This guest post was written by Vanessa Butnick Davis, Vice President of Legal & Managing Product Counsel at LegalZoom.com, where she is responsible for...
We have to do more for #A2J, but we also have to do a lot more for inclusivity
The status quo across law as well as hi-tech is skewed, and in order to ensure legaltech doesn’t follow suit, we have to do more…and that means I have to do more too.
Following on my post at the end of last year where I talked about the need for a more inclusive and collaborative community, I wanted to further discuss the importance of inclusion in legal technology, and talk about some of the mistakes we’ve made in the past in this regard.
Recently we released a new product at ROSS Intelligence. We wanted to release a legal research tool, built with artificial intelligence, completely for free for everyone. As we said at Legal Week when we announced the release, if we really care about access to justice as technologists, we should make sure new legal technology is available to everybody, not just to those who can afford it.
After attending conference after conference where I saw folks talk about addressing the access to justice gap with few actionable results, I am proud of the direction our release charts for legaltech – I called this a game changer at Legal Week and I think it’s nothing short of that. We have been both overjoyed and humbled by the overwhelmingly positive feedback we’ve received from the pro bono and access to justice communities, and do not take lightly the increased responsibility we now have to continue building our partnerships with both. We will continue to expand what EVA can do in the months to come, and look forward to working hand in hand with our partners while doing so.
While we are proud of the work our team has done in this regard and hope we’ve started a trend in the legaltech space, I am increasingly aware that the cultural problems around legal technology do not stop with the availability of the technology itself.
While at Legal Week I noticed the continuation of a second trend I’ve noticed at legal technology conferences which is as worrying as the access to justice gap. The prevalence of all-male panels (note – Sarah Glassmeyer wrote an example piece on this which you can read here).
This hit particularly close to home, as we recently had our only full-time female employee at ROSS move on to other opportunities, as a result of feeling that her voice was not being sufficiently heard or compensated on an all-male team. This is a situation that repeats itself again and again in high tech companies, where systemic issues of under-representation (i.e. a preponderance of all white, all male teams) is as much an issue now as it was 10 years ago despite the fact that so many positive strides have been made in this regard in other fields and disciplines. While as a founding team made solely of visible minorities we are proud of the work we have done to hire people of color and individuals from underrepresented backgrounds, the message received from the fact this employee felt things were unfair in our workplace was very clear to me. We have to do more about inclusivity as a company and as an industry.
As a community we need to remember that legal technology actually has a double representation problem – it is an industry with issues of underrepresentation (tech) which serves some of the whitest and most male-centric organizations in existence in the United States today. Law firms.
When we started hiring at ROSS we tried to ensure we put an HR policy in place as to how to highlight issues that needed attention. We raised funds from investors who have vocally prioritize equitable hiring practices, including Comcast’s Catalyst Fund, which has an exclusive mandate to invest in minority-founded companies. As we continued to hire outside of the founding group and brought in our first female employee we also put into place a system of yellow and red cards wherein any comments/statements that folks made that made anyone feel uncomfortable were flagged – within a few weeks the only time a card was presented to anyone was in jest – that system had seemed to work.
What it didn’t fix, however, was that in any environment where one specific group is substantially over-represented in leadership positions, a company fails to truly be inclusive – regardless of any policies and positions towards inequities an organization may have. From there, perceptions of unfair treatment, both real and imagined, can quickly grow. What I realized is that the system itself was borrowed from the sports world – a world where everyone may not feel comfortable to begin with.
Unfair treatment from not fitting tidily into the status quo is something I have experienced from a young age, and I have repeatedly had to perform at a level above my Caucasian peers to attain fair recognition. As a first-generation immigrant born to parents with limited education, getting my professional career off to a start has been very difficult. This struggle is also something that my fellow cofounder Jimoh has faced since a very young age as a black man in America. It’s not something anyone in legaltech should feel or face if we do our jobs properly.
This has often left us with a feeling, rightly or wrongly, of being on the outside of many of the organizations we have been part of throughout our lives. As a result, I know that the less you feel included, the less you will feel you have a voice. And I also know that the less you feel you have a voice, the more you will stay quiet and simply try to “suck it up” and “fit-in” because you feel you don’t have an alternative. This is why management needs to not only maintain an open-door policy, but to go even further in addressing these issues. The true danger in the situation I’ve described is one where an individual does not feel comfortable voicing their feelings, for fear of looking like they aren’t a “team player” or “one of the guys.” This not only is unfair for an individual, it is also toxic for a team and can lead to a situation where all parties assume the worst from one another.
Only through rigorous, mature processes, communication channels and reporting standards can we start to reduce the likelihood of this cycle continuing to occur. In the early years of a venture-backed tech company, where founders and early employees alike work 80+ hours a week to keep the lights on, this is not always easy. Early stage companies (those which are lucky enough to survive their first ~18 months as a business, which most will not) are in a constant state of flux, hiring one day, firing the next and hopefully putting out fires faster than they can start. There is, by definition, no playbook for how to run a start-up, but that doesn’t mean as a whole we can’t strive to do better. As the first month of 2018 comes to a close, I am resolving to do more, and that starts with our team.
What does doing more even mean? A lot of things. In the short term, we are hiring for multiple positions, at both our San Francisco and Toronto offices, (see here for openings), and I’m hoping we can hire as many folks who are not represented in technology as possible. If you know anyone who fits the bill, do let me know and pass along our job postings. In the long term it means continuing to learn from our mentors, and just as importantly from our mistakes, so we can change legal technology while creating an inclusive, welcoming and collaborative workplace.
We have to do more about access to justice. We have to do more about inequalities within law, within technology, and within legal technology. We have to do more and I’m ready to strap myself in and do anything I can to ensure this community, and the company I helped cofound, is as healthy as possible.
CEO & Co-Founder of ROSS Intelligence. International speaker on the subjects of AI, legal technology, & entrepreneurship and has been featured in publications such as The New York Times, BBC, Wired, Bloomberg, Fortune, Inc., Forbes, TechCrunch, the Washington Post, and the Financial Times.
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