Kevin speaking with Nicole Clark, Founder and CEO of Trellis, at the 2019 Clio Cloud Conference in San Diego. Trellis is a legal research and analytics platform designed specifically for California practitioners.
Kevin O’Keefe: Who am I talking with?
Nicole Clark: I am Nicole Clark. I am the founder and CEO of Trellis
Kevin: That saved me cause I was going to say, “who is Nicole?”
Kevin: Where are you from?
Nicole: I’m from Los Angeles, California.
Kevin: Wow. That was easy.
Nicole: Yes, absolutely.
Kevin: How did you get here? Drive? Take a train?
Nicole: I drove up and we were actually in San Jose earlier, so came from San Jose to LA and then drove from LA.
Kevin: What is Trellis?
Nicole: Trellis is a legal data and analytics company. So we mine state trial court data and we make it searchable and we analyze it and we allow attorneys to basically research how their judge actually thinks about specific issues. Um, look at the case law that their judge prefers and really sort of tailor and target most of it.
Kevin: Did you found the company?
Nicole: I did.
Kevin: There’s another company that I remember talking to somebody. It was like “Money Ball” or “Money Ball for Court Analysis and Judge Analysis”.
Kevin: Also in California, I don’t know if he’s out of LA or Northern California or not. Is the idea that, you know, “I’m a trial lawyer”, and maybe it’s not getting all the way to percentages. Like, yeah, “we can do this and we can do that, we can plead this and we can plead that. This was the lawyer and was the venue and everything. You have 30% chance so we better sell it”. How are people using it?
Nicole: (1:19) So it’s an interesting thing. I think the analytics are really helpful and in a few times in the case and really helped them, right when you get assigned your judge to make a decision. You know, are you going to ding the judge? Are you going to request assignment to a different judge? That’s great for some hard data in analytics. The way that our clients use our products.
Kevin: I laugh because, I’m thinking like before. When I was practicing, we had email. Somebody would send out a memo asking about sticklers.
Nicole: ”Anyone hear about judge so-and-so?”
Kevin: “Oh they seem okay.”
Nicole: My favorite for the response is like, “Oh, he’s a stickler for the rules”. You don’t say the judge is a stickler for the rules. Well that’s actionable data I can make a decision on. So yup. And I experienced that at every firm that I was at that email going around. I was often the associate that was tasked with sort of collecting the anecdotes and then making a recommendation to the partner. And it just blew my mind that we were relying on antidotes and there’s so much data out there and there’s such great resources and here lawyers are sending out internal emails. You know, God help us.
Kevin: Where were you practicing in LA?
Nicole: I was I practiced in LA and also in Orange County.
Kevin: (2:26) How is the data mined from the courthouses as far as scraped or gotten so then you can turn around and present this information?
Nicole: Great question. I have engineers that are far smarter than I am.
Kevin: Basically one of the most difficult aspects of what we’re doing is at the state court level the data is so fragmented. So every single court is separate. Los Angeles County separate from San Diego County. It’s all, you know, they host their data separately, they maintain it separately. So it requires a ton of work for us to integrate into, to get the data coming in. And then the most difficult work is really structuring the data cause it comes in messy, raw, unstructured, and we have to structure it so that we can actually make meaning out of it.
Kevin: Oh, same thing man. We’re bringing RSS feeds of content, and you have to make sure that authenticates to be able to pull it through, you got to structure it. You can call metadata. You can call it organizing or whatever.
Nicole: Yup, yup, absolutely.
Kevin: How do the judges feel about this whole thing today?
Nicole: It’s an interesting thing. I’ve had both responses. I’ve had some judges that I think are a little bit concerned about that level of transparency. I’ve had other judges that say we want access because we’re actually reinventing the wheel more than we need to be. We can rely on some of our past decisions, use those, and our opinions and do our job better. And then also maybe it would be helpful for them to actually see areas where they’re an outlier. Um, they basically want to be able to see what the attorneys are seeing, which you can’t blame them.
Kevin: (3:54) Right, knowing a few judges over the years that can hold grudges, that can be spiteful.
