Updated: Aug 10
Dan Currell is an experienced lawyer and management consultant, legal innovation leader, and currently serves as Senior Advisor within the Office of Finance and Operations at the U.S. Department of Education. I had the pleasure of speaking with him about his background, his insights, and his views on the current state of legal tech.
Tell me a little about your background. What have been the most powerful insights you have gleaned from your experiences thus far?
After law school – from 1997 to 1999 – I spent two years doing general commercial litigation. Like a lot of my law school classmates, I was writing law review articles in my “spare time”. My friends were on the job market to become law professors, but that wasn’t my direction. In 1999, I went to a management consultancy called the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) where my main responsibility was to deliver research presentations to corporate executive teams. Larger public companies mostly. Throughout law school I had been more naturally interested in law and economics than pure doctrinal law, and as a young practicing lawyer I was terrified by the process inefficiency of, well, everything. So management consulting was the right move for me.
For 15 years I was working with corporate GCs (in a thing called the General Counsel Roundtable), chief compliance officers, chief risk officers, chief privacy officers and other groups like HR, corporate real estate, tax, finance and the like. I did around 800 presentations, worked with thousands of companies, worked on every continent. It was a lifetime in 15 years. If that sounds like an exaggeration – it was just how the business model worked. We touched everyone.
As to insights – we were in the insight business, so there’s more to say there than I can hit in a paragraph. But here are three big ones:
Execution is incredibly hard in large organizations, and everyone up and down the line has a defensible reason not to change how they do things. Strong leaders are persistent and they just push through that resistance. That said, most leaders don’t really try – and that is far more true with GCs than with, e.g., CIOs or other senior executives. Lawyers tend to be deferential to their teams, valuing collegiality above efficiency. That’s got a lot of value of its own, but it makes innovation and improvement in the legal sector so much harder.
Nobody is asking the GC of a large organization to change. Not the CEO, not the CFO, certainly not the board, and rarely her direct reports. The GC – she needs to have that drive to improve things, and stick with that drive in the absence of support from anywhere. This is why it’s easy to start change initiatives in legal but nearly impossible to finish them.
Another leading reason why legal organizations don’t change is a lack of existing processes. Process is architecture, and you can’t change your plans if you don’t have any. To stick with the architecture analogy – lawyers like to just go out and start laying bricks; they’ll design the thing (whether it’s a transaction, litigation, compliance, whatever) as they go. There are rational reasons for this, but bottom line is if you want to change something, you need to know what it is now. Lawyers evade change at the outset by denying that there even *is* a process that’s available to be changed. And they’re right. They are just out there laying bricks. If you want to fix that process – where do you even start? It’s like trying to carry someone who is passed out (remember college?). Even a small person – she’s just boneless, you’ve got nothing to hang onto. And if it’s a football player – God help you. The rest of the team can’t haul him, it’s like trying to carry a giant squid – or reform a big due diligence process.
How do you define legal tech and how do you think it has benefited you when you practiced law?
This is my opening to tell “when I was young” stories – I will be merciful and stick to just one.
Westlaw and Lexis were eye-wateringly expensive in 1997 and our firm didn’t allow desktop access. You had to talk to the librarian, and she would stand over your shoulder and watch. The firm didn’t appear to have a direct awareness of this point, but she was rational: if the client is willing to pay $50k for something before starting to wince, do you want to give $5k or $10k of that to Westlaw, especially given that associates are a fixed-cost input to the final product? Or do you want the whole $50k for yourself? Just send the associates to the library.
It never made sense to use Westlaw in that narrow sense – so to me the interesting thing – what it tells us about legal tech – is that Westlaw was successful anyway. I teach my kids to drive in their parking lot, because it’s huge – you can see it from space. West Publishing was printing money by selling something to law firms that was always against the economic interests of those same law firms. When people casually assert that lawyers are anti-tech, they’re ignoring the big tech successes in the legal industry. BlackBerry was another one. Lawyers have, at times, adopted tech in a fast and furious way, and at great cost.
There’s a lot we can draw from that, but I’ll mention two things. First, “easy” wins every time. Westlaw made things easy; BlackBerry made things easy. Boom.
Second, at least in law, the premium for 100% coverage as opposed to 99% coverage is enormous. West won by going to excessive lengths to have total coverage. They didn’t get paid a little bit more; they got paid vastly more. The first-place premium in law is colossal. It would be like Coke selling for 5x the price of Pepsi in return for being 5% better. (I do not mean to start a religious dispute here. If I wanted to do that, I would mention Dr Pepper.)
On the broader topic of tech, in our work at CEB we spent a lot of time and energy evaluating different legal tech platforms. We came out with an annual review of tech tools for in-house legal departments, that sort of thing. My conclusion in all of it is that lawyers can be relied upon to buy tech in order to solve process problems – so that they don’t have to think about process problems. The tech is under-utilized, which we will tend to ascribe to the lawyer’s mindset or the legal culture, but really it’s just a human universal. And then we look back a few years after implementation and say – hey, that really didn’t work, people didn’t use it, it had this-or-that problem.
