GCRC Startups and Innovation – Daniel Lewis, Ravel Law

Our latest GCRC Interview is the latest in our series about startups and innovative companies in the legal market. The interest in legal tech and innovation is huge at the moment as VCs look to seize the moment amid the shifting legal climate. The latest instalment of this series is with Daniel Lewis from Ravel Law, a more established company than the other companies we have interviewed in this series. To find out more about Ravel Law, you can have a look at their website: www.ravellaw.com

To start off, just for our readers and for clarification at this end what exactly is Ravel Law and what kind of what’re you guys doing at the moment?

Ravel takes legal information, which is complex, growing and evolving, and makes it more insightful by adding new perspective with search visualizations, data-driven analytics, and competitive intelligence. We’re dealing primarily with US case law and providing new ways to interact with this information to identify things that would otherwise be lost in a wave of information overload.

For commercial clients or is it a consumer thing?

This is focused on professional lawyers and law students.

It’s almost like a translation into a an easier form of English?

It’s not necessarily an easier form of English but it’s a more intuitive way to understand the law, where we use new advanced technology and better design to help people understand what’s important, why it’s important and even how they can best use it.

How did you end up involved in this, for what reasons did you start doing this?

I come from a family of attorneys, and have been in and around the law for many years. I came up with the concept while studying at Stanford Law School, based on my own research experiences and many conversations with people at law firms and fellow classmates. It had become obvious there was a lot of powerful technology that hadn’t made it into the legal space yet, and it felt like there was a real opportunity to do something new that would help lawyers research better, make strategic research decisions, and help pass insights from senior lawyers to young ones.

Was there anything similar going on in finance or another sector that influenced you to do this?

At a broad level there is the reality that in the US there are basically two legal research platforms, Westlaw and Lexis and it’s been that way for a long time. I think that’s unusual as you look across other industries where people enjoy having a larger array of powerful tools at their disposal to do analysis and look at information. In the legal space that hasn’t happened yet. There’s not the diversity of tools in the legal space, and people have few options for tools that they really love to use.

What kind of tools are these for examples?

We weren’t directly inspired by anything from other industries, rather we were trying to come up with what would work for the legal space and put together a new set of technologies that were really crafted for the type of work that lawyers do. Saying “This has already been created for engineering lets morph it into the law” – isn’t the right approach.

So did you do quite a lot of research interviewing different lawyers as to what kind of tools they’d want?

We spoke with hundreds of lawyers and librarians, students, partners, young associates, the whole range, and we spoke with a number of computer scientists at Stanford – people who were working on technology in other spaces and could see applications in the legal world. We were speaking with those who were doing data visualisation and human-computer interaction and information design. We wanted to come up with an approach to research and legal analysis that would respond to lawyers’ needs, but that they didn’t necessarily ask for directly or even know was technologically possible.

We’ve come across a lot of people who said that lawyers aren’t the easiest people to sell to in terms of technology. Have you found that lawyers have been quite reluctant to embrace kind of new tools and technologies or is there a surprising demand for it?

We’ve heard that a lot too and I don’t think it’s entirely accurate. I think lawyers are interested in new technology and many are struggling against the tools that they currently have and battle with them every day and are frustrated by them. They’re interested in new things and I think the only limitation is the fact that they’re very, very busy and they don’t want to have something that takes months to learn how to use. If you can create something that’s intuitive enough to use yet powerful enough for them to need it, we’ve seen people very keen to try it out and use it.

From what you’re saying, are simplicity and accessibility the main things to be aiming for in a legal start-up?

Simplicity is not exactly the right word. It’s more about something that’s easy to learn but powerful enough to do whatever the lawyers need it to do. So our approach is: we know there’s a lot of information out there, and how can we use technology and design to help highlight what’s important and give insight about why it’s important. With visualisations, for example, we can help show the connections between a lot of different cases at one time and highlight which ones are the seminal cases, so you can then figure out from there what are the most recent cases or what are the key cases from a specific jurisdiction, and how do they relate to the seminal cases. That’s one way that we think about powerful technology that is simple to use. The technology isn’t simple but the interface we build for lawyers makes it intuitive. With just five or ten minutes learning how to use Ravel you’ll be able to do amazing things with it. It doesn’t require a two hour seminar, or a month of classes.

What would be an example of someone using Ravel Law for improving their morning at work?

