Alma Asay, Founder and CEO of Allegory
#BakersDozen is a series of interviews with leading professionals in the fields of law, consulting, finance, tech, and more.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be in (or a customer of) the legal business?
I didn’t intend to be a lawyer, I went to college to be an astrobiologist. However, I quickly discovered that it would require a lot of physics, which I didn’t love. At 17, I wasn’t sure what else I wanted to do, so I followed my cousin’s suggestion that I would be a good lawyer – I believe this was based on the fact that I won my first argument with him when I was two years old. In the end, I was fortunate to end up at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, where I got to practice with an incredibly talented group of people on fascinating cases. I loved practicing law, but ultimately, I was frustrated that so much of our lawyer time was spent on wrangling evidence and documents for our case. Through a series of fortuitous events, I had the opportunity to turn my ideas for a new litigation software – built specifically for lawyers – into a reality.
What do you do for a living right now?
I am the founder and CEO at Allegory. We built a litigation platform focused on connecting the pieces across the traditional practice of litigation and generally making lawyers’ and paralegals’ lives and work better. Now, we distribute Allegory to law firms and corporations across the country. I love answering this question because there was a time when I wasn’t sure we would get to the point where I could say I did this “for a living” (i.e., payday means the company pays me vs. the other way around).
What has been your greatest triumph and your greatest success in the legal services field and what did you learn from each?
My greatest triumph is each customer who reports back on how Allegory helped them stay on top of their case – in ways they couldn’t have without it – and to spend more time being the lawyer or paralegal they were trained to be. For a long time, it was tempting to listen to everyone who said that lawyers won’t use technology, the sales cycle in law firms is too long, and every other reason not to build or invest in a legal tech company. It was easy to focus on all of the reasons not to keep going – and there were plenty. Each new happy customer along the way has been a triumph that has kept me going and restored my faith in the importance of having confidence in yourself and following your intuition.
My greatest success is getting the company this far – to the point where it’s no longer just me and a single engineer hustling for that first client. Now, we have a whole team working to make Allegory succeed and some of the top law firms and lawyers in the world incorporating Allegory into their practice. On top of that, we now have industry leaders seeing the promise in what we’ve built and rallying around us by joining our team, partnering with us, and investing in our company. These are people to whom I’ve looked up along the way as having incredible vision and achieving success in the legal industry that seemed unimaginable to me at the time. For them to now see that promise in Allegory means a lot. To experience an idea grow into a real company with a product that generates revenue, gets talented people excited to be involved, and creates a positive experience for customers is an opportunity that not every startup achieves and I never take even the success of getting this far for granted. I’ve learned so much in getting to this point. Most importantly, I’ve learned to run toward, not away from, mistakes. Owning and learning from each mistake along the way has made our team and our product stronger, and driven our successes.
Educate yourself. Ask people what are the challenges, what are the risks of the career you want.
Do you think the legal industry is headed in the right direction, the wrong direction – or which direction?
I’m thrilled to say I think it’s headed in the right direction. That doesn’t mean there won’t still be casualties along the way – there is a long way left to go and a lot of people in the profession who are still so caught up in the day-to-day that they are missing the seachange. But I have seen a noticeable shift between when I started working in legal tech over four years ago to today. More and more law firms and lawyers are embracing – and actively seeking out – new technology and ways of practice. Over time, as more examples exist of successfully employing alternative legal services, there is an ever-growing volume of data and evangelists to substantiate the benefits of innovating legal practice – and it’s catching the attention of senior management in law firms, a necessary step to drive meaningful change.
Who – or what – inspires you – and why?
My team inspires me. Every person on our team could have their pick of jobs, but they chose Allegory. It’s one thing to take a risk to pursue your own dream, it’s a whole other thing for these incredibly talented people to take this journey with me. Their leap of faith and the way they tackle new challenges every day inspire me to make Allegory the best it can be. Without my team, there is no Allegory, there are no happy customers, and there is no opportunity to see what Allegory can be.
