The Legal Helm: Episode #16
Estimated read time: 23 minutes
In today’s episode of The Legal Helm, we talk with Nathan Walter, CEO of Briefpoint, an AI-based platform that facilitates end-to-end litigation document automation. Nate and Bim discuss how lawyers can better serve their clients by doing less. They also talk about fractals, video games, and why big law firms should be cognizant of smaller firms going forward.
Bim Dave is Helm360’s Executive Vice President. With 15+ years in the legal industry, his keen understanding of how law firms and lawyers use technology has propelled Helm360 to the industry’s forefront. A technical expert with a penchant for developing solutions that improve business systems and user experience, Bim has a knack for bringing high quality IT architects and developers together to create innovative, useable solutions to the legal arena.
Nathan Walter is the CEO and non-technical co-founder of Briefpoint, a company focused on helping attorneys automate their litigation documentation workflow. After graduating from UCLA Law, Nathan practiced litigation for five years and currently works with Stanford’s CodeX Center for Legal Informatics in discovering novel applications for machine generated legal documents (MGLD).
Bim: Hello Legal Helm listeners. Today we are talking with Nate Walter, CEO and co-founder of Briefpoint, a platform that facilitates end-to-end litigation document automation. Today’s topic is really around litigation lawyers and how they can benefit from legal technology solutions, but also talking about legal technology generally.
So, Nate, welcome to the show. Thank you for taking time to talk to me today. You’ve had a very interesting journey in terms of your path to getting to Briefpoint. I’d love for you to walk us through your journey so far. I’d love to hear more about what I’ve heard through the grapevine around some comedy that might be in there, some standup comedy. So please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you ended up at Briefpoint.
Nate: Sure. And just let me say, thank you so much for having me. I’m a big fan of Legal Helm and it’s a huge honor to be here talking with you today, Bim.
As far as my journey, I started off in UCLA law and yes I was doing standup comedy at the same time I was doing law school. I was an open mic-er, so I, I would never consider myself a standup comic.
I was getting paid sometimes, but it was not a career. That’s incredibly difficult. You have to make a ton of sacrifices to do that.
I was really interested in doing public defense. Ultimately, I clerked with the DA’s hardcore gang unit in Los Angeles County. It was way too intense for me. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the people that can do that, but I wasn’t strong enough for that.
I ended up in Buck Altar’s Orange County office. They had an aviation and aerospace litigation department. We dealt with drone technology, which at the time everyone was very excited about it. Amazon had their drone delivery service in full operation. There was Larry Page’s Kittyhawk that was talking about creating urban air mobility grids, which is like a taxi system of drones carrying people above the street, but below the commercial airlines. It was a really exciting time. I did that for a few years and then I went to mega project construction litigation at Wat Teeter Hoffer Fitzgerald, also in Orange County.
Throughout that time, I fell in to legal tech. It’s a little silly. There’s a long version of the story and a short version of the story that I’ll tell. If you don’t mind, I’ll start from the origins I suppose.
It started with a silly observation while drafting a brief. I realized that there’s this common formula: issue, rule analysis, conclusion. This is a structure for drafting persuasive writing., It’s where you identify the issue, then you stay the statement of law, then you apply the law to the facts and then you conclude that that relationship should result in a favorable ruling or order for your client.
I was re-reading this brief and I saw this pattern in the paper. You have an introduction, you have the statement of law, you have the legal analysis and the conclusion. I also saw that in the section of those different bigger chapters the same pattern as the smaller paragraphs. Even the sentences or the grammatic structure followed this same pattern.
I thought, “Oh, this is interesting. I wonder if there’s any writing on patterns in legal drafting.”. And that led me to Andrew Stump from University of Michigan. I. may be getting that wrong. His article on the law as a fractal. A fractal is a self-repeating pattern. Agnostic in scope. So, no matter how far you zoom in or out, it’s a similar pattern. That’s a self-repeating fractal. It’s just an infinitely complex shape effectively.
