Practice Management, Clio and Access to Justice

Clio, the Canadian legal practice management software company, is a phenomenon. Its home is in the Burnaby suburb of Vancouver but last week it held its seventh annual conference in San Diego. Good choice. Right within touch of the California tech playgrounds.It had a world-renown edgy keynote speaker – Glenn Greenwald, champion of Edward Snowden. There was an audience of 2000. But, this was less a Funfest for Clio afficianados than an ambitious statement of intent. And a justification to the faith of the venture capitalists that have recently backed it with £250m funds. This is a firm that wants to dominate the legal practice market – particularly for medium and small sized firms – globally. And this is likely, in due course, to impact even on not for profit access to justice services way beyond North America.

In its bid for world pre-eminence, Clio has a number of advantages. First, there is its financial war chest. You have to reckon that its backers are looking for major returns. 10 fold would magnify the company’s worth to over $2bn. That gives you a bit to spend on your marketing budget.

Second, in Jack Newton, it has one of the rockstar legal tech CEOs. This is a guy who began with a snow-shovelling business and co-founded Clio eleven years ago. He is one of those people who has the energy of a Duracell bunny. You can hear him being interviewed about the company (and it is worth it) on this promotional podcast. His dream is that Clio will be the ‘operating system for legal’ which drives change and provides what all legal firms need. So far, so conventional. But he links that to an access to justice mandate. He expressly refers to the ‘latent legal market’ much discussed by Richard Susskind. And he has a definition of access to justice which issues a challenge to those in the not for profit sector. He uses a language and has an orientation which we will find unfamiliar. He wants to focus on what lawyers can deliver and improve the ‘product market fit between what lawyers offering with clients looking for solutions.’ This is not how we have traditionally drafted our grant applications.

There are other Clio strong points. It has the commitment to service that you expect from Apple or Amazon. It put a team of 140 staff out at its conference to answer queries and discuss products with existing users as well as potential new ones. Above all, it approaches its task as a mission with an inspiring overall vision rather than a sales opportunity. In writing up the conference, Joe Patrice for Above the Law, came up with a telling headline: ‘This Isn’t a Product Show. It’s a Love Letter to the Promise of Legal Technology’. Clio used it to promote a view of where technology can take the legal industry – buttressed by its own legal trends report, for which the company contacted 1500 firms, mainly but not exclusively in the US. This is not about grubby cash: it is about improving a gleaming world.

And, here we get to the genius of Clio’s pitch. They want to improve your efficiency and effectiveness but they want to do with an eye on, and a dream of, a positive future: ‘We can learn a lot from high-growth firms—and we believe more law firms should. Not only are these firms achieving major success in the form of rapidly expanding revenues, they’re doing it while closing the market gap and delivering more legal services to the clients who need them. In the pages that follow, we’ve created the most extensive, in-depth analysis on how lawyers can drive new business and achieve greater success for their firms’. And, guess what. To succeed, you need something close to the Clio management product to harvest, process and retain new clients.

At bottom, Clio has, of course, to be more than a dream: it actually has to be a good product. I have to admit never to have used it but there are  practitioners in both the US and the UK, willing to go on the company’s website and their own youtube channels to say that it delivers. And the conference was an indicator of its imaginative approach to the future. Clio has reworked its mobile app to allow use on the move. It has set up a ‘firm performance dashboard’ that allows data on individual and case progress. It has also developed ‘Clio Grow’ to ease intake, appointments and the management of referral. On top of all this, Clio has a vision of becoming an all-encompassing platform – with 297 outside products capable of integration with the Clio base products.

All this is pretty impressive but it is no part of this column to contribute to Clio’s fanbase: this is extensive enough. Clio is clearly going to be a big success and if you have hundred millions dollars to spare, I doubt if you could do better than email Jack Newton and offer a further investment deal. But. for us, the interesting question is what might all this mean for cash-strapped practices in both the for profit and not for profit sector? Well, you might be tempted simply to sign up – particularly if Clio came up with an attractive subscription offer and was willing to have bolt on additional modules (eg covering non-billable community or educational legal work) designed for community legal services. You should probably at least think about it.

Whether or not you take their own product, Clio is bidding to set the standard for practice management software. That will be a challenge for a number of the home-grown products which many not for profits and small commercial firms currently use. And, in developing itself as a platform rather than delivering one specific service, Clio offers a further challenge. Nicole Bradick remarked at the Law for Good conference in London that most successful technology products in the access to justice field were single and stand-alone. An example from the UK would be the various appeal/review self-completing applications. But, Clio is suggesting that the future lies in somehow moving these to a common platform. There must be attractions to that. Maybe, the issue of commercial collaboration should be rephrased from ‘sleeping with google’ to ‘hitching up with Clio’. Alternatively, there will have to be a levelling up of standards to those set by Clio and similar providers.

 And the final challenge from Clio is Jack Newton’s reversal of the approach to access to justice to which we have become accustomed. In the traditional view of the world with which many of us are so familiar, access to justice is seen as the provision of assistance to people who otherwise will be excluded from the justice system. The key focus is on the need and we meet it as best we can. He is reversing this – as you would if you are working in a commercial context. In the Clio vision, the focus of access to justice is on providers adapting to meet need. We should not dismiss that too quickly for all that concentrating on client need is our raison d’être. He throws down a challenge to not for profit providers – how do they prove that they have marshalled their resources to maximum effect so that they can get the most ‘bang for their buck’. Good question. And how can they do that as an organic internal process without seeing such an issue in the context of hostile external management and bean-counters? Another good question. 

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