Daniel Farris is a technology and intellectual property attorney. However, he is far more than that. He also is a legal tech founder and former programmer and software engineer. I spoke with him about his background, balancing being both a law firm partner and legal tech founder and his thoughts on the practice of law.
Tell me a little about your background and how you bridge the technology and legal worlds in your work.
I like to joke that I am an “OG” – original geek. No one likes that joke but me.
I first became interested in computers in elementary school. In the early 1990s, before the rise of AOL and well before the internet was “a thing” to anyone outside of government or academia, I ran a “BBS” (or Billboard System) with an Apple IIc and a modem. If you have no clue what I’m talking about, think about how Matthew Broderick called WOPR in the movie WarGames. And if you don’t know the movie WarGames, then learn some history you damned Millennial!
I ultimately moved on from the WOPR and earned a Masters degree in Computer Science, after which I spent a decade in telecom and working for Argonne National Lab as a software engineer and a network administrator. It was at Argonne that I started working with in-house IP lawyers and decided I might give this whole law thing a try. Today, my practice is focused on technology transactions, privacy, and data security, so even in law I have not strayed from my roots as a geek.
Lawyers are often amazed that I understand all of “this tech stuff.” I am amazed they don’t. Programming is essentially logic. It involves instructing a computer to evaluate a number of variables, apply logical or inferential reasoning within a predetermined set of rules, and then to act or provide a result based on that processing. That sounds an awful lot like the practice of law to me.
In my day-to-day life as a lawyer, so much of the work I do and the advice I give reads on technology. As a lawyer trying to improve the practice and deliver the best service possible, so much of what I do relies on technology. Not to blend the two would be the stranger outcome in my mind.
What was the impetus for starting Proxy?
As an outside lawyer practicing at a large firm, I am fundamentally a service provider. In that position, I have been able to observe how the roles, expectations, and stressors affecting my in-house clients have changed over the last 10-15 years. The problem we are ultimately trying to solve with Proxy first arose, and quickly became glaring, during the last decade or so.
Providing good client service means more than just protecting my corporate clients’ interests. It means understanding the issues that the lawyers working for those corporate clients grapple with every day. I and my co-founders observed the growth of Legal Ops, and the deployment of corporate/departmental operational controls within legal departments, at the same time our in-house counterparts complained of decreasing budgets and limited internal resources.
Perhaps the most commonly described problem by in-house lawyers was the feeling of being hopelessly behind and entirely unable to control and manage their workloads. Some had elaborate spreadsheets. Others had tried third-party tools built for non-legal functions, mostly without success. Many had simply given up, resigned to prioritize and manage legal tasks by responding to whichever “high priority” email they received first in any given day.
As a former software engineer whose legal practice focuses on technology, I was amazed that better legal productivity tools did not exist. I do not fall victim to the belief that technology can solve every problem, but surely it could have an impact on this one. A review of the market showed that most legal tech products were highly segmented, focused either at law firm lawyers, single functions (e.g. contracting or docketing), or narrow substantive legal issues (e.g. real estate or IP).
What did not exist was a fulsome product or platform that was universally available, technology independent, subject matter agnostic, easy, and flexible. Too many products sought to automate tasks for lawyers. We believed (and still do) that giving in-house lawyers intuitive, lightweight, and flexible tools to use as they see fit best enables and empowers a critically underserved market: people, and more precisely the people who practice law inside of corporations.
And thus, the core concepts that today make up the foundation of Proxy were born. Proxy enables in-house lawyers to easily organize, track, prioritize, delegate, and report on the tasks, workflows, and projects they manage. Proxy allows for both structured and ad hoc tasks, and integrates with email, so in-house lawyers can continue to work the way they already do. The goal of Proxy isn’t to replace lawyers or perform tasks for them, but rather to empower lawyers to better manage the legal tasks for which they are responsible.
How do you balance your legaltech work and your work as a big law partner?
With difficulty. Both roles are demanding and high intensity, but rewarding.
Throughout my career, I have strived to identify and invest in talented people with diverse backgrounds, foster a collaborative culture, and enable teams to excel. I am lucky enough to be surrounded by great people, and I am just smart enough to stay out of their way. I could never be successful in legaltech or the practice of law if I did not have the support and assistance of some truly amazing designers, developers, lawyers, and businesspeople.
That said, and notwithstanding my reliance on others, the combination and integration of technology into the delivery of legal services seems totally natural to me. Many of the legal matters I handle lend themselves well to the use of technological solutions or support. In some respects, I am surprised that the effective use of technology is not more central to the strategies and operations of most AmLaw 100 firms.
Though no one asks me, if I were responsible for securing hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in revenue, as well as the jobs of hundreds or thousands of people – as are most AmLaw 100 leaders – I would be singularly focused on innovating and transforming the nature, delivery, and pricing models of my core services (through technological advancements or otherwise) before the myriad outside entities attacking this outdated industry truly disrupted my organization.
For someone considering starting a legaltech company, what would be your advice?
First, focus on the low-hanging fruit. Iterative improvements are fine. Resist the urge to invest in the technology du jour, like AI or blockchain. Even with the recent explosion of legaltech companies and legaltech solutions, the legal industry is still in its infancy. Find a simple problem and create a simple solution. Build from there.
Amazon started as an e-commerce bookstore. Facebook allowed users to create a profile and “poke” a friend. The first version of Salesforce tracked accounts, contacts, and leads. That’s it. You don’t have to solve “big” problems to be successful, and the problems that need fixing in the legal industry do not require cutting edge technology.
I am constantly amazed by the number of relatively new and relatively small legaltech companies touting their “artificial intelligence” powered solutions. Here is the thing about AI – to be good, it needs a lot of data. And the algorithms have to be contextual, which is particularly difficult in a profession founded upon interpretation, application of facts, and abstract concepts like credibility and equity.
Think of it this way: companies like Tesla, Google (Waymo), and Lyft have the greatest technical expertise in the world and billions of dollars at their disposal to develop the AI necessary for autonomous vehicles. Driving also comes ready made with foundational “rules of the road” to guide the algorithms, and these companies can collect literally millions of data points from any of the billions of cars on the road worldwide each day. Do the math on that and think of the size of those datasets. Then realize that, despite mountains of data, billions of dollars, and thousands of the greatest technical minds working on a solution every day, we still haven’t figured out self-driving AI.
Now apply the above to law, where datasets are tiny by comparison, investments are relatively nominal, technological experts are few and far between, and most of the problems to be solved are more abstract and require significant context, sometimes ethical or moral.
Even if you were to solve for all of these challenges and create a great legal AI tool, you next have to assume that lawyers want machines to think for them in order to be commercially successful. I do not know many lawyers who fit that mold.
As with any industry – but particularly in one as archaic and disorganized as law – real innovation begins with people and process. My advice is to consider your audience and understand their needs, then develop a process-oriented solution to help those people solve a problem. Do not try to think for them. Do not tell these highly educated individuals how to do their jobs. Develop simple solutions that foster and enable lawyers to practice more effectively.
Do not set out to build a better mousetrap. Too many of those products fail after their makers learn that a technologically elegant solution does not necessarily translate into customer adoption. Start with people, empathize with their challenges, and then build a product to help them.
In your view what has been the biggest misconception people have about legaltech?
That it is about tech at all. Or, perhaps more appropriately, that technology is the key to innovation or success.
I touched on this in my rant about AI. The race to be successful in the legaltech industry will not necessarily be won by the companies that develop the most technologically advanced solutions. We aren’t going to the moon here. The real winners in the legaltech space will be those who find ways to leverage technology to improve process and help people. We should all focus less on the robot lawyers and more on the real ones.