I was fascinated by that because it was a cross section of math and law that I hadn’t seen before. I thought that if we can capture these infinitely complex shapes, then maybe we could capture the application of formula. So, if we can model fractals or geometric shapes with infinitely complex edges, then maybe we can model the law, which has a policy application to an potentially infinitely complex factual dataset. Like every personal injury case is different. You apply the same underlying laws, but the actual facts are different.
Similarly, a little formula can capture a shape and apply this rule. That’s the rule. And it applies in an infinitely complex manner. I thought that would be interesting to think about. And that’s when I started thinking about legal tech and how technology and advanced AI systems might be able to actually capture application of law and argumentation, which is the, application of a policy to, again, an potentially infinitely complex data set.
From there, I worked back and, this thought was in my mind. I said, “okay, we might be able to effectively automate some very complex things in litigation, which is a legal application.”
It drove me crazy because I would routinely have to advise my clients that (this is related, I promise) might need to settle this case because it would be cheaper to pay the other side than to continue fighting on account of predominantly legal fees. That is to say the amount of time it would take me and my firm to represent them and defend them would cost them more than the amount that the person was suing them for. So even if they hadn’t done anything wrong, if they’re a business, they need to be business oriented. Their best move is to pay.
I wanted to be a public defender in the criminal justice system and all that. We’re supposed to be officers of the court that serve as justice and to be the mechanism that ultimately results in people paying other people by no other reason than they’re suing them. People that hadn’t done anything wrong. it really bugged me. So, I thought, you know, I’m not going to draft an AI system to replace a judge effectively. So I’ve taken a step back from that. I thought maybe I’ll teach myself some coding and see if I can automate some of the more rote tasks, the repetitive tasks.
I already had experience in the AI backed side of legal document review with the technology assisted review programs, which is sort of like supervised machine learning. I started teaching myself Python. I have this book here, Python for Dummies. Its actual title is How to Automate the Boring Stuff with Python. I started reading that and took some online courses. I got access to some of these new natural language processing, which is a type of AI. I theorized that I could combine some of these natural language processing modules, some of the newest ones with the technology assisted review systems from AI document review to create a platform that would take documents and draft responses in a very short amount of time, which would free up my client’s litigation budget so that we could fight for a longer period of time because there would be less of an incentive to settle the case. And it would also make my life a lot easier because I wouldn’t have to stay up all night on a Friday drafting a discovery response when all my friends were at a wedding or something.
So that was it. I then left that firm and started making these vaporware programs. I wanted to establish product market fit. I knew the underlying tech that I wanted to use for my startup. I created in Adobe XD of these fake programs. And these were all smoke and mirrors, but I made the program look like a desktop computer. I’d cold call people and pretend to be selling these products, and I would try to get them on a demo to get their feedback on it and say, “okay, I’m charging this. Would you pay for this?” And they’d say yes or no. Attorneys are pretty forthright so they would tell me no. I was very lucky for that candid feedback. From those iterations, I came to Briefpoints’ first module, which takes a discovery request document, a pdf, and generates a discovery response.
I’m not a senior engineer. I couldn’t code this thing. I needed a CTO, a technical co-founder. I had been interviewing people online and it hadn’t been going well. I had this video game community that I had created for young professionals when I moved to a new city. I didn’t know anyone, so I said, “you know what? I’m gonna fabricate a social life through through video games.” I bought a PlayStation four and put it in my, studio apartment. I started recruiting young professionals to play video games. We had about 816 members at our peak.
I posted on our community’s board. I said, “Hey, I know this is a huge shot in the dark. I’m starting this legal tech company. Does anyone know how to code better than writing Hello World, like the first line that everyone learns?” I got a response from my now CTO and he says, “Hey, I have 10 years of experience. I’m lead engineer relativity, and I’ve been doing legal tech coding for a long time. And I actually have a team of designers and backend and front end. That I worked with on a startup before and they’ll join me and we’ll do this together.”
I brought on a machine learning guy and he brought on his team and we hit the ground running, designing and creating Briefpoint.
