Nicole Clark is the Co-Founder and CEO at Trellis Research Inc. She was an Associate at Newmeyer & Dillion...
Joe Patrice is an Editor at Above the Law. For over a decade, he practiced as a litigator at...
For all the deserved guff we give PACER and its archaic nickel and diming (mostly diming), the federal system has always been much easier to navigate thanks to its orderly filing system. State courts can get messy fast. This week, we chat with Nicole Clark, the Founder and CEO of Trellis, who is taking state court documents and turning them into the sort of structured data that can easily yield intel on the wild system of state courts.
Special thanks to our sponsor, Logikcull.
Above The Law – Thinking like A Lawyer
Searching The Unknown Reaches Of The State Docket
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 and welcome to another edition of Thinking Like a Lawyer. I am Joe Patrice from Above the Law, coming to you with a brand new microphone that has already crashed the computer once so there is no telling what will happen in the next few minutes, but we are hopeful that this is going to work for the rest of the go.
As you may have been following on Above the Law, we have been busily covering law firm layoffs and Bar exam changes and so on, but we are going to talk about something a little bit different today, something a little bit more hopeful. We are going to talk about some new services that are out there that can help out lawyers.
But before we do I want to focus on a different service out there to help lawyers, which is to say, trying to cut costs? You are not alone. In today’s climate a five-figure e-discovery bill per month is steep. Don’t pay that. Use Logikcull to reduce expense and control your discovery process. Get started today for only $250 per matter and they will waive migration costs from competing platforms. For more information, visit logikcull.com/ltn.
Well, today I am going to be talking about something a little bit different. Joining me is Nicole Clark. She is the Founder and CEO of Trellis and well, welcome to the show.
Nicole Clark: Thanks so much Joe. Great to be here.
Joe Patrice: I was about to say and what that is and talk about it a bit, but that seems like I am really kind of stealing your thunder. So I guess first of all, tell us a little bit about Trellis and what it offers.
Nicole Clark: Sure. So Trellis is a state trial court research and analytics platform. It allows lawyers to get insights and analytics at the state trial court level, which has historically been the data that is impossible to access. So it’s a little bit about what we do.
Joe Patrice: So yeah, state court is one of those areas that is something of a black hole when it comes to keeping track of stuff I find, and not that the court system as a whole is caught up on every — is the most technologically advanced in the universe, but when it comes down to it I have always felt as though when I practiced federally I could find things, if I went to state court I remember showing up once to a state hearing for the first time and I felt like what was this place, there were people standing all over the place, there was yelling, there was like cattle calls going on, everything was in paper. I didn’t know what was going on.
And how do you go about getting everything put together to offer somebody the ability to find out what’s going on at the state level?
Nicole Clark: Absolutely. Well, you are absolutely right that the state trial courts are really a mess in terms of every separate county court hosts their data separately, maintains it separately. So sort of every borough in New York would have a separate data platform and a separate website and then the same through all the counties in the other states and there is nothing integrated.
You are right at the federal level there is, right, there is PACER, where you can log on and you can search across the federal courts through one platform. But the state courts you are lucky if you can log on to a singular website for one of the county courts and get access to information, let alone trying to access multiple county courts through one portal.
And so that’s really what Trellis does, it allows you to search across state trial courts. And we do the hard work of aggregating that data. So you are right that it’s not easy. Basically what we have to do is we get our data from every separate county court.
So for instance, if we are going to talk about California for a moment, Los Angeles Superior Court is separate from San Francisco Superior Court, from San Diego, so every county is separate and we have to really code into each county and then from thereon the data comes in automatically.
But the difficult part isn’t really the accessing the data in the first place, it’s really bringing that data in, that messy raw data from all of these different counties and then structuring it and classifying it so that you can actually make meaning of this data and really do some deeper analysis. So it’s a county by county effort, I can tell you that.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. Well, when you say county by county I think for some listeners out there they say oh, counties, that’s no big deal, but I think it’s worth pointing out that like Los Angeles County is bigger than almost all the states I think, right?