What advice would you give to the younger generation contemplating law as a career?
Educate yourself. Ask people what are the challenges, what are the risks of the career you want. Ask them whether, knowing what they know now, they would do it all again. If you aren’t hearing things you don’t want to hear, then you need to push harder – or ask more people. If you still want to proceed after hearing all of the risks and challenges, then go for it. I’m very fortunate to have had amazing opportunities as a lawyer and now an entrepreneur, but I wish I had known more going into both.
How ready for change do you think the legal industry is?
The legal industry is far more ready for change now than it was even two years ago. I used to attend conferences about innovation and the rooms were full of the same faces talking about how lawyers were “just going to have to change.” Now, there are more and more outside counsel and corporate counsel not only attending conferences, but driving the conversation forward. The rise of organizations like CLOC is indicative of this shift. If you’re in the weeds – meeting with lawyers every day – you definitely still encounter pushback, but you also see how pervasive the push on innovation has become. Recently, a senior partner at a big law firm told me about a talk the Chairman-Elect of the firm had given, laying out the priorities for 2017, which were all centered around innovation. Repeatedly, big firms like this are now asking us questions about how we can/would deploy Allegory firmwide – that wasn’t even on the table before. I think lawyers and paralegals on the ground have been ready for change for awhile – it can be straight up painful to be practicing law in a 21st century world with 21st century amounts of information, using 20th century ways of practice. Thankfully, law firm leadership is finally catching up on the consequences of not encouraging change – and stepping up to drive that change.
Is more – or different – leadership required? In what ways?
More leadership is required from within. Lawyers have a tendency to get caught up in their bubble and are naturally risk averse, so while they may want change, they need that mandate (or, at least, support) from the top in order to comfortably embrace it. When I was at Gibson Dunn, we were required to enter our time on a weekly basis. I didn’t always do that. At some point, the executive director of the firm started personally calling me the morning after time entries were due to ask why mine weren’t submitted. Guess what? I started getting my time entered on time. Once senior leadership is on board, things will change. I don’t think we necessarily need to look to different leadership – current leadership can drive change if we can effectively communicate with them and help them see not only problems, but also solutions.
How deep do you think will be the inroads of technology in the industry?
Technology in the legal industry will make the same inroads that technology has made in our every day lives. Does it replace everything we do? No (well, not yet). But it does enable us to stay connected and be more efficient and effective at pretty much everything that we do. It’s inevitable that, with the growth of information, the industry will reach that tipping point where even the most hesitant lawyer will realize that it’s no longer feasible, ethical, or responsible to practice without technology. Already, you see the ABA coming out with ethical opinions advising lawyers to keep abreast of new technology and states pushing deeper inroads for technology in law, such as Florida implementing the first technology CLE requirement for lawyers.
In ten years, do you see an industry much as it is – or do you see new players, new technology and an altered state?
New players and new technology for sure. I’m not so sure about an altered state. To me, it’s more about returning lawyers to the state of how they practiced before the rise of technology resulted in information overload. Once upon a time, lawyers actually practiced law. That will happen again as a result of new players and new technology to absorb all of the non-lawyer work that has arisen out of so much more information. Once the technology to support lawyers catches up with the amount of information created by technology, then lawyers will be free to practice again – the same way that the adoption of tools like Westlaw caused lawyers not to enter an altered state with respect to conducting legal research, but rather, enabled them to go back to doing effective, comprehensive legal research even as the volume of cases continued to grow. My goal – for my own company, as well as the industry – is to enable lawyers to be lawyers again.
Are consultants and lawyers looking increasingly similar? Should the distinction continue?
There is still a distinction between lawyers who are truly practicing law and consultants who take on the non-lawyer activities necessary to legal practice. The problem, I believe, is more centered around the fact that lawyers have been forced to do a lot of things (e.g., project management, information governance) that they’ve never been trained to do. This is a result of changes brought on by technology, including bigger cases and bigger teams. So, while there is a growing role for consultants to do what lawyers have ended up doing, I think there is still a valid distinction when it comes to true traditional legal work.
