generation and jump straight into word, which was Word 2.0, which back then was hardly a word processor, let alone missed all the extensions of legal word processing. So we found some great vendors that wrote templates and macros and put Word 2.0 On steroids and did some amazing things. The jump to Banyan was I think also a little bit of future-looking because street talk and all the things that it was doing with its naming directory and its wide area networking was so much superior at the time to what Novell was capable of that it just, it took us in a direction that other firms weren’t going, but it allowed us to bypass upgrades later down the road. And we were able to get to the Microsoft stack a lot faster than most firms. And we were already in the visual world with document management systems and things that firms in the 90s were just beginning to learn about. 

Bill Bice: Did Banyan get to skip that like all weekend comp surfing thing you had to do with Novell in order to get a network set up? 

Rick Hellers: Oh yeah. Banyan was pretty cool. I mean, you created your first user, you created your first street talk directories, and off you were going. And I remember when we plugged in the routers to connect two or three of the offices as our first wide air network connections. And it was kind of like, gosh, I have no idea if this is going to work but let’s plug them in and bang, all of a sudden it worked flawlessly and beautifully. I mean, it was really ahead of its time. 

Bill Bice: Yeah. Things we almost take for granted now. 

Rick Hellers: Well, exactly. Things that we used to think about, wow, if we were on Novell, we’d have to do this, but we’re on Banyan so we don’t. And of course now all the things happen automatically it seems, or at least a lot of what we did manually in the past have been connected together through workflows and automation. And everything’s designed now to decrease the number of steps and make things more transparent and more fluid. Right. I mean, think back to the floppy dis days, right. Somebody walked into your office and handed to a floppy, and then we kind of evolved to a USB thumb drive and all of the different forms of media just to share information. And now we share it faster than sometimes we can consume it. 

Bill Bice: So I can see how that directly translates to the legal tech integration work that you’re doing at TechLaw, which is when you and I first met because you ended up implementing our system ProLaw at many firms. 

Rick Hellers: Yeah. That was a time too. I mean, ProLaw was so ahead of its time in terms of a single system for essentially being able to do everything you needed to do or wanted to do with automation at the time. And yeah, we helped implement that at a lot of firms and even some government agencies throughout California, back in the TechLaw days. 

Bill Bice: Yeah. That was our first shot at going after this problem you were talking about, which is how do you bring all these two separate pieces together? And it worked really well in mid-size firms to do that. 

Rick Hellers: Well, yeah and I think once you have all the information in the right place, then all of a sudden people want access to it. Right. So the 80s I think, was a little bit of a false start with distributed computers or distributed PCs because you just, you gave it to them and it looked good and they thought it was cool. And the lawyers got to brag to their friends about having a PC, but they just couldn’t connect to very many things. And so being able to run ProLaw and connect to all of the different data sources through a single common database was just revolutionary. I mean, you were so far ahead of your time with that one. 

Bill Bice: And then that brought us together when, after you sold TechLaw and joined ProLaw where we kept doing the same thing. And then we also took West km to the market, which was just a different version of that same problem of how do we leverage the information that’s in the firm. 

Rick Hellers: Yeah. It’s funny, you say a different set of problems. I mean, I kind of viewed the concept of knowledge management, which I don’t even know that that was a term when we launched West km and it must have been because we called it KM, but it was the beginning of the data overload. Right. I mean, you had to have a knowledge management system because there was so much data that you couldn’t find what you were looking for fast enough without being more specific, and having a separate process to sift through the firm and find that information. But very revolutionary and we talked to a firm I think last week Bill, that was raving about how West km had solved some problems for them. And thank God that it had come out when it had come out. 

Bill Bice: Yeah. They were using it as their primary search engine. I mean, our use case was always, how does the attorney in LA know about the work that an attorney in New York did because you’re not going to have that water cooler conversation. 

Rick Hellers: Yeah. 

Bill Bice: And so after West km ,you went to work with Ray creating nQ, which was a whole nother innovation. 