Kevin: “I’ll show you that’s not what you expected to happen”.
Nicole: It’s true. It’s an interesting question whether the sort of observer bias might change anything. It’s a great philosophical question that we’ll continue to to figure out.
Kevin: If somebody told me this is what you usually do in that situation. I’d, back in my mind and running around all over. When did you start the company?
Nicole: (4:23) So we started collecting data about four and a half years ago.
Kevin: Who’s we?
Nicole: A team, so started with co-founder technical. Someone who’s the, you know the engineering brains of the operation. I’m domain expertise.
Kevin: Why you? I mean you’re practicing law. I mean you didn’t go to law school to say, “I’m going to be running a data analytics company from data from courthouses and present it back to lawyers on a subscription basis”.
Nicole: That is true. That is definitely not what I went to law school thinking that. You’re absolutely right. The reason that we started Trellis was really, I was complaining to a colleague one night about, I was writing an MSJ. I was just a day. It was a complicated issue. I wasn’t sure how to structure the motion. I was saying I didn’t know anything about the judge and my colleagues said to me that he thought he had appeared before my judge previously and he thought he might have a ruling and we went and we checked and there was a ruling in the file that was on my motion, on my issue by my judge.
Kevin: In the firm?
Nicole: (5:20) In the firm, internally with the files. For me it was just this light bulb of, “Oh my God, there is”.
Kevin: “What’s at the courthouse?”
Nicole: Exactly. There’s this incredible practical data and here we are relying on Lexis. We’re relying on Westlaw appellate data, sort of academic legal research, but what about all the untapped data about how judges are actually ruling?
Kevin: And you just talking about it. An MFJ, motion for summary judgment, can decide the case.
Kevin: Somebody’s saying, “do get the right to have a trial or you don’t”. The judge says, “you don’t. You’re done go home”. You can appeal and you’re sitting trying to read tea leaves as to what the appellate court would say.
Kevin: This judge who’s never been an appellate lawyer, nor do they even want to be an appellate lawyer. They’re gonna rule on things in front of them based on the briefs and their analysis and we’re going to try to do the right job.
Nicole: Exactly right.
Kevin: But why you? You have to read and everything, but why was it you you said, “okay I’m going to do this”?
Nicole: The way that it worked was, my first step in was recognizing that this data was out there. Nobody was tapping. And my first step was “let’s start collecting and aggregating it. I’m going to use it in practice and I’m going to see if it’s really valuable”. And for a number of years while we were collecting a super meaningful data set, I just continued practicing. And during that time I had such a successful motion practice, it changed the game for me, because I sort of had the answers to the test. Right? I could see the way the judge thought.
Kevin: Did your clients know they were getting a lawyer that was more?
Nicole: It was my secret weapon. I didn’t tell the firm it was my secret. They were like, “why do you think the judge is going to deny that?”. “I have a feeling I just have a strong feeling”. Um, but it was such a game changer for me and my practice.
Kevin: Where were you storing this information?
Nicole: (7:02) Well at that point we had created a separate hosted database, but I was customer number one, so it was really me using it, giving feedback, and the database grew. It definitely got better over time.
Kevin: Did you contact somebody that you knew that did tech or what?
Nicole: I went to the smartest engineer that I
Kevin: That you knew
Nicole: Exactly, I said, “can you do this?” And at first he said, “I don’t believe you that every data is utilizing a, I mean every industry is utilizing data, right? What do you mean law is not effectively utilizing data? I don’t believe you”. And then he went and started doing his own market research, saw the opportunity and was like, “Oh my God”.
Kevin: I love that story about, “I’m using it really well”.
Nicole: And that’s what it was for me. For me, I ended up feeling at that point like I was compelled to start the business. Like I no longer had a choice because the data was so powerful that the opportunity to start a business this big, this scalable that’s helpful to attorneys was something I wasn’t going to in account out in my life.
Kevin: Remind me again, how long ago was that?
Nicole: About 2 years ago is when I jumped from practice and we probably were a effectively working on it the last three and a half years.
Kevin: So yeah 3 and half, four years. You were going through this process your saying, “Okay”. Did you tell the firm? “I’ve got this now”.