What are your thoughts on the increasing availability of data to guide client-side procurement of legal services?
The availability of data to guide these decisions is a double-edged sword. It’s terrific for giving clients some frame of reference against which to compare law firms. However, there is still an enormous human element to law and, particularly with something that can be as emotionally charged as a litigation, relationships matter. The best lawyer on paper might not be the right fit for an engagement if the client and the lawyer aren’t going to get along.
Lawyers have typically regulated to keep non-lawyer investors out but that’s a two-edged sword these days. What are your thoughts?
There is a misalignment between regulating non-lawyers from meaningfully participating in law firms / legal practice and the desire to shield the public from non-lawyers being involved in the practice law. I believe lawyers could actually be better at practicing law if we freed up their time and expertise to focus on that – by allowing non-lawyers to contribute their own expertise as true equals in a practice. In many ways, this could also be great for clients, as it would drive change and promote more efficient legal services. The focus should be less on who the investors are and more on ensuring that proper oversight is in place to protect the public from unethical legal services. After all, unethical practices by law firms occur even without non-lawyers involved.
What’s the one most significant factor that will drive change in your view?
Success stories. The more that lawyers hear success stories from others who did adopt change, the more they will feel fearful of falling behind and drive change within their own practices. In addition to setting a precedent, it also provides a blueprint for how the next wave of law firms and lawyers can succeed – rather than just throwing the problems in lawyers’ faces without any concrete solutions.
Are we seeing the demise of the “profession” and the real emergence of the “business” of law?
We are seeing the emergence of the “business” of law as more law firms and lawyers – including, importantly, at the more junior levels – awaken to the fact that you can’t practice law in a vacuum anymore. However, I don’t think this requires the demise of the “profession.” Lawyers are just as much needed as they ever were. True professionals who learn how to market themselves as such will have the best of both worlds – the business and the profession.
The more that lawyers hear success stories from others who did adopt change, the more they will feel fearful of falling behind and drive change within their own practices.
What do you consider is the greatest challenge facing the industry?
The lag that results when clients aren’t asking for change and senior partners are resisting it. It’s almost as if both sides are waiting for the other to approach and have it all figured out. The result is a lose-lose, as both corporations and law firms will be surpassed by competitors that are driving change. The challenge is to see corporations and law firms work together to drive change, each acting proactively instead of waiting to have their hand forced.
What do you see as the greatest opportunity for the sector looking forward?
With the growth of legal technology, the tools are finally available for lawyers to bring their practice into the modern day. For so long, there simply weren’t options. When I was at Gibson Dunn, I might have wanted a better way, but no one had built it, so I was stuck with Excel. Now, there are so many companies out there working hard to deliver lawyers technology and other options for improving their practice. This creates a concrete opportunity for the sector to embrace change without having to build the change themselves.
Do you think law can improve its track record on diversity and inclusion? How?
I absolutely believe that law can improve its track record on diversity and inclusion. On the retention front, law firms need to be more open to alternative ways of practice and ask junior lawyers outright – what will we need to do to keep you? It’s never going to work if the mandate is that lawyers be breadwinners able to be in the office 24/7 with someone else on call at home. Junior lawyers also need to speak up and offer senior management solutions – “this is what will work for me.” I believe senior management is more open to hearing their ideas than some junior lawyers think, but you have to speak up. On the recruiting front, there is no question to me that many lawyers need to be more open-minded with respect to what makes a great lawyer. It’s very often not a straight-A student with a background similar to theirs. Time and time again, when I was practicing, I saw that the skills that made great lawyers often had more to do with their life skills than with their law school grades – skills like common sense and hustle. Not coincidentally, these are often the skills that it takes a diverse candidate to get themselves into law school in the first place. Finally, diverse lawyers who already have succeeded are a critical part of the solution. As a woman, there was simply no replacement for seeing other women like me succeeding within the practice of law. It’s incredibly difficult to succeed if there aren’t people like you to pick from as mentors.
