Ryan is the chief revenue officer for Zero, a company that applies artificial intelligence and smart automation to the...
Joe and Elie chat with Ryan Steadman of Zero about legal technology and how to drive adoption among a profession that’s notoriously averse to tech. Zero manages email retention by automatically filing communications with the help of a practical AI system — the sort of inbox management that used to require an afternoon of labor or setting up a million rules. Ultimately, the key to legal tech adoption may be gravitating toward the familiar rather than loading up on flash.
Special thanks to our sponsor, Smith.ai.
Above the Law – Thinking Like a Lawyer
Making Legal Technology Intuitive
Intro: Welcome to Thinking Like a Lawyer with your hosts Elie Mystal and Joe Patrice, talking about legal news and pop culture, all while thinking like a lawyer, here on Legal Talk Network.
Joe Patrice: Hello. Welcome to another edition of Thinking Like a Lawyer. We’re sorry we weren’t able to come to you last week but we had a bit of an emergency. I’m Joe Patrice from Above the Law and last week, my co-host Elie Mystal was going blind.
Elie Mystal: I can see now.
Joe Patrice: I’m glad that you got through that, it was kind of harrowing.
Elie Mystal: I had an emergency eye appointment, which doesn’t usually happen absent getting stabbed in the eye but I went in I need any glasses I went in for a checkup and they were just like your eye pressure is oh my goodness, so I’m like what does that mean? We don’t know, and I am like what the hell.
So to go in they were like glaucoma and this and I just have — I have high blood pressure and apparently I now I have high blood pressure in my eyes.
Joe Patrice: Yeah and part of it was the strain right because you haven’t gotten new glass.
Elie Mystal: Of living under Donald Trump, yes.
Joe Patrice: I meant the glasses part that you haven’t gotten new ones in years.
Elie Mystal: Yes, this is my first new pair of eyeglasses in five years, which they told me it was too long.
Joe Patrice: Yeah that is inherently long. You’re supposed to do that more often. Well, we’re glad that you’re not blind even though like the Nick Fury eye patch would have been cool.
Elie Mystal: Yes so I can see, you know what I saw this week.
Joe Patrice: Oh wow seamless masterful transition, yes.
Elie Mystal: It would have been better if I had seen it actually this week but actually I saw it last week.
Joe Patrice: So you’re letting the magic die.
Elie Mystal: Yeah, I’m all about keeping it real. The Supreme Court is about to ruin the census. I’m not sure if people are aware of this, exactly, I think most people are aware that right now there’s a case up for review. It’s been argued already in front of Supreme Court about whether or not the United States government can add a question to the census, they want to add a citizenship question just so people can check whether or not they are citizens.
Somewhat obviously, this is expected to lead to an undercount of predominantly Latino non-white Hispanic voters. People who are citizens but don’t want to give the government kind of anymore information on them, certainly people who are not citizens and don’t want to give the government any kind of information on them; even though that will not be true; even though there’s no ability for the government to use this information against you.
The thought is that this will scare people from filling out the census forms. One of the reasons why you need to fill out the census form is that even if you’re not a citizen, it counts. You get services, cities and counties and polities get services based on how many people are living in them, citizen or non-citizen.
So it’s important for services in your community for you to be counted but the Republicans don’t care and that’s where we got – guess what came out last week from a dead man’s hard drive, a former Republican operative who died, one of their key gerrymanders Thomas Hofeller, it came out that he wanted the citizens to question on the census specifically because he said it would increase the voting power of Republicans and non-white Hispanics.
He said that actually in an email for why they need to have the census question included, which is the complete opposite of the government’s argument defending the census. The government defended the census to the Supreme Court on the grounds that it would help Latino of voter counting. This is clear evidence that the intention is to hurt Latino representation and we don’t know what the Court is going to do.