Rick Hellers: Yeah. Boy, that was a big journey. I think now we’re up to about 2002, 2003, and it’s funny because the first thing we’d all do when we start new ventures is we get excited about them. We tell our friends and we go to the people we work to, and we get input and ideas. And Ray and I were so excited about what we were doing, we were telling everybody. And gosh, about half the time people would say, oh, really, I thought cost recovery was dead. And it wasn’t dead 20 years ago. I’m not sure it’s dead now, but I think we brought life back into it by really changing the model and taking the hardware equation out of it. 

Rick Hellers: Right. Because cost recovery used to be that you took an expensive proprietary built box and cabled it to your copier. And sometimes the proprietary box costs more than the copier. But if you were charging 20 cents a page for photocopies, you didn’t mind paying three, four, $5,000 for a terminal, but we really changed the game. And we innovated, we disrupted, right? Because today cost recovery is all about injecting software inside of the devices you want to track and account for. And the hardware’s gone from that equation. So that was- 

Bill Bice: In the beginning of that was that embedding the software in the device, not only changed how you do cost recovery, but it set the whole basis for how you manage documents and the workflow around documents because now you’re inside the device. 

Rick Hellers: Yeah. Right. We’ve gone from photocopiers to multifunction devices. And the multifunction component now I think, it’s much more about digitizing information and getting it in the system than printing information out of the system. We’ve seen copy counts decline from firms throughout the world. And we’ve seen prints remain about steady and in some cases declining, but we’ve seen the amount of scan volume just pick up incrementally each year. And in this last year with COVID, we’ve seen the scan rates and the interest in going paperless just accelerated at a rapid pace, which is really exciting to see. Right. Because I mean, lawyers have always been about paper. Right. And there was even a, I think a series on one of the channels back in the day called Paper Chase. 

Rick Hellers: Right. It was about lawyers learning how to be lawyers and yet the name of it was Paper Chase, because lawyers have always been chasing paper, and printing paper, and producing paper. And so now it’s really cool to see people embrace the concept of, wow, I can really use this technology to get rid of the paper. And if I’ve gotten rid of the paper, I can work from anywhere, and I can search for things, and I can share things, and I can copy things, copy the data. It’s just such a simple concept, but it’s taken us a long time to get there. 

Bill Bice: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I wouldn’t wish the pandemic on anybody, but it has been an accelerant for some pretty important trends. And this is a key one, getting firms to go digital. It’s sped up every firm’s digital transformation journey and scanning is the centerpiece of that. 

Rick Hellers: Yeah. I love the term digital transformation. Right. It’s kind of become a new 2020 term or centered around COVID and it’s certainly a good term and it’s real, people do need to do that. But gosh, we’ve been helping law firms around the world transform digitally now for 10 plus years. And we just didn’t know that’s what it was. We didn’t know it was digital transformation. We thought it was more appropriately called reducing the amount of paper and your carbon footprint and going paperless. And having workflows that reduce the number of steps and allow you to do things better, quicker, faster with more accuracy. And all the things that have been important through, gosh, my 40-year legal tech journey. Right. Those are the common trends in the 80s and 90s, the Os and the 10s. And clearly there’ll be common trends going forward in the 20s, but with an added twist of just an absolute demand to be able to support work from anywhere. 

Bill Bice: Yeah. I mean, there’s a really interesting comparison here of you were talking about those different pieces of technology in the 80s. And I just think back to the amount of training it took to get somebody to be able to use an online research service, to use a CD rom, to use Wang. And now we’re focused on how do we get from four clicks to three clicks in a process that is absolutely minimizing the training because if you’re really going to be successful getting people to use technology, you just, you have to take that approach. 

Rick Hellers: Well, right. I mean, and if you think about the technology we use at a personal level, for the most part, we don’t get training, we don’t need training, we don’t want training. Right. It’s intuitive enough to figure it out. And if we’re interested in more advanced features, we go to find them for ourselves. And I think that’s the simplicity of how legal tech software is starting to be presented. Right. Is, don’t make it look, and act, and feel like technology, make it look, act, and feel like people want to work and need to work, get them to the finish line faster. 

Bill Bice: And it’s actually much harder to build technology that creates that user experience, but that’s how we get the end result. Right. We got to put all the effort in, on the front end so that the attorneys and staff are actually using it, have that great experience. 