Will the current regulatory framework around law help or hinder it in the future
Hinder it. Lawyers are naturally rule followers and risk averse, so when you have regulations out there that are out of touch with the modern world, then you will inevitably have a profession that is out of date.
Who do you think are the greatest influencers on the industry these days?
The senior lawyers within corporations and law firms who are driving change. These are the people who have the power to make change happen. They’re also often the people thought to be least likely to be agents of change, so it makes them all the more influential when they not only embrace change, but make it work in a concrete way.
If you had to do it all over again, would you? Or what would you do differently?
My answer to this question is always “maybe.” I ran into all of this head first. I’m so glad for where life has taken me and I have no regrets, but if I knew in advance what it would take to get here and what I would have to give up, then I may have chosen a different path and can imagine being happy having made other decisions as well.
If a law firm was a startup pitching for investors, would you be an investor?
Depends which law firm. There are some law firms – often, regional BigLaw firms that aren’t on the “most prestigious” radar – that I think are incredibly smart about how to tackle legal services efficiently and effectively. These firms are likely to take the legal world by storm as more law firms open their eyes to how the world is changing and try to self-correct too late. Any firm where the lawyers think the billable hour is the only way to make money is not a firm in which I would invest.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
If I wasn’t doing this, I would be working for volunteer programs around the world – particularly, working in primary schools and with wildlife. It’s something I started doing right as I was leaving Gibson Dunn and thought would be my next endeavor. Instead, I started hashing out ideas for a new litigation program with some engineers and found myself building Allegory.
What would you like to be known for?
I would like to be known for being trustworthy. We not only have a better world, but also better business, when there is a reliable element of trust in your transactions with people. It takes too long to get anything done if people can’t rely on what you say.
What would surprise everyone if they knew?
I’m an enormous introvert. People who are close to me know this, but others are often surprised to hear it. I’ve had to put a lot of effort into learning how to be a better extrovert in order to build Allegory (including more public speaking to date than I once thought I would do in a lifetime).
What’s your favorite hobby or activity outside of law?
Travel and photography. I wish more people visited other countries and connected with wildlife and understood how others around the world live. To me, there is nothing more powerful to reset your perspective than travel that truly entrenches you in another way of life.
What’s your favorite sports team?
The Baltimore Orioles – I grew up rooting for them and going to baseball games at Camden Yards.
What’s your favorite city?
This is a really tough question – there are things I love (and don’t love) about so many cities. In traveling across the U.S. a few times, there were two cities that stood out to me for their character and where I’ve always wanted the opportunity to stay longer – New Orleans and Nashville.
What’s your favorite food?
French toast with whole wheat challah bread, powdered sugar, and real maple syrup. It’s one of the only dishes I know how to make.
What’s your nickname – and why?
Allie – this was the nickname my mom used for me when I was little and it stuck with my extended family. However, no one in my immediate family (or outside my extended family) uses it anymore because I decided when I was five years old that I was too old for a nickname and put a stop to it. Now, I like it.
Alma Asay is the Founder and CEO of Allegory (allegorylaw.com). Allegory is a cloud-based collaborative litigation platform used by many of the most prestigious law firms, corporations, and government agencies in the United States. Before founding Allegory, Alma was a litigator at top law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, where she regularly served as second-chair on complex, high-stakes cases, including for IAC/InterActiveCorp, NBC Universal, Cablevision, and AMC Networks. Alma is one of the first and only female BigLaw lawyers to found a legal technology startup, and was recently named by the ABA’s Legal Technology Resource Center as one of 50 “Women of Legal Tech.” She earned her J.D. from New York University School of Law.
The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee, and not of their affiliated organizations or of High Performance Counsel.