Bim: That is fantastic Nate. Thank you for sharing that. There were so many things that we could take away from what you’ve just described. I’ve been in the legal technology space for longer than I can care to remember. But I’ve seen so many products that start with an idea of what could be a solution to a problem. I think what you’ve just described is exactly the way that all software should evolve, which is you started with a problem, you saw the challenge, and then you connected the technology to the challenge. You found a way of being able to solve that problem in a different, more efficient way and then brought that to market.
I also loved the way you tested the market as well. Because ultimately, even with a great idea, it doesn’t always work the way that we want it to work. It’s always great to be able to test the market and understand which route you should take. That was really helpful to understand your journey and mindset. So really appreciate you sharing that.
You touched on Briefpoint and the, problem that Briefpoint solves. Tell us a little bit more about the product, the platform, what’s involved in terms of getting it up and running and how quickly can somebody adopt a product like this?
Nate: In minutes. In fact, during our demos, I don’t even share my screen. I just have the attorney use Briefpoint in full feature right in front of me. I say, “There it is. You’ve done it.” Colin Levy was on the podcast recently and he’s amazing, and he talked about user-centric design, and I think that’s important. I take it a step further and say brutally simple design.
So, for Briefpoint, all you need to do is drag and drop a PDF onto the website. You can do it right now. We allow everyone to use a full feature product. You drag a discovery request PDF onto the website. You can even forward it to our email. Then you select a few things and out pops a response. There’s no onboarding time. There’s no implementation process. You just do it.
This is something I see in B2C experiences all the time. You don’t need a computer science degree to find a playlist in Spotify. In fact, Spotify doesn’t even have tutorials. Google doesn’t have a tutorial. You type in something, you hit enter, and some of the most advanced AI in the world works to give you those answers. The real force of our technology is actually guided to simplify. That’s where all the heavy lifting happens. There’s obviously, parsing documents, which is complicated too. But we really wanted to make it brutally simple in a way that just looks and feels like a B2C experience. that’s a part of our philosophy.
It’s technically a B2B company, but we’re selling as if it’sB2C. You can cancel on the website. There’s no sales process. We don’t need to do a demo if you don’t want. The incredible focus is on simplicity of use.
Bim: I totally agree. Simplicity is key. If you have to explain how to use a product, then fundamentally that maybe where we’re failing. It’s great that it’s as simple to use and that the initiation time to actually getting the value from the product is so short.
That’s also the challenges that we see, particularly with other products in the market that can take a long time to implement. I think one of the things that I wanted to get your take on is, just earlier this week actually, I was meeting with a client law firm, pretty sophisticated law firm from a technology perspective. They have, current systems and do a reasonable job of implementing technology that makes sense for the business. When I asked them about some of their processes, we were particularly talking about billing processes, a lot of the stuff that they were doing was very manual still. They had the workflow infrastructure to make things very easy from an approval perspective, but when we actually looked at what they were doing on a day-to-day basis, it was secretary printing out a whole bunch of paper, organizing it into piles of invoices in particular value order, and then literally handing that off to a partner to review markup and then hand back.
It still surprises me today that we’re in this position where the paper trail is still there. I wanted to get your take and for our audience to hear the answer from you as to why should lawyers care about technology. Because sometimes lawyers come to us and say, “my, process at the moment works so I don’t need to change anything.” I’d love to hear from you as to why should lawyers care about changing.
Nate: Well, there’s a couple reasons. First there’s a whole cohort of younger attorneys who are starting their own firms with technology first. They’re going to be able to offer much cheaper representation much faster, and frankly, much better in the long run. You’re going to lose clients to those people once they figure out how to reach your clients.
So that’s the number one thing. This is happening. I work with solo and small practitioners say, “you know what? I want an automated practice. I want to do this quick.” They use Briefpoint to do that as part of their tech stack. That’s not going anywhere. That’s only going to get more popular and those people are going to start taking clients. Big law knows this and that’s reflected by the innovation leads positions that you’re seeing in a lot of the big law all across the, the world.
The other thing is quality of life for your associates and paralegals. There is a huge war for talent going on right now. One in four associates quit their jobs last year. In the UK 86% of law firms face billing pressure to lower their bills. There’s a lot of market pressure on firms to innovate and it’s coming from the clients and it’s coming internally from the associates who are getting burnt out and who are looking at their friends from college who work at Google and seeing this amazing, work life balance and wondering why they’re getting paid twice as much to do half the work.