The true problem, as usual, is not the machines, it’s the humans. And it’s a human process problem, which is just a more respectable way of saying people aren’t making the effort to be organized at the group level as well as the individual level. Again, the absence of process. Lawyers can still pick off most of their low-hanging fruit using army-issue Microsoft tools and a real focus on team collaboration. But – and here is a problem of legal culture – you can’t just let everyone do things their way. The group needs to decide the best way, enforce adherence to it, and keep re-assessing the method while consistently executing on it. That’s not how you make a Rembrandt, but it is how you make a Toyota. Most legal activities are like making a Toyota but nobody wants to admit that. If we want to carry that analogy perhaps a little further than it should go, elite law firms are currently making Maseratis: beautiful, unreliable, and wildly expensive to fix. The process culture just isn’t there.
What has surprised you the most about your government work?
I tell people that everything in the government is new to me but nothing is really surprising. If you have in mind a caricature of what’s going on in the Federal sector, it might be roughly right. And I say that without having any personal antipathy to agencies or to the government. I spent my career working with massive private sector organizations, and Fortune 100 multinationals have all the same kinds of issues Federal agencies have. Big organizations are hard. As we all know, of course, government agencies are harder to change – and that’s the issue. It takes an act of Congress, literally, to really change them much. So, yeah . . .
Having said that, as to something surprising. I did have some exposure to a high-volume, document-intensive piece of legal work. The process efficiency I saw approached the level of a medieval scribe, and there was no real hope of fixing it. I won’t get into any more details on that one, but when it comes to dealing with document-intensive work, Federal agencies make LeBoeuf Lamb look like Google.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced in your career and how did you overcome it?
I was so ill-suited to commercial litigation that I really needed to jump to something totally different. But I went to law school straight from college, where I had majored in Religion and Sociology, and we were sitting on a little over $100k in student debt. That was real money back then. (That was a joke. It’s real money now. I’ve learned, in fact, that you can drown in an inch of water – this debt thing is a disaster.) Anyway, the summer of 1999 for me was spent talking to legal recruiters who were going to hit their quarterly targets by selling me to another firm in a bigger market doing the same thing I had already demonstrated that I was terrible for. They didn’t care – they aren’t career counselors.
Other than litigation, my only verified job skills were fixing bicycles and cutting lawns. So it was a terrible mess. I got out of it by having what turned out to be the most consequential email exchange of my life with a law school friend who had been looking for something new, and he had just turned down a job offer from CEB. He said I should go get that job – it wasn’t for him, but it would be great for me. So I did.
That’s the narrow answer, but I offer it because of course I was having email exchanges and phone calls with dozens of people – you win on volume in career changes.
How would you advise lawyers seeking to get more into legal innovation or legal tech? How would you advise them in dealing with those who are resistant to their ideas?
I am a huge fan of Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One. The big takeaway is the importance of starting deep and narrow as an opening point to having a broader impact. It’s consistent with The Innovator’s Dilemma, another of the few truly valuable business books, which points out that innovations tend to start cheap and simple before they shake the world. So that’s a preface to saying: find something you know and fix it. Not something huge; not something ambitious, necessarily. Just something broken. I mean, my goodness, if you’re a lawyer, what’s not broken? Just pick something.
In my short stint at the law firm, I made a structured list of online legal research bookmarks – like, on Internet Explorer. It was 1997, so this was useful housekeeping, and nobody else had done it, at least not at our firm. By then you had online resources from courts, online statutes, etc. Then I figured out how to copy the full set of bookmarks onto a floppy disk and drag it over onto another machine so other lawyers could use it.
Then the librarian caught wind of it. She got very upset and banned the practice because the internet couldn’t be relied upon for accurate information. We were like kids who got caught passing around a six-pack of Schlitz. I relented.
Meanwhile, my law school friend (and co-conspirator on the Law School Musical) Ed Walters was founding FastCase. I’ve never talked in detail with Ed about how they got going on that enterprise, but the first steps were surely much the same. Noticing the presence of free information, and just taking that one first, simple step. Then you take the next step. About half way down the block, you say – hell, maybe we can run a mile. Ed and the FastCase team have been going for more than 20 years, but I can promise you – it didn’t start out complicated. It starts by taking a step.
I think it’s actually important not to think about the 5K, the 10K, the half-marathon, the ultramarathon, that you could end up running. That will kill you, because you might be motivated by the big vision, but it scares everyone else away. People are afraid of big, systemic change. Especially lawyers. So don’t tell them you’re going to change the world. Just tell them you’re trying to fix that broken hinge over there that’s pissing everyone off. Better yet, don’t even tell them – just fix it. Once you’ve done it, and they are happy to have a door that swings correctly again, go find some more hinges.
At some point of course you will encounter genuine resistance. Just be diplomatic and polite and persistent. In hindsight, I should have been more aggressive with the librarian.