Something Keeping You Up at Night? You Might Want to Be a Legal Tech Founder

September 4, 2018

Litigators spend most of their day looking for information to help build (and ultimately win) their cases. But when it comes to knowing the judge assigned to the case, the information is usually anecdotal at best. While this “black hole” of knowledge has become the standard of industry practice, this is a significant problem for litigators who are hired to know everything they possibly can to ultimately secure favorable results for clients.

This quandary is something that kept Rick Merrill up at night. Six years later, he launched Gavelytics and today the company has nearly 20 employees and a growing roster Am Law 100 clients, as well as small and mid-sized firms. But what was the path that got him there?

In a recent interview with Kevin O’Keefe, CEO and publisher of LexBlog, Merrill explains how he started the L.A.-based company. After years of waking up in the middle of the night frustrated by this “black hole,” it became clear to Merrill there was an opportunity in the market to address this pain point.

One of the key differentiators of Gavelytics’ judicial analytics platform is the fact that it was built “by litigators, for litigators.” But Merrill is not the first Big Law litigator to leave his job behind to start a legal tech company. In fact, some of the most successful companies in legal tech were built by former litigators. A few that come to mind: Ed Walters of Fastcase, Jake Heller of Casetext, Noah Waisberg of Kira Systems, Itai Gurari of Judicata and Alma Asay, founder of Allegory (which was acquired by Integreon last year.)

Their products have staying power due in large part to the unique perspective only a litigator can bring to the table; they acutely understand the pain other litigators go through to do their jobs effectively. Below is a recap of Merrill’s interview, and a checklist that encapsulates how Merrill got his legal tech startup off the ground.

You know you’re ready to start a legal tech company if:

  1. You’re passionate about the way something does (or doesn’t) work in your everyday existence. Speaking to O’Keefe during ILTACON 2018, Merrill explained that his former firm, Greenberg Traurig, was not unique in the sense that the firm didn’t know anything about the judges they dealt with. “That’s an industry-wide problem, and that always used to bother me because we were a billion-dollar operation, representing the biggest businesses in the world… it’s total guesswork about the judge, and that makes no sense. In no other area of our lives do we tolerate information black holes, right? Nowadays we would not go to a restaurant without checking Yelp. You wouldn’t go on a date without looking at Facebook or Twitter or Tinder…whatever the different data sources are, but yet in high-stakes litigation, you litigate as if Judge Bob is the same as Judge Wendy, even though they’re not the same. So that always used to bother me and I, honest to God, I would wake up the middle of the night and say, ‘how can this be?’”
  2. You have support from your partner/spouse/significant other/family: Leaving a secure job at a big law firm is not for the faint of heart, but you also need to have the support of those closest to you because you will need to lean on them during the stressful days. “You have to convince your spouse that it’s a good move, and fortunately my wife is a superstar and she’s a CPA, at an accounting firm, so we didn’t starve, which is good, but you know, it’s not a small task. It’s not a small risk. And there are big players in the space.”
  3. You have really thick skin – and no shortage of persistence: As Merrill explained, when forming the company, he spent a lot of time raising the first round of seed funding, without any partners in the business. “…I had to convince investors that we know in L.A. to fund it based really just on me…and that was obviously a leap, a big risk, a big execution risk, certainly.”
  4. You understand the importance of surrounding yourself with people smarter than you are – in a technological sense. Most lawyers are not coders (although some are, including our friend Jake Heller, CEO and co-founder of Casetext, who has been programming since he was just 8.) “It was a challenge to find our CTO, Juan Carlos Moreno. We would not have a business without him. He’s great. He hired the team, he does the product end-to-end, he manages most of our 18 employees and does a great job. And I actually had to interview I think 16 or 17 people before I got to him. And so that decision really changed everything.”

To watch the full LexBlog interview, click here.

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