The Fine Lines of Cult and Culture: Clio Cloud Conference 2018

Clio’s 2018 Cloud Conference did so many things right. The community they’ve built really is impressive, both in terms of the quality of attorneys and the size of the tribe. You’ll see many positive reviews of the conference this week, and every one well-deserved. But I’ll depart from the typical praise-lavishing to look at the bigger picture.

What are these events for? Why should we go to them, and why not? Should companies like Clio do more than just throw a nerd party, and what is our role as attorneys in making these events more useful to our firms? To answer these questions, I want to start with the ideas of cult and culture.

The Fine Lines of Cult and Culture: Clio2018


Conference MC Jesse warmed up the crowd while wearing a bold jacket of paisleys, bright colors, and bling. He called his boss Jack Newton to the stage who then invited the rest of the Clio team to join him. Music rang out from the conference center’s many speakers and a horde of Canadian computer geeks danced and clapped their way toward the stage. It was, as ever, a jolt to expectations.

The employees’ dance line is somewhat legendary by now, an awkward jaunt that immediately tells onlookers that the Cloud Conference won’t feel like other legal events. And it never does.

Throughout its history, the Clio team has framed the conference as a technology event. Many of its attendees are tech founders eager to integrate their tools with Clio’s platform. The bulk of attendees, however, are practicing attorneys. Some of us sneer at the “techbro,” religious-revivalist tone. Others cheer it. As if we needed reminding, Clio’s conference shows just how disparate are the personality types of small firm lawyers.

Back on stage, Jack listed features his team had added to Clio’s platform in the last year. He announced changes to the company, including the acquisition of customer intake tool Lexicata (probably the biggest news to come out of the conference). The audience occasionally applauded, and mostly sat attentive. I dutifully tweeted.

From Jack’s opening talk, to Bryan Stevenson’s closing keynote, and through everything in between, you could feel the “cultish” vibe of Clio’s conference. The event has a language, cliques huddle in corners to catch up, and the FOMO juice makes those outside want to jump into the faith. The cult is well managed.

What I believe has changed, and for the better, is the target of attendees’ cultish adoration. Rather than excessive worship of a tech tool golden calf or a tech CEO messiah, I felt that the conference started shifting our attention to a better idol: an idealized view of ourselves as lawyers.

And that’s not even what they’re trying to do.

The Focus?

When Jack introduced the latest Legal Trends Report, he suggested a new focus for Clio’s development. He centered his remarks on the legal buyer, particularly the large segment that chooses not to (or is unable to) hire an attorney.

He spoke briefly of the buyer’s journey and shared data that revealed how poorly we’re meeting client demands. Our communication methods, our product offerings, our pricing… the Legal Trends Report shows just how poorly we prioritize our customers.

None of that is new, or even unknown. What we don’t know is what to do about it.

To Jack and the Clio team, the solution seems to be moving away from practice management per se. He said that we are moving into a “post practice management world,” which I take to mean that efficient operations won’t save us. Practice management is table stakes, he seemed to say, and client experience will be the differentiator.

In principle, that’s hard to disagree with; in practice, I’m curious to see how Clio will change it.

Clio is, at its core, an operations tool. It is not a customer experience tool. When I asked members of the Lawyer Forward community what issues they wanted me to report to Clio’s onsite development team, they consistently cited ClioConnect (the client web portal) as a letdown. The portal does not make communication intuitive at all, and customers won’t use tools that are even slightly more difficult than their Gmail accounts or cell phones.

It’s possible that the company’s stated focus on client experience will fix those issues. If so, that would be progress. But I can’t help but wonder if this shift to the legal buyer is better served by changing the lawyers than in fixing the software. Clio’s role in that intrigues me.

Despite the 2018 Legal Trends Report’s focus on client experience, Clio doesn’t have as much consumer data as, say, Avvo (though, post-Mark, I doubt they’re as mission-driven to do good things with that data). If the goal is to understand the consumer, Clio has a lot of work to do. They don’t interact with legal consumers, certainly not through the tool. They collect very little data from the software, careful not to breach ethics rules. Despite lawyer protestations Clio works hard to anonymize data collection and never put us or our clients at risk. Which comes at a cost: they can’t understand the legal buyer better than us without real investment and change of focus.

But Clio is obviously great at customer service. How much of that is operational (tools and processes) and how much cultural (hiring and training) is a question. I doubt they’d cite their operational software as the key driver of their stellar service. That means that we’d do well as lawyers to learn from Clio’s example, but don’t expect the Clio tool to fix your customer service weaknesses.

The Drift

My biggest concern with this stated change is the same as it has always been with Clio: drift. The company constantly has to balance the need to stay laser-focused on its mission with the pressure to announce big ideas at their annual conference.

Again, that’s not unique to Clio. Read the book Good to Great and you’ll see how “slow and steady” usually wins the race better than yearly hype fests and investor meetings. But we all love the hype.

Being number one in the industry creates even more pressure. The scrappiness of a startup’s early years easily becomes the directionless drift of an established player. Without a clear path, companies fall victim to executives’ or investors’ moods and fancies.

In terms of the product, I have expressed frustration both privately and publicly about Clio’s drift. I remember one senior staff member asking me years ago what Clio could do to get better. I answered, “Stop saying yes to everything.”

“I’m convinced,” I told him, “that if a random lawyer told you she had a case with a runaway giraffe, you guys would add a GiraffeGPS integration and announce it at ClioCon next year.”