Most likely the Court will not even agree that this evidence is part of the record since the case has already been argued and even though we now have direct evidence of discriminatory intent one of the things that the conservatives on the Court are fond of doing is finding alternate reasons for discriminatory laws to be constitutional, even if that is not the argument the government made.
And so, it’s entirely likely that in a close 5-4 decision, John Roberts and the rest of the conservative cronies will allow for a explicitly racist question to be included on the United States Census.
Joe Patrice: Cool.
Elie Mystal: That doesn’t seem to bother you as much as I was thinking about.
Joe Patrice: No, I mean it’s very bad. The census makes no sense it should be turned to statistical models which are more accurate anyway. But –
Elie Mystal: I totally agree that we should use this but that’s another Supreme Court interpretation. They’ve interpreted the Constitution as requiring direct counts as opposed to allowing for statistical sampling.
Joe Patrice: Oh yeah, yeah. No, it’s not good.
Elie Mystal: Yeah, so.
Joe Patrice: Cool. So this guy who died had this email.
Elie Mystal: Right it was on his hard drive.
Joe Patrice: Okay, so yeah so he’s not around anymore, so he’s not getting any messages that might be coming his way but if and I think you know where this is going, if you are missing calls, if you are spread too thin, interruptions kill your productivity, but clients demand a quick response, the US-based professional receptionist at Smith.ai help law firms screen new clients and schedule appointments by phone and website chat.
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That wasn’t as seamless as some of my transition.
Elie Mystal: Yeah because it’s hard to promote a messaging service for a dead guy.
Joe Patrice: Yeah true. But it’s interesting though there is a transition that is kind of more natural. We’re talking about emails and where they should be stored and so, one of things I wanted to talk to our guests today, we have Ryan Steadman from ZERØ. How are you?
Ryan Steadman: I am well. I’m well thank you Joe.
Joe Patrice: So I go to a lot of these tech shows, you don’t as much Elie, you cover other stuff but I go to these shows and I’ve been seeing this product over and over at shows and sitting down with folks and getting demos, and one of the things that I thought was interesting about it and why I kind of wanted to bring you all on today is to talk about we talk a lot about how technology is not being adopted by lawyers and their Luddites and yada, yada, yada.
But one of the things that I find about your solution and that kind of changes the way I think about it is one thing that you do is kind of take it out of the hands of a lawyer having to choose to adopt something by basically instead of showing a lawyer here’s a new thing you can do, you kind of make it, for lack of a better term, boring again as in you set up a system where it does it for you.
You don’t run, it kind of in the background fixes things so that you don’t need to be bothered with it. So can you explain a little bit about what your product does?
Ryan Steadman: Sure Joe. Absolutely so the design goal with ZERØ was to build an application that looks like behaves like and has very similar characteristics to an application that lawyers are typically very used to, and that is Apple Mail.
So we built an application that looks like Apple Mail, the only difference is that it is not Apple Mail, it’s a ZERØ Mail and if you consider the day in the life of a lawyer or any professional or knowledge worker, there’s a lot more things that they need to do by way of engaging with client correspondence, getting involved in a variety of phases, tasks, and activities in their day to day matter managements of working on behalf of clients.
And there were very few tools that were available to them that were engineered specifically for a day in the life of a lawyer. So we have built a piece of tech that isn’t difficult to understand because everyone knows what email is about. We typically interact with an enormous amount of information and a large part of that is delivered and consumed through email applications.
What we’ve done differently is introduce another layer of automation in the background that does things almost invisibly for lawyers so a couple of examples, the ability to file an email into a document management system. Everyone who has been practicing law or who is a practitioner would typically understand the requirements around compliance, good governance, collaboration, and sharing emails and documents with their colleagues and peers internally.
But there’s never been an easy way to file a simple email into a document management system on a mobile device. So that’s the starting point is the ability to — with a simple touch of a button have lawyers file emails for compliance purposes into the respective workspaces predictively and if you consider how many micro decisions, we’ll need to kind of make day-to-day, you can outsource that micro decision-making mechanism to a piece of tech.