Rick Hellers: Yeah, absolutely. And clearly people are, I mean, we used to measure the success of legal tech or what tech was in place by what percentage of desktops people had computers on. Right. And now that’s not even a statistic we track. It’d be interesting if we did, because I think we’d get more than the number of people. Right. Because people have two and three computers and three and four monitors and all of those kinds of things, an iPad here, and an iPhone or a, an Android here and so on and so forth. 

Bill Bice: In their home office. We’d be at two or 300%. 

Rick Hellers: Yeah. Yeah. But that also, I mean, I think that makes it more challenging, right? Because now not only do we have to allow people to work from anywhere, but we’ve got to synchronize that information and data across the various devices that people are working on and it’s expected. Right. It’s not like a, oh wow, you do that? Right. I mean, you don’t get bonus points for doing it. It’s just something that’s built-in expectations of what needs to be part of the vision and part of the deliverables. 

Bill Bice: Yeah. That same effort that’s gone into the user experience really needs to go into not just throwing more data at our attorneys and staff, but turning it into the information that’s, this is what they need right when they need it in the place that they need it. 

Rick Hellers: Yep. Absolutely. Almost more of notification to some extent. Right. Like, look at me, pay attention to what it is that this data holds for you. 

Bill Bice: Well, and the technology has to understand the context and what somebody’s doing. So it gives them the right information at the right time. 

Rick Hellers: Yeah, absolutely. And I know we’re doing some cool things early stages on that, but given that we’re onboarding all of the paper, we’ve got such a good foundation now to then be able to present to folks information that’s contained within all of that paper that we’re scanning. And that I think is a great example Bill, of what you were talking about, about delivering the right information at the right time to the right people. 

Bill Bice: Yeah. It kind of circles back to our work on West km because of course we’re OCRing everything that gets scanned, which means you’ve got a tremendous amount of information that you can garner intelligence from that’s in that flow. And so it’s a pretty exciting time to be doing this. 

Rick Hellers: Yeah, it sure is. And I think the other thing that’s a big difference from when I first started, or even when I was 10 years into legal tech, it’s not, I mean, in the past was looked upon as, as an evil necessity or oh gee, do we really have to? Now clearly people are embracing tech and they can’t get enough of it. And so firms are really receptive to trying new things and new ideas. I think the lawyers and the fee earners throughout the firms I think too, are understanding that they’ve got to embrace new ideas and new concepts because that’s what the market is demanding from them as they’re buying their legal services. 

Bill Bice: Yeah. And I think that was obviously already happening, but it was another silver lining of the pandemic because it was the firm’s investment in IT that allowed them to continue to be successful during COVID. And so it’s really sort of proved the worth of that investment. 

Rick Hellers: Yeah. It sure has. Although, having been there done that inside of law firms and given up so many weekends and done so many all-nighters supporting firm technologies, my heart goes out to all the IT directors and all the hardworking staff in legal tech that I know have busted their butt in this last year, delivering the impossible, doing some amazing things to keep firms going and handling issues that they didn’t even expect to be handled. So I can only imagine how much time and effort’s been put in to support the lawyers and the fee earners through this pandemic. So congratulations to everyone for doing all the hard lifting and making some impossible things possible. 

Bill Bice: Yeah. I mean, we work with them day in and day out, and it has been so gratifying to hear their stories of what they did and how they made it happen during this time period. 

Rick Hellers: Yeah. It sure has been. I mean, that’s one of my favorite things these days is just talking legal tech with law firms throughout the world and understanding the common problems. But also seeing the unique differences that a firm may have geographically or practice area-specific, or just law firms are always, they’re one and the same, but they’re vastly unique and different as well. And talking to firms throughout the world is really an insight, gives us great capability to kind of see what people need and hopefully help them get there a little bit faster. 

Bill Bice: Yeah. That’s why we never get bored doing this. 

Rick Hellers: Never get bored and never run out of things to do right, Bill? 

Bill Bice: Absolutely. Well, thanks, Rick. This has been a lot of fun. I appreciate it. 

Rick Hellers: Yeah. Great. Yeah. Good seeing you. 

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