For many lawyers, it can be difficult to remember a time in which legal technology wasn't an integral part of their firms. Granted, as much as we love the simplicity that technology brings to our lives, it's the engineers behind the tech that we truly need to thank for transforming the way we work! AJ Shankar, CEO of Everlaw, is one of these engineers: a brilliant technologist who's changing the field of eDiscovery for the better:
Last week, we had the opportunity to sit down with AJ to discuss his rich background in engineering, his knack for entrepreneurship, and his path to building an eDiscovery tool that lawyers love:
Marissa: What inspired you to study technology and software engineering? How did you know it was more than a passing interest?
AJ: I was mostly a math guy in high school; I didn’t learn how to write code (other than BASIC and HTML) until college. The intro CS classes piqued my interest, and then I took the compilers class, in which you build a working compiler -- a program that transforms human code written in a normal programming language into machine code that a computer executes.
When you use a compiler, it feels like magic: you write things out in text, and the next thing you know, a piece of silicon with a billion transistors, running on electrical impulses, just does want you want. When I got to peek behind that veil, I was hooked.
Programming is also just intrinsically satisfying for me. The combination of creativity, elegance, logic, and the satisfaction of making something is incredibly compelling. It’s the best combination of math and art I could have hoped for.
Marissa: When and why did you decide to go into legal technology specifically?
AJ: I was a technical expert consultant for a law firm for a few years in the 2000s. It was then that I saw the massive volumes of evidence in large cases, and the fear and anxiety attorneys experienced wrestling with the stereotypically buggy, slow, and hard-to-use enterprise software they had purchased to deal with it. Meanwhile, I was pursuing my Ph.D. in Computer Science, and I knew firsthand what was possible with good software. So that got me thinking.
Marissa: It’s said that somewhere around 90% of startups end up failing (fast). What do you think it is about your team that led you to succeed, despite this overwhelming possibility of failure?
AJ: I wouldn’t say we’ve succeeded yet! It actually feels like we’re just getting started, in terms of our bigger vision. We got here, though, by focusing single-mindedly on building a product that our users love. We don’t really take shortcuts, and we have no super viral marketing campaigns or famous spokespeople. So it’s been pretty straightforward. I hope we’re able to continue in that vein.
Marissa: Individuals within the legal industry can sometimes be slow to adopt technology. Coming from a background in tech, what is your unique approach for helping legal professionals to embrace tech in the workplace?
AJ: The easiest thing to do is to remind them of how transformative technology has been to their personal lives. They should harbor those same expectations for their professional lives as well. A nice crossover is the smartphone: every lawyer intuitively understands how powerful and essential their iPhones or Androids are to their workflow when they’re on the go. What if they had similarly powerful technology at their fingertips in the office?
Marissa: If you had known how much work it was going to take to start and run a successful company, would you go back and do it all over again?
AJ: Oh definitely. The startup camaraderie, shared sense of purpose, opportunity to do something pretty unique, ability to directly and dramatically help our users -- all of these things are addicting. To me, it seems like it takes a lot more work to slog through a standard 9-5 job than it does to do this.
Marissa: A huge part of starting a company is investing in the right team that believes in your mission as strongly as you do. What kind of strategies do you employ to make sure that your team is always happy, healthy, and pushing the envelope?
AJ: Our team is by far the most important factor in achieving our mission, so we spend a lot of time making sure our work environment is really great. We have a shared vision, clearly-articulated company values, a lot of personal freedom, low meeting overhead, custom work environments (most people now use standing desks), lots of team activities, frequent communication between the development and business teams, transparency about successes and failures, and communal ownership of work product, so that everyone feels responsible for developing a great product and no single person is blamed for a failure.
We hope you've enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look at AJ's journey from law firm support to Everlaw (a journey that wasn't much different from Johnny's, our CEO, experience with MerusCase). If you have any lingering questions or thoughts, feel free to leave them in the comments below!