Nicole: They became customer number two.
Kevin: You had left before you went back to the firm with the information.
Nicole: Well, they actually, when I told them that I was leaving and I told them what I was going to do and they knew that I had been winning for quite a number of years there and so they were able to place it together and say “Oh the product and the legals win. Yes we want the product”. And in fact they actually gave us office space onsite at the firm.
Kevin: That’s cool.
Nicole: We had the engineers be able to iterate with the attorneys onsite and so it was our very first sort of launch into and to real customers.
Kevin: You had a firm with a little bit of foresight. As opposed to “Get out of here” if you don’t like our model.
Nicole: That’s totally what I was expecting. I tell you when I went in there, I was fully expecting them to say, “you know, addios, good luck with that”. But they were really receptive.
Kevin: How’d you figure out, okay, how much am I gonna charge? Is it a subscription? Do we charge by the firm? Do we charge by the user? Do we charge, you know, whatever? How’d you figure that all out?
Nicole: (9:19) So I think, and for particularly for startups, it’s an iterative process. I think it’s a journey to figure out exactly what revenue model is gonna work best with the customers. And you basically watch it and then tweak and then watch and then tweak. Um, my original plan was “I’m going to be like Lexis and Westlaw. I’m going to sell to the entire firm enterprise. If one person wants it, the whole firm has to it”. Right? Then I got into the sales cycle at large law firms.
Kevin: Yeah, that’s tough.
Nicole: And so that sort of hit me pretty hard and I recognize that what we really need are internal champions. When we get people using the product, they’re super excited about it, right?
Kevin: Champions is the right word.
Nicole: And so we need those folks saying, “yes, I use it. Yes, it’s helpful.
Kevin: One at a time.
Nicole: Exactly, and we’ll take them one at a time to take over there.
Kevin: We used to get the checks in the beginning, I’d go, “wow. A check, from a lawyer at Wilson & Sonsini, but it’s from her and her husband’s checking account”. They were coming like that and so you realize this person really likes what we’re doing. They’re not even bothering their firm about it. They’re willing to pay the $2,500 a year or whatever they’re going to be. They’re going to be champions. It’s going to do good stuff for them, and they’re going to share the word to other people over time. What’s amazing, now we’re sitting here talking about being a lawyer and you’re being a lawyer, and to think that three and a half years ago or four years ago, you’d be winging things off revenue model, iterative changes, the sale process, champions, insights, how you sell, how you do tech. How you do all this.
Nicole: Become an expert in marketing an expert in sales an expert in managing people. Right? And it’s mind blowing.
Kevin: But it just happens.
Nicole: It just happens. When you get really excited about something, you figure out how to make it happen.
Kevin: All of a sudden you’re listening to other people and go, “yeah, that’s what”, I mean. I remember what scaling is. Okay, that’s right. That scaling. Or people say “we want to do this or that”, and I go, “if you think we’re going to start putting people to that problem, that is really unlikely”. When we see the opportunity, we’ll change the product and and add some features.
Nicole: (11:19) Exactly.
Kevin: Cause we’re not going to go broke.
Nicole: We can’t, we don’t have the resources. Right. It really is a study in prioritization, right.
Kevin: How do we maintain it? We got engineers that are going to work on one platform. They’re not going to work on two or three. I learned all of those problems over the years. Obviously you’re having fun.
Nicole: Yeah, absolutely.
Kevin: Um, what was the biggest thing you learned? That you said, “wow, didn’t know that. Didn’t know that was gonna happen”.
Nicole: In terms of the business itself, I honestly, I feel like I get one of those every day. It’s just, and it’s a regularly feel like, “wow, how did this happen on a regular basis?”.
Kevin: When was the biggest moment where you go, “Oh my God, it shouldn’t be this hard. I don’t know. I don’t even know if we’re gonna make it after. I thought it was perfect”?
Nicole: I though the down moments are this or this, the slowness of attorneys to adopt. So you get people and they’ll be super excited about the product and they’ll be an internal champion, but then they’ll say, “help sell it into the firm? Oh, we don’t know how to do that, but I’d love to invest in your company”. And you’re like, where’s the disconnect? You’re willing to invest, but you can’t help us become a customer. So it’s very confusing sometimes with attorneys.