Nicole Clark: Oh, absolutely. It’s three times the volume of any other court and yeah, there is a huge amount of litigation. In fact, New York and California alone make up a quarter of all of the lawyers in the nation, so there is a massive amount of litigation going on in these two states; poor California and New York for having so many lawyers.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. New York has the benefit at least at the state level of having New York City broken up amongst five counties as opposed to LA, where everything is this one massive monolithic court that is churning out; I heard a stat a while ago and I can’t remember it off the top my head, but it was in the order of thousands of lawsuits all the time going on in Los Angeles County alone and just the ability to get all the stuff, but as you said to structure it in a meaningful way, which I don’t think — I don’t know as though everybody understands the importance of that because we have — those of us who are of like my age remember that transition time where you would get documents and you would have to kind of — you would close your eyes and go oh please, oh please, oh please and maybe you could highlight individual words and you are like oh yes, there is some sort of structure here as opposed to it being just a picture.
Because it used to be you would scan these things and they were all lovely if you could look at them, but you couldn’t get anything out of it without any kind of — optical character recognition wasn’t really prolific and it was something that was nice and that you could email it, but it was useless in a real way.
And I think a younger set of lawyers don’t quite get that world because everything gets — more or less everything gets recognized these days, but you are dealing with a lot of documents that probably haven’t been that you have got to tackle some of that work.
Nicole Clark: Absolutely. It’s interesting because in New York in particular one of the things that we notice is that judges will actually just sort of write granted on the motion and then upload that as an image. And then on our end we have to figure out okay, what is this image, what was the outcome of this motion, and all of that work, that does require the underlying document to be structured in such a way that we can read it, that you can OCR it, that you can find specific words, so there is no doubt that it’s not only the difficulty of bringing in data from various different places, but it’s also the format that that data comes in, is in every format you can imagine. So from PDF, to HTML, to contained in Word documents. I mean if you can imagine a format that data exists, there is a court out there somewhere that is releasing their data in that format.
Joe Patrice: Well, and I don’t know about California nearly as much, if it’s anything like New York, it was the sort of situation where it wasn’t even standardized within the courthouse that I was in how documents were coming in. It was very much a judge by judge fiefdom situation of, I prefer PDF so I want them as TIFFs. I don’t know if California has the same sort of Wild West take.
Nicole Clark: 100% I can tell you that that phrase, the sort of king of their own fiefdom is one that we say often and it refers not only to specific judges, but even to their specific clerks that are inputting that information sometimes. So it can sometimes be separate by clerk even for the same judge.
Joe Patrice: Wow. Yeah, I mean that’s just a herculean undertaking, but it’s one that anybody who has to practice in those areas is going to have to be super appreciative of because the ability to get that data and run searches on it and figure out what they need from it is just priceless really.
Nicole Clark: Well, absolutely. I can tell you that really I was a litigator prior to starting Trellis and what being able to access the data did for my practice was astounding. It was an absolute game changer for me and that was really part of this recognition that this data gets a massive competitive advantage and if it was helpful to me as a litigator, I knew it would be helpful for other litigators.
And I found myself litigating a lot at the state court level and just with my mind blown prior to Trellis that there wasn’t any good way to be able to access this information, to be able to see not only how appellate judges are ruling on specific issues, but what about the judge that I am appearing before, how do they think about this specific legal issue. And so it’s a whole new set of data and a whole new way for lawyers to really think strategically about their cases, to be able to have access to the practical information about the way that trial court judges are ruling.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. Well, let’s transition there. So I have always been interested in the story, especially for those of my listeners here who are pre-law or just starting out in the legal world, that jump, that jump that takes you from I am practicing, to wait a minute, I can do something else in the legal field still utilizing my legal training but that’s just something other than practice. Tell us about your story of going from I am a litigator to I am the guru of getting all this data structured?
Nicole Clark: So it was very much born out of my own necessity to try to sort of hack my own way to access this data to help my practice. So I can tell you when I started out litigating, I very much thought that that was my only option. I thought okay, you litigate and if you are not happy with the way things are going then you switch firms, and came to realize after a variety of different firms that it is a little bit of the profession that is the problem and it’s not necessarily firm-specific.