It’s a good place and it’s an invisible place for well thought out technology to exist. That’s one use case. There are a handful of others of course.
Joe Patrice: Yeah so when I was a lawyer, you get a million-in-one emails and it’s your job to do one of two things either manually go through and take each of these emails and put them in the place where they’re supposed to be for record-keeping purposes or if you’re kind of tech savvy, you waste a lot of time setting up a rule that makes sure it goes to the right place but you’ve done that and that takes some time but at least it makes it automatic going forward.
And kind of what your system does with the help of kind of some learning, learning tech is it goes through and it kind of makes that decision for you. You get an email from somebody, it can figure out this is the general counsel from this matter, you’ve been working on this matter, we’re going to file it to this matter unless you tell us not to, which just kind of takes that task that used to be a big time suck for me and just kind of did it automatically.
Ryan Steadman: That’s precisely it. So if you remove some of the administrative friction that you’re describing from the day in the life of a lawyer, they can focus their time elsewhere on more value generating activities for clients, whether that be billing more or looking for other areas of value to engage their clients on, looking for potentially cross-sell or cross-working opportunities across the wider organization of their clients.
So those traditional administrative and cognitive drags don’t allow any lawyers to bill for their time and if you stand back for a second and figure out, what are the more profitable law firms doing when contrasted with their less profitable firms, the first camp of more profitable firms who are dynamic are investing in technology, they’re removing some of that manual administrative drag and outsourcing it to machines.
And those firms are largely more profitable not because they’re increasing their rates but because they’re capturing more billable time and they’re able to substantiate that as well.
Elie Mystal: Does it come with a shredder? Like because one of the things you’re always kind of worried about when you’re – the Luddite enemy right like I hear that the system is going to tell me where this needs to be filed and that should go — that should be attached to this case and that should go in that and maybe I don’t want all the client emails going to the file maybe.
There are a couple of them I want to make sure don’t end up in the file and that’s just on a need-to-know basis, you know what I’m saying. So like what kind of I guess the shredder is a joke but like what kind of opt-out do you have with the system to kind of tell the machine not to put something where it thinks it’s supposed to?
Ryan Steadman: It is entirely user driven. So what we learned very quickly in our journey after interviewing hundreds and hundreds of lawyers is that they always need to and ought to have the final say so with almost anything. So the choice to file an email into a certain location is entirely up to the user him or herself, simply by touching an icon.
Conversely, a lawyer is also able to change where that email should be filed if that’s what they want to do. So it’s certainly not forced onto the user. They do have that final touch on where that email does get filed ultimately.
Elie Mystal: That’s interesting. And then can you talk a little bit about the cybersecurity aspect of it, like what kind of – because put like this, one of the reasons why lawyers are always afraid of Gmail, Apple Mail and one of the reasons why Outlook has hung on for as long as it has is that as the feeling that Outlook is more secure. It’s not but we feel that it is and we’re always afraid that Gmail is going to put our confidential data just at all — once you put it up into the cloud, who knows where it goes.
So what kind of cybersecurity is built into the product?
Ryan Steadman: Well the application is on the user’s device. So ZERØ mobile email client is on the user’s device already. So it fits inside of the law firm security parameter and typically email is either on exchange which is inside of a law firms’ demilitarized zone or inside of a law firms’ perimeter or it is in the cloud.
So ZERØ doesn’t really need to be cybersecurity specific or defensive because it snaps in to the existing infrastructure of a law firm and law firms are spending hundreds of thousands, if not several millions of dollars a year ensuring that they have good cybersecurity systems in place.
How the application is deployed to users’ mobile devices is through typically a mobile device management solution, an MDM, and the application is containerized and highly secure based not just on the MDM security protocols but also it inherits the native Apple security protocols as well.