The writing’s been on the wall for a while. I think we’re now at a point where the technology’s getting to a place where it doesn’t require attorneys to change how they work to innovate their practice. This is something that I think about a lot, and looking at what an attorney does already. we cut the attorney workflow into a cross section and there’s a timeline of events. We pick out which things we can automate reliably given the current state of tech. We automate that all in one place, but we don’t skip steps. We automates the steps. The steps are taken care of. We map out to how the attorneys already work. That’s going to become more and more prevalent.
If an attorney sends something to his secretary for some billing procedure that’s manual, a successful company would just capture that send so the attorney sends the email to his secretary and then immediately gets a whole billing report.From the attorney’s perspective, you want to make sure that you’re not requiring them to change too much. I think people complain about law firms being archaic and slow to adopt. That’s why legal tech companies die so frequently. You need to be, cognizant of that. I think technology can be used to mirror the attorney workflows in a manner that’s not disruptive in a negative way.
Bim: You make a great point. The innovation that’s happening within the legal technology space at the moment is fantastic. You can see some really good solutions coming to market. You’ve got an example in Briefpoint.
What to you is standing out from the crowd in terms of technologies that are really exciting you at the moment? Have you seen anything recently that you’re thinking, “wow, this is, really taking us to the next level”?
Nate: Absolutely. I’m really excited about legal tech generally. Ironclad is a huge company. I mean, not a huge, but it’s a big company relative to most legal technology companies. I know they don’t like being called legal tech because they’re used by business. But I really like Ironclad because they stand by ease-of-use and they’re all about the workflow. They think carefully about what a transactional attorney does for a company. They bring that into one platform.
What I’m excited about is unification of platforms. Bringing all these services into one place. I know at Elcon there was a lot of talk about platform fatigue. I think we’re going to see more and more big players or groups of startups start clumping together to facilitate end-to-end automation within certain processes and law. I think that’s really exciting. At its logical conclusion, in the case of litigation and what I want to do with Briefpoint, the practice of law is so much better when you don’t need to worry about attention to detail, when you don’t need to worry about spending hours on some rote task. The biggest challenge is being a creative arumentagor in this world of automation. The biggest challenge is being a creative t hinker in law and coming up with really clever arguments. That’s the heavy lifting. You express your intent into this platform or whatever it happens to be and your intent is realized in a brief that you would’ve otherwise had to spend the next several weeks grinding out. You could have the best legal argument in the world, but if your citations aren’t uniform or you have spelling errors or you change the plaintiff’s name halfway through the paper, if you’re an associate, you’re going to get roasted. Your paper’s going to come back dripping red ink on the floor. And that’s a shame because there’s some really creative litigators out there who don’t succeed in law because the attention to detail such a difficult thing for a lot of people. It’s a muscle and it’s exhausting to do it for long periods of time, but you have to, and it has to be perfect all the time.
Bim: Absolutely. There’re definitely exciting times ahead in terms of how we can change the dynamic. This is a great platform to talk about this because there’s a lot of learning nuggets for me and the audience. So, I appreciate your input there.
For people who may be in the legal space, like practicing law or working in other departments in a law firm, who have an appreciation of technology and want to get involved in the legal technology space, now you’ve made that transition from being a litigator all the way through to being a legal technologist, what would you recommend as a path to success? How does one get started in the technology side? I know you mentioned you bought your Python for Dummies books to get you started. Is that what you would recommend for people? Go start reading up on some of the technology areas or how do we start that path?
Nate: I talk to attorneys all the time who want to get into legal tech – and if anyone listening would like to talk to me about that, you can find me on LinkedIn. I’m always happy to praise the good word of legal tech and help people out and brainstorm.
Engineering’s not for everyone. I will say that attorneys make incredible engineers because if you have attention to detail at the beginning, you’re going to do a lot less bug smashing at the end. It’ll save you time and your project manager will be very happy with you. I’ve seen a lot of success in there.