We have lawyers at AmLaw 100 firms across the country using it every day and they’re doing things like finding cases that they couldn’t find in Westlaw or Lexis that are critical to their research. They’re reading cases in Ravel to get a better understanding of which passages are important, or to track how other cases have talked about a particular passage in a case. We’ve had lawyers write to us over and over again saying that they’re using Ravel and it’s made their research much faster and more thorough – they’ve found things that they would have otherwise missed, and it’s helped them research more confidently.

Could this interface be replicated for other industries do you think?

We’ve had people from the medical field say that this kind of research platform would be really great in medicine but for now we’re 100% focused on law because that’s what our background is and it’s where there’s still a long way to go in making things better for lawyers.

We’ve seen so many people getting investment and there’s a lot of money going around. What do you think are the big differentiators between companies that are doing well in terms of getting funding and those who may be struggling to get off the mark?

Just speaking from our own experience, we have a couple of premier venture capital firms that are invested in us, NEA and North Bridge. Our lead investor at NEA has a JD/MBA from Harvard – he understands the legal space, he understands that there is a real gap in technology and he’s excited about what we can do; and our lead investor from North Bridge helped scale Facebook from 30m users to 800m users and he’s really excited about the data that we’re using in the legal space and the analytics that we can provide. I think that combination for us of being focused on technology for lawyers, rather than on something that’s consumer facing, means we have a very specific set of problems to tackle. I think it also helps that we have legal backgrounds and what we hear from some people at firms is that they are approached with technology or tools that are built by engineers and not built by lawyers – they’re not really designed for lawyers and they don’t understand how lawyers would use them. That’s certainly a hindrance if you’re trying to build something for the legal space without really getting into it and understanding how lawyers are going to use it – that’s a tough road to go.

How much of an exciting time do you think this is for the legal industry and for innovation within it?

It’s a very exciting time. I think law firms are are just starting to really grapple with how they can use technology and what it means for their businesses. I think corporate counsel are re-thinking how they interact with firms too. For example in our space, for a long time firms were able to pass on their research costs to clients and not only that, but their fees were relatively inelastic so they were able to charge a lot and it was on an hourly basis. More often than in the past, clients of firms are now saying that they’d rather have a flat fee arrangement and firms shouldn’t be passing on research costs. This is really changing how lawyers think about research and there’s an increasing focus on productivity and value-add, and there’s increasing focus on how to research more efficiently while providing the same or greater value. What we get excited about is being able to create the tools that help lawyers do better research faster and to let them focus on some of the other really high value tasks that lawyers do, like writing, analysis, and argument crafting.

It seems to be a big thing at the moment that it’s about using time more efficiently. The hourly bill seems to come up quite a lot in terms of that. Do you feel that a change in billing structures is going to be intrinsic to lawyers changing their mentality towards time saving tools and so on?

We had heard the old stereotype of how it’s hard to sell to lawyers based on efficiency, since they work on a billable hour. But if that was ever true, I don’t think it’s the reality of today. I think lawyers are focused on doing their best work as efficiently as possible. Fee structures do change the incentives and change how firms think about work, but I don’t think it’s required that flat fee arrangements be in place for lawyers to be interested in technology. Firms value tools that enable them to more confidently enter flat fee arrangements knowing that they have technology in place to do great work with known costs.

So do you find that, in terms of who your main initial customer base is, you’ve found that firms are actually being very promising towards getting people on Ravel?

Yes, firms have been very interested and we’re working with dozens of AmLaw 100 firms across the country.

What has the response from inside counsel been like?

Inside counsel typically don’t do as much pure research as firm attorneys, but when they do they’re very interested in tools that can help them understand the law quickly. We’re reaching out and engaging with inside counsels because we think Ravel offers a lot of promise for their work.

Obviously Ravel seems to be developing very quickly. In five years or so, where do you feel you’ll be and do you think you will have unravelled the law?

I certainly hope so! Five years from now, hopefully the legal research market will be very different. Not only will information be more public, but there will simply be much, much more information available, which means that having tools to help you find the important material and understand why it’s important will be more vital than ever. We’re building and deploying those tools today, with our focus on data visualization and analytics to help lawyers do better, more strategic, research.

About William Barns-Graham

William is the content manager and head of communications at GC Research Club. He is a professional journalist, researcher and strategist. He has worked at GC Research Club since February 2013 and has rapidly become a distinguished voice in the in-house legal blogging community, writing on Lexis Nexis and interviewing leading legal thinkers and writers, in house lawyers and CEOs within the legal tech world. He has also coordinated the GCRC Sports Panel series.
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