So the application is encrypted and of course, any other variations to an encryption like dual factor or multi-factor authentication is inherited by the application too, which is an important feature because not only are you having client matter details available on your iOS device but you’re also able to capture time spent interacting with those client related emails as an additional use case that ZERØ has so security has been one of the cornerstones of building the application because we know that it’s a very sensitive environment that the application is typically used in.
Elie Mystal: That makes a lot of sense. So how did you get into this? How did you come to realize that there is this market opportunity and problem with how lawyers sort their emails?
Ryan Steadman: Well I wish I could take some credit but in fact I can’t. Three of my good colleagues who are the three co-founders of the business have been involved in machine learning and building some very interesting tech for a number of years.
I’ll start off with one co-founders who in fact was the guy who developed the code for cancer image detection recognition on MRI devices and if you consider that no patient data should ever be shared with anyone, that’s where the embryonic idea started was basically building artificial intelligence or autonomous artificial intelligence on a device that could interrogate, understand, and recognize patterns.
So one of the co-founders had that concept principle and had built the code and one of the other co-founders recognized it was just this enormous problem with digesting and consuming email. And like I guess BlackBerry bought email to your pocket, Apple bought the Internet to your pocket, ZERØ has bought artificial intelligence to your pocket specifically dealing with an extraordinary amounts of data and a lot of the manual processes that lawyers typically spend time interacting with their emails; by way of filing emails, managing their inbox, creating time entries, so on and so forth.
So we like to think that we’ve had something to do with bringing AI to your pocket and because the artificial intelligence and the code is on the device itself, there’s no need for any backend infrastructure or cloud services which makes it even more secure than what you were describing earlier Joe by way of Gmail and it’s hackability.
Elie Mystal: Is there any interest in expanding into texting and WhatsApp and all that kind of stuff right because you know, it’s been a while since Joe and I were in the firm but I would imagine back in our day, when a client wanted to find you at 12 o’clock at night, they would email you.
And like you said you would have your BlackBerry and we used to call them Crackberries and that was your life. Now I imagine like as you get a really high profile client, they’ve got your number, I’m imagining they’re texting you, sometimes with literally important information on what appears to be the most insecure way possible.
So are there any interests – does the company have any interest in expanding into text management, is text management even a thing?
Ryan Steadman: That’s a great question and conceptually, I see we could potentially get there but the demand to file emails certainly supersedes the need to file emails. So right now we’re still perfecting parts of the application. We started with email, it’s evolved into the ability to automatically and passively capture time spent interacting with client related email.
There are a handful of other really interesting things that we do have on our roadmap and it’s largely driven by a client demand, which probably wouldn’t surprise you either. And we haven’t fielded many requests for filing text messages into DMS but it certainly is possible.
We’ll get there when the market indicates that we should start expanding some of the features of that.
Joe Patrice: Yeah, one thing you said about bringing AI to the pocket that kind of sticks with me is when you go to these shows and talk to lawyers, they’re scared of AI, it’s this thing they don’t really understand and they get spooked by it. And I think part of that is also that for years people built up AI as this hype machine that it was going to do all these things that isn’t really the practical way in which it works.
And one thing that’s useful about your system is, is it kind of shows what AI really is which is neither this world ending horrible thing that people need to be scared of that’s going to replace lawyers nor is it doing your legal job for you. It’s a tool and it’s a tool that can be used to give you some extra time.
And I think one thing that I kind of feel is that products like yours are in that line of steps that need to be taken for people to grow comfortable with the idea of artificial intelligence to understand kind of what it does and doesn’t do and that –
Ryan Steadman: Hey, just have a little AI, it’s not going to hurt your kid, it’s not going to hurt you.
Joe Patrice: It’s like when you go to some of these shows like there’s certain companies who are like oh just buy yourself some AI, as though that means I think but like it’s this practical how it can actually help you that is necessary to kind of get people comfortable I think.
