Enthusiasm for legal hacking is abundant, from Zach Abramowitz’s Should You Leave Law And Learn to Code? to Sam Glover’s podcast on Hacking for Justice. Also notable, tech incubator LegalX launched last month, and former Legaltech News editor Monica Bay joined the Codex team last quarter. (Law hacking seems to be brought to us by the letter “X.”)
But just like practicing law rarely resembles an episode of Law & Order, neither does legal tech life resemble The Social Network. To get an inside view at the reality of legal technology entrepreneurship, I interviewed Johnny Fuery, CEO of law practice management startup MerusCase. Read on for his take on getting into legal entrepreneurship, on anticipating legal users’ needs, and on the best Bay area coffee.
Ana: How did you pick legal technology as the focus of your entrepreneurial efforts?
Johnny: I didn’t. Legal chose me.
I was running around to various offices doing low-end tech support in my late teens and early 20s. I had college, and day jobs, and all the normal stuff everyone at that age has, but lawyers are a close-knit bunch, so I ended up doing desktop and network support for over a dozen firms simply by way of referral. Being a Silicon Valley technologist as my day job made the contrast astounding: I remember hacking together all of these disparate products and walking attorneys through the exact order to hit various “sync” buttons in all of their products every morning. It was awful.
When it came time to finally “grow up,” the “better mousetrap” that the world needed had been staring at me in the face for over a decade. It was an easy decision.
Ana: What unique insights and challenges do you face as a technologist leading a legal company?
Johnny: I personally believe that in today’s world, everyone should “learn to code” in at least a cursory way. The attention to detail that ensues, the analytical thinking it fosters, and the respect for innovative products are all “unique insights” that an engineering background offers. I believe there is a certain level of pragmatism that I personally enjoy because of the juxtaposition of business needs and engineering requirements, which are almost always in contention on some level.
All of that said, it can be a challenge to not look to engineers as a panacea for all the world’s ills. (Tweet This!) Sometimes the answer to a specific product question is not to add features or otherwise “idiot proof” something; sometimes the answer is simply not to do it. (Or, if one is clever, prevent the question from being asked in the first place.)
Ana: What do you think are the biggest hurdles faced by small legal tech companies?
Johnny: Aside from the obvious ones of resources, infrastructure, mindshare, experience, and talent?
Seriously, though, there are a lot of challenges. I suppose that, for me, there is a constant push-and-pull between reigning in the far-reaching ambitions, i.e., the pie-in-the-sky technology awesomeness, and getting too focused because of a relatively small customer sample size. The customer is always going to approach a problem based on what they know, not based on possibilities. I like to use the analogy of communication — if we, as technologists, had depended on customers to tell us what was needed in the 19th century, we would have built a giant carrier pigeon. Bigger wings, faster flight, right? At some point the jump in tech is so challenging to the consumer that you’ve lost them, so that what is considered “intuitive” really means “what I’m used to.” (Tweet This!) But we still have to push that envelope.
Ana: What sets your company apart in the technology space?
Johnny: From a “technology company” perspective, we’re unique in the sense that we’ve always “gone it alone.” In the early days of Merus, I personally took a day job, worked consulting gigs, and let a house foreclose to make sure payroll was made. I had no idea I’d be doing that for two years straight. It was rough. To now be talking to investors on any level seems almost silly (and no, it isn’t; I just have a different perspective than the equity folks are accustomed to). The idea that any company could create a software company with no funding at all in a post-dot-com world is pretty much unheard of. Aside from 37signals, I can’t think of a single company since Bill Gates started Microsoft that actually had a product out the door before accepting a dime in outside funding. We did that, and that’s unique.
Our culture is also unique: we are, for better or worse, perfectionists. There is no such thing as “good enough” here at Merus. There is only “done” and “work in progress”. It’s an almost-impossible standard to maintain, but our particular market — legal — as you know, is more demanding than many people realize. Our answer to their demands is to write software so good that it actually makes them better people (Tweet This!).
Ana: Your promise to customers says, “Caffeine dependence is just a cost of doing business for us.” What’s your caffeine of choice?
Johnny: Good black coffee. I like a lighter roast, but I’m not terribly picky. I appreciate a cup of Philz or Blue Bottle, but a standard Starbucks drip is fine most days of the week.
Now that you’ve gotten a peek at Johnny’s experience as a legal technologist, read his take on technology’s potential in the case management space. And check out MerusCase’s interview with our CEO on being a legal technologist.