And in the profession being a problem, one of those is just sort of the archaic way that lawyers practice and the sort of historical resistance to data and technology. And the way that it sort of unfolded for me was that I happened to have incredibly brilliant engineer, software developer friends and I was continuously complaining about the fact that I really didn’t have a better way than emailing internally at my firm to ask the other litigators if they had had any experience before a particular judge.
And it just always blew my mind that lawyers are sourcing strategic information through internal anecdotes and there is so much data out there and this is an industry with such great resources and here we are relying on anecdotal emails.
And so it was one day that I was complaining to one of my colleagues actually, I was writing a motion for summary judgment and it was just one of those all-nighters, so I started complaining to my colleague that it was a particularly complex issue. I wasn’t sure how I should structure this motion and I wasn’t sure how to organize it. And my colleague said to me that he thought he had actually appeared before my same judge a couple of years earlier and we went back and we checked the file and lo and behold my colleague had not only appeared before my same judge, but he had a ruling by my judge, on my issue, on my motion, and for me that was absolutely the light bulb moment of this realization that there is all this data out there, how was it possible that as a litigator at a large firm I didn’t have access to be able to search rulings by my judge.
And so it was there that I just recognized that there was a gap in the market in terms of no one was really properly aggregating and analyzing state trial court data. And when I used that ruling that my colleague had provided to me I won my motion. I wrote it in half the time. I was able to see exactly the way the judge thinks about the issue and the case law the judge prefers and really target and tailor my motion to my judge. And so that was the impetus for the beginning of starting to collect trial court data.
And what we did for actually a number of years before I jumped from practice was we really just gathered a meaningful dataset and I continued to practice during that time, because I wanted to make sure that this was really going to have a significant value proposition if I was going to give up litigating and it went on to dramatically change my practice. I became something of a champion at the firm for winning motions. So that’s what gave me the courage to jump, because it just became very clear to me that this was such a competitive advantage to have access to this data. And not only data on your judge, but also data on opposing counsel and their trial court cases and the way that they litigate and how often they take certain cases to trial. So there is so much information in here that really allowed me to have Intel that allowed me to better advocate for the client.
And so with that history of a couple of years of the data helping me to win, that’s what gave me the courage to jump away from litigation and know that I could use my domain expertise to build a product that was going to help lawyers litigate better. So that’s how we are here.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. You can’t really emphasize enough the importance that data has on this generation of technological advancement amongst law. I mean, we went through where different kinds of technology were valuable. We invented Word processors yadi, yadi, yada, but this really is something of the data generation of tech advancement. Whether or not you’re dealing with, I mean, the hype meter that people talk about with Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, though it’s important to remember that even with that technology it’s not the AI part that’s important it’s the data part, because the AI is only as smart as the data you’re plugging into it.
Nicole Clark: That’s very, very true. Garbage in garbage out, there is a saying goes. So, no, that’s a great point.
Joe Patrice: And that’s I think the next few years of legal tech development are really about this data game and figuring out not only what data that you need, how to structure it well, but how to access it? All of these questions about how to take the mind product of people and turn it into something that you can utilize, that’s what AI is all about not robot lawyers really, and that’s you know like —
Nicole Clark: So true, so true. And I think it’s an important thing for lawyers to remember that particularly litigation I just — it’s such a nuance to area of practice. I do not see there ever being a situation where robots are going to be able to take the jobs from litigators, but what AI can do is provide much better tools that allow litigators to focus on what actually adds value to a case instead of wrote legal research that is basic, but because of the way that the historical platforms are developed it’s just impossible to find information. So it takes a long time and you waste your client’s time and money and there’s got to be a better way.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. One of the examples — the example you’re using about you and your colleague dealing with the one judge is really, really demonstrates this, because if I were to write a motion on a certain issue. I could waste client’s time and money reading a million in one cases or I can read the six times the judge in question dealt with that issue and figure out, you know what, only quotes six cases, every time this issues comes up, it’s the same six ones, it’s not necessarily the six ones that come up first when you type-in your Westlaw search or your Lexis search, but these are the six that this judge believes, because judges have idiosyncrasies, they see this all the time, they’ve decided these are the six cases they like, and knowing that is valuable, like you don’t have to read every case if these six are the ones that get you to where you need to be.
