I recently had the opportunity to interview AJ Shankar, CEO of eDiscovery software company Everlaw. One can read any amount about an industry and its players, but there is no substitute for talking to the people who get the work done, and for hearing in their own words about the challenges and opportunities and what they are doing about them. I am lucky in the people who volunteer for these interviews – the ones I get are always the fluent, eloquent ones with interesting things to say. AJ was no exception.
One of our themes was that Covid lockdown has not been bad news for everyone. Take-up of some existing technologies – Zoom and many cloud-based applications for example – has been considerably advanced because hitherto reluctant users have suddenly had an extra incentive to adopt them. Some businesses, and Everlaw is one, have been in the right place and at the right time to expand and to reach new markets because their offerings moved overnight from being a choice to being necessary for survival. My ability to set up transatlantic interviews has been positively enhanced by practical restrictions on travel – the pandemic has not only made it respectable to do this remotely but has enhanced the technology which makes it possible.
There is a pleasing conjunction here – of users, the businesses which service them, and the people who report on that, all forced by circumstances to adapt and improve the way they work by making use of solutions which existed anyway.
I have known Everlaw since it was founded, a decade or so ago, mainly because it defied a prediction which I made at the time. I was not the only one who said that there would be no new entrants in the discovery software market because there were too many established providers and because of the high cost of entry. Almost immediately, three or four new players emerged, including Everlaw.
I have kept in touch with them in a vague sort of way over the years – chatting at conferences and the occasional lunch – but the announcement of its Series D funding seemed a good reason to find out more about Everlaw, and that led to my interview with AJ Shankar.
If Everlaw was in the right place at the right time when the pandemic struck, the same was true for AJ when he was studying computer science at Berkeley. His department was asked to help with a data analysis problem which turned out to be an eDiscovery matter. He was drawn in, he said, by the conjunction of smart people, sophisticated needs and high stakes.
Roll on 10 years or so, and Everlaw employs about 350 people and has offices in the US and other places across the world, including London and Washington, D.C..
Everlaw works for both corporate legal departments and for law firms, and we talked about each of these in turn.
Corporate legal departments were coming under increasing pressure even before the pandemic. On top of already increased regulatory attention, they have had to deal with the distribution of the workforce from the supervised environment of their offices and out into homes. In eDiscovery terms, this has led to many more exchanges of data in written, chat and video form. How has Everlaw been able to help with that?
AJ said Everlaw was already storing sensitive data with the highest and most robust levels of security. The pandemic had led to a “dizzying array” of data types and sources as well as increasing volumes. On top of that, distributed legal teams needed to collaborate to an even greater extent than hitherto.
Law firms vary in size and skill levels. Some have in-house expertise and some do not. AJ said that the bigger firms have specialists in each stage of discovery. Everlaw has tools upstream and downstream from the primary eDiscovery tasks, which are accessible in one place, not just to the discovery specialists but to those who must build a narrative and make and run the case. AJ added that smaller firms benefit from the fact that all Everlaw’s tools are available to all users, giving them the opportunity to compete with bigger firms both to win the work and to win the case. We are, he said, seeing a recognition that even “small” matters now generate big volumes of data. Justice depends on truth and it is vital to get to the facts.
That led us into another interesting area, applicable to both corporate legal departments and law firms. How do they identify the “tipping point” at which it becomes right to involve a third-party like Everlaw? What benefits come top of the list of the reasons why they should go to Everlaw? AJ said the tipping point should come early, at the very outset of a preliminary investigation. You push a button to get started, upload data, and scale up later if you have to without the need to hit a threshold first, or worry about anticipating the scope.
You do not have to worry either about the nature of the files – Word files, Slack data, Zoom, medical images and the rest all go in. AJ observed that the lawyers do not get to pick the communications tools that the corporation uses – you just have to roll with it, he said. As a final point, he emphasised how easy it is to engage at any stage with outside counsel and bring them onto the platform.
One of the obvious effects of lockdown has been the encouragement of the cloud as an enabler. In many cases, there was no other way to get the work done. AJ observed that many clients were already using the cloud for discovery and related purposes, benefiting from widespread availability, security, and regular updates. There was a big change as everyone started working remotely (and therefore needing reliable access from everywhere), and started using new forms of communications such as Zoom extensively. Lockdown won’t last for ever, but some social and cultural aspects of it will remain, including hybrid working.
Everlaw was well placed to handle the new circumstances. New developments include a legal holds tool and other functions purpose-built for managing the tight deadlines of litigation. The ambition, he said, was enterprise-grade functionality and user-grade look and feel.
I asked AJ what trends he foresaw in the next few months, emphasising as I did so that the events of the last 18 months would not have been predicted by anybody. Top of AJ’s prediction list was that we will see more written and video output in place of talk at meetings. That will give rise to more Discovery. There would also be a great deal of litigation and regulation arising from Covid.
To close our conversation, I asked AJ about the new funding. What would it enable Everlaw to do?
AJ referred again to his ambition for a unified litigation platform with discovery at its core and the means for collaboration built around it. The aim was to encourage lawyers to start earlier (that is, as soon as a dispute arises) and to stay on the platform for longer, using the collaboration functions which went beyond the pure discovery tools.
As I said in opening this post, our conversation was as much a child of Covid as the changes in work practices at Everlaw’s clients. It was enabled by Zoom and the cloud; it was a new and more convenient way of doing something we had always done; it took lockdown to encourage new ways of getting the work done without travel; as with litigation, external circumstances may excuse some formalities, but life and business must go on without a drop in standards.
I enjoyed this conversation, and suggested that AJ and I speak again in a few months to find out how the funding helped Everlaw fulfil the ambitions which he had described.