I am always excited to meet and interview lawyer entrepreneurs who have wonderful stories about their “a-ha” moment — usually a moment of profound frustration while sitting at their desk at work on an assignment. Universally, they describe an interior voice yelling, “There has got to be a better way.” I am especially excited today to be having my first interview with a female legal tech entrepreneur: Nicole Clark, CEO of Trellis.
My conversation with Clark reminded me of a quote from Goethe: “Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.” Nicole has no small dreams. She describes her product as the “Google of legal analytics” and proclaims that Trellis “will own the state court data and analytics space” in the future.
Trellis’ website describes their mission as “Democratizing access to the law by making state trial court records and legal data more accessible … [to bring] greater transparency to our judicial system.”
At first glance, it appears that Trellis entered the market to compete with Lex Machina, Thomson Reuters, and Gavelytics, each targeting an aspect of the state court analytics market. However, my discussions with Clark revealed a bold and unique approach to the development of her product, and a unique market strategy, to outwit the long procurement cycle in large law firms.
CEO Nicole Clark and Chief Product Officer Alon Shwartz, the co-founders of Trellis, initially launched in California in early 2018 with $2 million in seed funding. Recently, they expanded coverage to state trial courts throughout New York, Florida, and Texas.
JO: What is what is your vision of Trellis and where does it fit into the legal market?
NC: I see Trellis as really owning the entire trial court space eventually. There are so many challenges associated with acquiring, aggregating, and analyzing state court data which is housed separately by every county court. Because this is such a big undertaking, its important to prioritize tackling the state trial court system — which is the largest and most fragmented court system in the nation.
JO: So what inspired Trellis?
NC: Trellis grew out of my own frustration as an associate trying to access trial court data. I did a lot of class action, wage, and hour work, and I was litigating constantly at the state court level. I just couldn’t believe that there wasn’t a better way to access information about trial court judges, motion practice, and my opposing counsel. I was often the associate tasked [with] building intel on a judge, which meant sending out emails asking colleagues for insights and experiences, and then turning those anecdotes into strategic recommendations for partners. It just blew my mind that we were using internal anecdotes to make these decisions when there was clearly so much hard data out there on how judges were actually ruling. So really the idea of needing better data started percolating early on in my career.
JO: What was your a-ha moment?
NC: I started collecting my own data about judges while I was working as an associate in order to try to be more strategic and proactive. Trellis was born when I was writing a complicated motion for summary judgment late one night. I didn’t know our judge, and I wasn’t sure the best way to structure the motion. After consulting a colleague, I learned that he had appeared before my same judge a few years earlier. His case file included a ruling that was written by my judge, on my issue, on my motion. I suddenly felt like I been given a “cheat sheet” on how to write this motion for this judge. I wrote the Motion for Summary Judgement in half the time, and my motion was granted. I realized that no one had been collecting, archiving, and analyzing the treasure trove of trial court data that’s out there. The state court litigation market is huge. There are 30 cases filed in a state court for every one case filed in a federal court. But with the federal courts there is one unified system (PACER) whereas with the state trial courts, no one had stepped up to create a single searchable interface for all state trial court data.
JO: How did you make the transition to entrepreneur?
NC: I’ll be honest, I was risk averse. I did not wake up saying I’m going to be an entrepreneur. As a lawyer, I really thought that my career options were to change firms. I started very small, with myself as customer number one. I had software developers start aggregating trial court data for me to use in practice, as my own secret weapon. I continued to practice for a number of years using Trellis data. It had such a dramatic effect on my motion practice, my winning streak. That’s actually what gave me the courage to leave practice. It became obvious to me that there was a massive opportunity here to build a thriving, scalable, legal data company and that this opportunity was so much bigger than my career as a litigator. I ended up ultimately feeling that remaining a litigator would actually be a riskier move than taking this opportunity head on.
JO: What is distinctive about the Trellis business model?