Nicole Clark: No, and in fact you really shouldn’t. What matters is understanding the way that your judge thinks about the issue, it would be fabulous if there was one answer, and all of the judges relied on a specific appellate court case for a specific legal issue, it’s just not the case, it’s a human at the end of the day making the decision and humans are fallible and different judges can decide the exact same issue entirely differently.
And so what Trellis does is allow you from the very start of your case you can jump on, you can immediately see, okay, what is, do I have case-dispositive issues here, let’s see how my judge has ruled on those issues in the past and you should be doing that from the start of your case. And then from there, now you have the appellate case that your judge thinks is persuasive, you can start to dig in there but you don’t need to go about it in the same way that you would think about writing any motion, because you’re writing a motion to a specific person and they have tendencies and any way that you can get in front of that and know that is going to be better for your client.
Joe Patrice: Well, we started off by talking about Los Angeles County and San Francisco, so where are you up and running at this point and where are you moving toward and expanding? Give us some insight on that.
Nicole Clark: Absolutely. So we are up and running in California, all across California. We have 93% of all of the data coverage by population and we are very shortly going to be releasing in New York. So we’re looking at right around a June release for access for our New York litigators and then shortly after that within 30 days or so we’ll also be live in both Texas and Florida.
So I can tell you for this Coronavirus time for us we are aggressively going after data acquisition and how we can launch and help attorneys in other markets as quickly as possible.
Joe Patrice: Now, I mean, with those — all of those states then you’ve covered almost all the litigation and —
Nicole Clark: You know it is.
Joe Patrice: Yeah.
Nicole Clark: They weren’t just picked out of a box. We definitely go by highest volume of litigation most litigious states to make sure that we’re going to come in and really add value very, very quickly and then ultimately for us to be nationwide, but really going after where all of the litigation is historically taking place as quickly as possible.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. Wow. And yeah, the only thing that would make me think that the lockdown would have slowed you down would have been if you had to coordinate with a county courthouse in some way, but otherwise this is a great time.
Nicole Clark: It’s very true. So there are situations where it’s relationships with courts and that is only slowed down to the extent that obviously what courts aren’t in session. There are cases just piling up and not being ruled upon and so the data is not flowing in that way, but I think we both know there is going to be a massive jump in litigation when we come out of this.
So I see there being even more of a need for it in the months following when we re-emerge because there is just going to be such a slew of litigation that is going to be coming out of this that we’ll be able to help with.
Joe Patrice: Yeah. I mean, one of the biggest will be — I’ve been having conversations with people with lawyers about preparing for the business interruption insurance battle, because there’s a lot of policies out there that don’t have carve-outs for pandemics and the insurers are going to be arguing that they should, and so this is going to be a lot.
Nicole Clark: Absolutely, that’s a great point and because insurance issues are heavily litigated at the state court level, we’re excellent for looking at prior bad faith cases and coverage cases and getting your bearing for how to bring these cases or how to defend them in the first place.
The other thing that you made me think about was that even though the courts are closed right now and so there was a little bit of a slowdown in terms of the urgency to move cases forward or to get ready for your next hearing, it’s actually an interesting time right now where we’re having an easier time training our clients. So we’re having an easier time getting everyone on webinars, because you’re your home and you’re doing things, and so it’s almost this little reprieve where if lawyers could sit down and get ahead of their cases when things come back and start pummeling down again then they’ll be ahead of the game and they’ll be prepared. And so, if you take advantage of this opportunity right now, it could really position you to be successful on the upswing.
Joe Patrice: Yeah, it’s very interesting. So this is unrelated to anything directly questioned, but it relates to something else that came up today, which is for products like there is a lot of we often go to trade shows and talk to lawyers who are in the market and it seems like a lot of shows like that are probably not going to happen in the very near future.