Kevin: Do they paid per seat? Did they pay for a period of time? Do they buy us a subscription?
Nicole: It’s a subscription.
Kevin: That’s what it is.
Kevin: What do people pay per a monthly subscription?
Nicole: (12:50) $100 a month.
Kevin: That’s really really reasonable. It really is. And we’re right now, we’re not trying to nickel and dime people. We’re trying to give them serious values. And they can go and tell their friends we were making a great product and we want them to be champions.
Kevin: It’s totally, I mean you know already, but it’s totally the way to go. You want them as raving fans, not moderately satisfied, but somebody that brags about it to their friends.
Nicole: Exactly. They, each one of them become a little marketers for you.
Kevin: You can never let go of the fact that we’re customer centered like we’re 15 year in. Sometimes, it’s hard. Then everybody realizes that you came to work for the company in the company or even existed and they, and they came. Some people came for the job through the passion and the experience of everything.
Nicole: It’s an interesting thing to recognize, right that your employees don’t, you know, they share, they’re there cause they share in the vision. They don’t have the same level of buy in as you do. They don’t have the same amount on the line.
Kevin: I’ll be telling people, “well why not? We all don’t get this excited?”.
Nicole: I hear you. You are preaching to the choir.
Kevin: With somebody that was in my company for seven or eight years with me and he goes, “Kevin. Just so you know. Not everybody here is going to be as excited as you are” and I’m like, “Well, why not?”.
Nicole: Totally agree. Totally agree.
Kevin: What’s been the most rewarding for you? I mean to look back and say, “I was went to law school as your lawyers doing a good job. I enjoyed it”. What’s most rewarding about this?
Nicole: (14:19) I think it’s having actually built something that people love, right? So we were, we were at a conference recently and someone came up to me and I said, “I heard about this. My friend was raving about it”. It’s a recognition that, you know, we started from nothing and we put the pieces together to really build something that people love and use. That’s huge.
Kevin: To have them come up and thank you.
Nicole: Come up and thanking me, right? I never in my life as an attorney did I expect that and it’s incredibly rewarding.
Kevin: It’s totally rewarding, because the people that are out there and get seen and come up and say they’re a customer, “great to meet you”, may have talked with you sometime but never met you face to face and how much you did to help them. I mean, you know, you will occasionally, I used to tell the lawyer, so you get a letter from a client, you keep it in the drawer. On a bad day you open it up and read it, but you don’t have a lot.
Nicole: But it’s a little bit of a thankless job there because you’re just pushing forward on deadlines and when you win they expect it and when you lose, they’re not happy.
Kevin: So if you’re out there talking to law students today, or maybe you already do.
Nicole: We do.
Kevin: To you that the sky is the limit for opportunities for a lawyer?
Nicole: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think that we need to get out of the mindset that you’re stuck in, you know, the way that the profession has sort of, um, generally been established and “I have to work at a private practice firm” and “I have this number of years before I can jump to my next job”. And you know, there’s all of these things that we expect when we go in. And I think I was under that mindset for a long time.
Kevin: Or we were educated that way.
Kevin: You go into law school and tell them that they gotta change what they’re doing and they’re thinking, “we’re going to screw that up. That’ll screw up our ratings” and “we’ve got to get these kids out of here. I’m not going to go to major firms and make them”.
Nicole: That’s funny, that’s interesting.
Kevin: They do. They actually say that. “That’s okay, but we can’t do that because we got to get the kids in the major firms in the major cities and I’m going to get them clerking in the right spots because if they don’t clerk our ratings will all go down”.
Nicole: Or there may be only one way to go forward, cause that’s what we’re told. And then it turns out that’s not the case at all.
Kevin: There’s always opportunities. Look at you. Look, you’re here today.
Nicole: Exactly, it’s a wide open universe out there.
Kevin: It was great talking with you. This was great.
Nicole: Absolutely, you too Kevin.
Kevin: Thank you very much.