He took the half-joke well, then reassured me that the company was trying to be more discerning and strategic about features. But every announcement makes me wish the company would sort out what it does best and drill into it. Big companies are filled with middle management who remain relevant by starting initiatives. The same is true of law firms that shift focus every time an executive feels his or her job is at risk. They start, they stop, not much changes.

So I’ll reserve judgment for now. Maybe the folks at Clio realize that theirs is an operations tool, maybe they know that changing lawyers is the company’s best mission, and maybe they assume that the best lawyer is a customer-centric lawyer. This stated shift could actually just be an improved statement of the kind of lawyers they want us to become.

Or maybe they avoid fully committing to teaching lawyers operational best practices because they believe that companies like Lawyer Forward or state bars will do it. They may think that efforts on the ground will be more effective than Jack (or whoever) speaking from the mountaintop.

Ultimately, they should do whatever it takes to improve lawyers and the services they deliver. That’s harder than hype.

Cults fail because they make people believe someone else can save them from their own habits: religions and philosophies succeed because they help believers see that developing character is the only path to exaltation.

Daily habits will fix the industry’s ills, one lawyer at a time. That’s more boring than Apple-esque annual keynotes. Still, I hope that Clio continues to change the law by changing lawyers. Imperfect as we are, we’re still the shortest route to change (perhaps precisely because we’re the ones in the way of it).

The Unapologetic Cult (And A Proposal)

A couple of final points on cult and culture, both the opportunity they represent and the responsibility.

I sat at a table in New Orleans with Jess Birken and Megan Zavieh, along with Dan Lear and my wife. Jess and Megan had given a presentation at Clio earlier in the day and I had a strange thought about the conference’s cult-y feel:

”Who cares?”

I’ve heard the criticism of the LawTwitter crowd, that we’ve created an echo chamber of feel-goodsy hugfests.

So what?

I looked at Megan and Jess and realized that, for many women in law, the Twitter crowd and its spillover into ClioCon may be the only space where these women feel like equal members of their profession. Or at least the closest they’ve ever felt to that.

Clio’s organizers rightly pointed out how they were able to add great diversity to their speaker lineup. I say good for them. For minorities and women, opportunities to feel excluded are endless. If giddy support for these unique and important voices occasionally borders on the sycophantic, great. We’ll deal with the “You’re too nice to each other” complaints later. For now, I’m grateful for experiences that include those who’ve been excluded. We’ll all be better for it.

Companies like Clio have a greater responsibility than making money. We lawyers can relate to that. Yes, they have to be profitable (though, for tech companies, that’s measured in totally freaky ways), but their privilege at the top comes with duties. One such duty is to empower marginalized voices, so I give them many kudos for progress made this year.

But I was left thinking about something that often bothers me at these events (and I credit my friend Brian Cuban for drawing my attention to this before).

After Cat Moon talked about the depression, suicide, and alcoholism rates of attorneys in her Friday session, it was frankly jarring to see the level of drunkenness at Clio’s second large party that night.

Now, I don’t want to be a prude. I don’t drink alcohol for religious reasons so it’s easy for me to glance sideways at these parties. Clio attendees are adults and it’s not the company’s job to monitor blood alcohol levels. Still, prioritizing the party is a choice.

Allow me to make a contrary proposal: next year, in San Diego, take a stand and have one party with no alcohol. Clio and every attendee can use this choice as a signal that we take addiction seriously.

For one night, maybe at the big Thursday party, let’s show that relevance in the legal sphere does not require alcohol. Not because every Clio attendee is an alcoholic or should be shamed for drinking responsibly, but to make clear to the legal world that we can break tradition and engage with each other differently.

It’s a thought. Maybe it wouldn’t work. Clio probably throws these big, loud parties at glitzy venues because they feel it’s necessary for lawyers wanting to step out of the daily grind. I don’t know. But I’m confident that we can spend time together at a cocktail bar-like venue without the cocktails. There will always be time for parties. Perhaps for one night we can prioritize the message over the beverages.

In Summary

I genuinely love so many of the people who I get to see at events like Clio. If Dunbar’s number is right, we need physical proximity in order to maintain close relationships. That was Bryan Stevenson’s point, I think, and it’s one worth considering.

Dinners with Andrew Cabasso, Alycia Kinchloe, Sam Harden, and Jess and Megan; lunches with Jae Um, Angela Faye Brown, and Jason Morris; conversations with Ernie the Attorney, Kimberly Bennett, Mark Unger, Patrick Palace, Jim Hacking, Gyi and Kelly, Lori Gonzales, Sarah Glassmeyer, Jennifer Reynolds, Billie, Ed Walters, Strohmeyer and his wacky ribbons, Cat, Shreya Ley… (and so, so many more)… this is why I go to Clio.

They’ve built a tribe. A cultish tribe, maybe, but behind that a culture. It is one of inclusion and exploration. What Rian and Jack have built over the last 10 years is impressive, and I’m glad to be a part of it.

I was with them early, when they dragged their display booth to the ABA’s solo/small event in Austin while I was in law school. I urged them to share the tool with educators and they gave me free access as a student in Texas’ Children’s Rights Clinic. They helped me protect at-risk kids nearly a decade ago, and they help lawyers do equally important work now.

The event has gotten bigger, and that means they need to be ever more attentive to the core mission. It’s easy for prophets to believe their own press clippings. I trust the team at Clio to constantly refocus their commitment to helping lawyers do what they can and must to change the industry. They help us deliver meaningful justice, however we might do that.

Thanks again to the folks at Clio for an excellent event.

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