Have you been doing any virtual conferences or virtual reach out and stuff and how have you been finding the adaptation to making sales and presentations online with that, because I’ve been talking to people in various sectors about this, and I think it’s a fascinating kind of joint learning experience everybody is going through. So even though that wasn’t really the topic of conversation today since I saw today that another major trade conference may have to be virtual, I thought, well, I should see how other people are dealing with it.
Nicole Clark: Sure, and I think that’s a perfect way to describe it, it’s a joint learning experience or adventure. Certainly we came off a variety of trade shows recently with probably legal week being one of the last ones and there’s no question that I think it will be some time before we have conferences in mass like that again and there’s a variety of conferences even coming up some that I’m speaking at where we don’t know yet if they’re going to be virtual, but we can probably expect that there’s a high probability.
So I haven’t yet participated in any of the virtual conferences and I’m really interested to like you said joint learning experience to see how that works to see how customers are able to interact and if we’re able to start meaningful conversations, I think it will — it’s a start of a whole new thing and I think if you’re able to adapt and that the technology is useful in that sense it could really change the way that we go about having conferences in the first place, but just in terms of rolling out to our customers right now one of the — just as a sort of comedic line here — what has really been surprising to me is, we came from it being incredibly difficult for us to get partners just to figure out how to click on a Zoom link or to open up sort of your Google Hangouts.
And it generally involved setting the appointment of all of the information would be in the calendar invite, but then we’d have to give them a call and walk them through because the lawyers just historically had not utilized any of these videoconferencing options. And what we’re seeing now is that lawyers are being sort of rushed into the 21st Century, if you will, and are finally adopting some of these technologies that I do believe are going to change the way that lawyers think about practicing. The sooner that they adopt and then become comfortable with this technology the more likely they are to roll it out in other areas of practice. So I do believe there’s a little bit of a fundamental shift with technology happening right now.
Joe Patrice: There definitely is and I will say I had a conversation with a relatively senior lawyer someone in their late 70s and we were chatting and he said, you know, I never really would have believed it, but this Zoom thing is really easy to use, and it’s really like the necessity of it has brought everybody around to the idea that we need to figure it out and to a lot of different not just Zoom but other teams and all these other hangouts and all these other conferencing tools they are straightforward enough that the — even the legal community is finding it easy to use as hard is that — is to believe.
Nicole Clark: Exactly.
Joe Patrice: Well, great. Thanks so much for joining us. I see we’re like coming — closing in on the end of our time here. I don’t know if you have any parting words or —
Nicole Clark: Well, we certainly love lawyers to check out Trellis and see how it can change your practice if you’re a state court practitioner. You can find us at trellis.law and we’re also offering sort of a COVID special. We want to help firms that are having a little bit of financial trouble or have some sort of a gap in their operations and we’d love to give firms a 30-day free trial to get comfortable and see what’s out there and see how much it can change your practice. So you can feel free to reach out to us at [email protected].
Joe Patrice: Great. Well, thanks Nicole for joining us today. That was great and good to hear something that’s not just another thing — not another bunch of people being fired or anything like that.
Nicole Clark: Another — yes, exactly, more bad news. No, there’s hope — there’s hope for the profession.
Joe Patrice: Yeah, exactly. Well so, again, thanks for joining and thanks all of you for listening. If you aren’t already subscribed to the show you should do that, you should leave reviews, you should write something in that review because just the act of writing words rather than giving it a simple star helps out as far as the ranking of shows within their search category. See more of that data issue that we were talking about earlier.
You should listening to the other shows, The Jabot, which Kathryn Rubino hosts and you should listen to the other LTN offerings. You should be following abovethelaw.com to read datedly updates on all the bad news mostly. Well, some good news, but mostly the bad news going on right now. You should be following me on Twitter @JosephPatrice, which is also some of that, but also some scattering other thoughts. And with all of that said thanks to Logikcull for sponsoring the episode and we will chat with you again next week.
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