Ryan Steadman: I entirely agree with you Joe. AI as a concept and as an academic principle is nothing new that’s been around for decades. The wrinkle in legal over the last X number of years is that it’s been kind of cool to say that you’ve invested in a piece of AI. It gives certain firms bragging rights, it lets Parkers market that to their clients and they look like the new kids on the block.
And but at the genesis of introducing AI to the legal industry, nobody could quite figure out precisely what problems it solved. So we kind of started the other way around when we started building ZERØ what are the problems that needs to be solved, let’s initiate some design led thinking and how we build the application.
And importantly let’s build something inside of an application that people are already familiar with and let’s start there and let’s start introducing some incremental changes, some incremental email technique changes, behavioral changes, and it’s also focused on giving some of the kind of meaning back to being a lawyer and what it’s about.
Being a lawyer isn’t about filing emails or managing your inbox or crafting or reconstructing time entries, it’s really about applying the faculties of your mind to client related problems. So that’s where we’ve had a lot of good interest and there’s a lot of trust in the application because it’s familiar and we’re just seeing a lot of adoption and increase in usage based on familiarity.
And when I mean familiarity, I mean the user interface, user experience, the ability to simply touch a button and to see what happens as a result within milliseconds. It’s not an AI big black box that nobody quite knows, what that tunnel or what that journey looks like, nobody knows if there are any ethical issues or issues of conflict when you have different packets of data landing in different parts of client related files.
It’s a very pure play piece of AI that does nothing more and nothing less than provide incremental change to users by way of automating and streamlining some of the business processes that they’re simply drowning by.
Email being one of the one largest issues according to a lot of recent research and studies; in particular the one recently by ILTA that email management is one of the biggest bugbears and burdens that are — I’d say I’d even go so far as to say creating some mental health issues.
The enormous strain of interacting with email, communicating by email and synthesizing that email and providing appropriate responses is overwhelming.
Elie Mystal: 00:23:17 I just have eyesight problems.
Joe Patrice: Yeah, yeah right, your issues are different. We don’t feel nearly as many emails anymore, very true, and I’ve seen the demo for this so I actually have some understanding of exactly how user-friendly it is. Most of the demos involve long text — long exchanges between Bond and Moneypenny in my experience but at least all the ones I’ve seen that’s been the set up so cool.
Well thanks for joining us and talking with us a little bit about what you’re doing in the AI in general.
Ryan Steadman: You’re welcome. You’re welcome. It’s very good to be part of your show and I appreciate the time and carving out an opportunity for us to share what we’re doing with you and your audience.
Joe Patrice: Of course, yeah, I’m sure I’ll see you all at a show soon, summers got a few of them.
Elie Mystal: Where is ILTA this year?
Joe Patrice: Orlando.
Elie Mystal: Orlando.
Joe Patrice: Yeah Disneyworld.
Elie Mystal: House of the mouse.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. It’s literally on — its like in the Swan, it’s like on Disney property so yeah, it’s going to be fun.
Elie Mystal: That’s awesome.
Joe Patrice: Anyway, so thanks for joining us. Thanks all of you for listening. Thanks to Smith.ai for sponsoring. You should be subscribed to the podcast, you should be giving it reviews, not just the stars, write something too that helps with the algorithm, pointing at people, more people to the show.
You should be listening to all the offerings of the Legal Talk Network. You should listen to the offerings of Above the Law podcast wise which we have the Jabot and I think another one coming, yeah, I don’t know if I can announce the other one. Anyway, so there’s more. So keep an eye out for it.
Be reading Above the Law, be following us on Twitter I’m @JosephPatrice, he is @ElieNYC and with all of that, we will talk to you next time.
Elie Mystal: Don’t go five years without getting glasses fixed.
Joe Patrice: True, true, all right. Bye.
The views expressed by the participants of this program are their own and do not represent the views of, nor are they endorsed by Legal Talk Network, its officers, directors, employees, agents, representatives, shareholders, and subsidiaries. None of the content should be considered legal advice. As always, consult a lawyer.
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