NC: We came at building our product from a standpoint of how do we make this super intuitive? Lawyers don’t have billable hours to waste learning new products. We also knew that selling into large law firms was difficult and [an] incredibly slow process. So very early on we moved toward a bottoms-up sales approach. I rejected the Lexis and Westlaw model of only selling enterprise licenses, instead opting to embrace internal champions at the largest firms.
Everyone in legal knows that firms have a painfully long procurement cycle which has been the death of many start-ups in the legal space. As a VC-backed start-up, your only real finite resource is time, you have a limited amount of time to demonstrate to investors that you can grow the company dramatically. So much of the business as a startup is starting with an assumption, and then testing that, and then shifting strategies. One of our earliest hypotheses was that lawyers were starting their research on Google. Often they want to get some basic information before they spend a chunk of hours diving into Lexis/Westlaw and conducting traditional court of appeals research. So, we started with this hypothesis that lawyers were starting their cases by googling their judge. We began making our judges biographies searchable on Google. That worked, and we started to see more and more traffic where lawyers were coming into our site organically.
Instead of hiding the product entirely behind a paywall, we wanted to make the documents and information very easy to find organically. Prior to Trellis, my cofounder, Alon Shwartz had been CTO of a company called Docstoc, which was the largest database of contract and legal documents for small businesses. Docstoc was ultimately acquired by Intuit. But in growing that company, Alon gained so much invaluable experience that we get to benefit from every day at Trellis. This ranges from search engine optimization, like with our judge biographies, to the technical, business, and leadership challenges of growing a rapidly scaling business.
JO: How did you come upon the freemium approach?
NC: Based on our experiments with judge biographies, we knew that if we could get more lawyers to the website, where they could actually see and experience the power of this data, the value would be obvious. Moving toward a freemium customer acquisition model allowed us to leverage lawyers’ natural behavior of googling information about their case, their judge, their opposing counsel. Then, we offer a free trial period to take away any risk. It’s important to let users discover and recognize the value themselves … it’s a “show” versus “tell” mentality.
Initially, it was very, very scary allowing Google to ingest our data. I felt very protective of our intellectual property particularly when some of this data includes what I call “disappearing data” such as the judicial tentative rulings that nobody else had collected.
Ultimately this strategy helps us at large law firms as individual associates and partners find Trellis useful on their cases and become our best advocates. We are able to sell using a “bottoms up” strategy leveraging these champions.
Once we have multiple users from the same law firm signing in regularly, we know its time to reach out to the library or knowledge management directors to chat about moving the account to enterprise with additional features and benefits for the whole team. With this “bottoms up” approach we’re able to enter both the large and small ends of the market simultaneously without a large sales force.
JO: What distinguishes Trellis from the competition? You appear to be approaching the marketplace differently than your competitors. You are not just focused only on trial analytics you are focused on the documents in the trial courts.
NC: While others may focus exclusively on analytics, we think analytics are only one piece of the pie. Successful litigation strategy requires a 360 vision, it requires data, only when you have that base layer of data and transparency can you provide insights. Analytics without context simply aren’t actionable. This is why we focus on aggregating filed court documents and make the body and text of the docs searchable before downloading. Great insights require rich data. Trellis focuses heavily on the data, having the most comprehensive state trial court platform available. Whether you’re looking for a particular docket, analytics on your judges, or you want to pull every MSJ your opposing counsel has filed in similar cases, across counties — we have the data, simple, searchable, easily accessible through a single interface. At our core we are a data company. We believe that better access to trial court data will lead to better decision making.
JO: What is next for Trellis?
NC: We’re moving fast. We started in California and recently added state trial courts across New York, Texas, and Florida (with searchable filed documents in each state). We’ll be expanding to Delaware and Illinois by the end of the year. In the next few months we’ll also be rolling out an entirely new judge analytics dashboard with even deeper insights ranging from timing and disposition analysis to ruling tendencies across case types and practice areas. Expect law firm and party analytics to follow. As always, we’ll continue focusing on the data, and on fostering accessibility, so everyone can make better decisions.