But you don’t even need to go that far necessarily. If you look at a lot of the growing legal tech companies , they have a whole bunch of IDs in their company who are doing all sorts of things. And it may be just shifting your mindset a little bit from my identity is a litigator or an attorney to my identity is a hyper-critical analyzer. I have these skills that can be applied over all sorts of careers. I love coding, but sales is also something if you want to get into sales or customer success, you can talk to attorneys and having a JD or an experience as an attorney, you can sell better to attorneys.
Legal engineering is in a very exciting role, and frankly, you don’t even necessarily need to know coding to be a legal engineer. It’s not a huge opportunity market out there. There’s not a lot of positions, but it’s a growing position base. And if there’s an opportunity there, you can be a legal engineer.
By way of background legal engineers do some of the coding that requires legal analysis in the coding. For example, I was up until midnight last night coding a new form interrogatory type for California. I’m writing in all the requests and adding these different modules that are all necessarily linked to the actual law and is strictly for legal technology companies predominantly. So legal engineering’s another path.
But really at the end of the day, leaving the law is much harder than people give it credit for. It’s very difficult because you go to law school and it becomes part of your identity. Leaving law to do anything else, you have to be brave to do it. You say, “well, I invested all this money.” Hopefully you’re not in too much debt, but you could be in debt. And the nature of practicing of law is you have to give everything to it to be successful. I would encourage anyone who’s thinking about it, like everything’s gonna be okay. There are plenty of opportunities, and at the end of the day, you are an incredibly effective person. That’s what you should focus on.
Bim: Fantastic. Some great advice there. Thank you for sharing that
I want to move to my final few rapid-fire questions for you. If you don’t mind. The first is the question I ask everybody, which I love hearing answers to is: If you could borrow Dr. Who’s time machine and you could go back to Nate at 18 years old, what advice would you give him?
Nate: Whew. Oh boy. It’s so hard to answer this question because I believe that my experiences have really honed my current character. I feel like I’d be committing some sort of character suicide if I changed my path. But ignoring that I would probably tell him something that was told to me and that I didn’t listen to: Everything’s going to be fine. It’s like you just keep working. I probably stressed way too much during that time and in my twenties. People told me everything’s going to be fine. I didn’t listen to them. So if I appeared in front of my 18 year old self in a phone booth and popped out and smoked poured out of the door, maybe I would listen to him then.
Bim: Excellent, excellent. And if somebody is late to the gaming world and doesn’t have a gaming console, what should they buy?
Nate: That is such a funny question. I’m a PlayStation guy. If you can get your hands on a PlayStation five, that’s a great place to start. If you have a partner or a friend, I think a two-person game is a great place to start. Rocket League is an easy game to pick up. There’s a ton of games that you can pick up quickly and they’ll teach you the fundamentals of maneuvering whatever character you have with the joysticks and all the buttons and stuff. You can have a lot of fun with those even though you’re not good. I’m bad at most video games and I still enjoy it.
Bim: Any thoughts on or any experience with VR games like the Oculus?.
Nate: I’m really interested in it, but I don’t I don’t really have the extra funds. I’ve used a VR in an arena. There’s a store at a strip mall and you go into a boxing ring and put on a headset. It was very, , impressive and a lot of fun.
Bim: Our producer has enticed me to do the same thing. I think my next purchase is an Oculus.
Any questions that you wish I would’ve asked that I didn’t today?
Nate: No, I think we covered everything. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. I appreciate it. I think all the questions were incredibly thoughtful and I’m, I’m really grateful to have this opportunity.
Bim: Likewise, it’s been really insightful. Really happy that you were able to join us today and share some of your wisdom and share a little bit about your product. If anybody does wants to get in touch with you, Nate, what’s the best way to reach you?
Nate: Find me on LinkedIn. That’s Nathan Walter. You can shoot me an InMail or you can send me a connection request with a little note.
Bim: Thank you, Nate. And a final thank you to all of my audience and listeners that have stuck with us all this time. We really appreciate you listening into us. I hope you got some valuable nuggets and takeaways from us speaking to Nate today.