The Path from Law
Partner to Web Pioneer: A Profile of Mike Curreri, Attorney
It is something of a tradition that successful, established attorneys, particularly after attaining their prized, large-firm partnerships, became willingly afflicted with "desk lock" - never hereafter to change jobs, let alone careers. By that measure, at least, Mike Curreri flouts tradition.
The former medical malpractice partner has not merely shaken an isolated case of desk lock. Thanks to technology, he seems to have developed a thorough immunity to that malady, moving from law practice to the helm of his own technology company to yet another high-tech business, all in the past five years. Mr. Curreri believes his career trajectory may harbinger a great exodus from the ranks of established lawyers to the promised land of technological entrepreneurship.
"There's no shortage of 45-year old lawyers who would like to leave what they're doing," he said in our recent discussion. "I see more lawyers all the time at conferences who don't practice law anymore. They did basically what I did: followed what I liked doing. They need something interesting, and something that will pay. "Mr. Curreri emphasized that salary certainty is a major factor anchoring unhappy lawyers to their desks, even though partners' draw can vary --sometimes wildly -- from year to year. When they leave the law for technology, he said, "they tend to be able to make a living at it, but they might not earn as much as they earned before."
Big Client, Big Case, Big Concept
A partner since 1990 at Richmond, Va.-based Wright, Robinson, Osthimer &Tatum, Mr. Curreri developed a solid medical malpractice department there. By 1993, he was bringing in about $3 million a year, counseling large hospitals, nursing-home chains and individual physicians insured by professional liability carriers. He also did some products-liability work. In the early 1990s, one of the firm's clients required the collaboration of about 50 law firms across the country on a major matter. Ordinarily, a massive litigation or corporate deal would entail a mountain of paperwork; the investment of a small fortune in faxes, photocopies and messengers; and the expending of countless hours on trains, planes and automobiles to interview experts and to assemble a trial team. Indeed, this remains standard procedure in many, if not most, major cases.
"My concept was that information should be shared across networks," Mr. Curreri remembered. In turn, that information could be leveraged across various practice areas. He proposed that the lawyers electronically pool most documents and all information -- about witnesses, procedures, experts and judges -- for the client. He recalled that "the client thought it was a good idea."
From Dorm Room to Dot-Com
Computer technology has been Mr. Curreri's hobby and an increasingly serious area of interest since he majored in computer applications in the early '70s at the U.S. Naval Academy. As early as 1992, he had been experimenting with HTML, the hypertext mark-up language used on the Internet, but he brought i noutside contractors to handle high-end systems aspects of the litigation-document and information pool. Many of those techies eventually became employees of his new company, TrialNet, Inc.
The company started in the medical malpractice arena, with five or six clients sharing information. "That's a draw for others to join," Mr. Curreri noted. By his account, TrialNet obtained attorneys as customers "the same way a lawyer gets clients -- one at a time. "The biggest incentive for lawyers to use the secure, protected Web sites to exchange documents and data was to appease their clients. "From the beginning, clients would get the greatest benefit," said Mr. Curreri. "For the most part, it was because the client recognized the huge advantage of having its lawyers work together as a team." Eventually, some major hospital chains would not retain a law firm unless it joined TrialNet.
Going Good from the Get-Go
Pricing new technologies is an inexact science, even today. TrialNet, however, was profitable within its first year. A client paid a one-time fee of $12,000 to customize and implement TrialNet's information. "The client then paid nothing further," said Mr. Curreri. The fixed fee covering the matter at hand, and the fact that the information could be used in future cases, sold many clients on the system. Law firms would pay between $200 and $400 per month for access, depending on how many "seats" they required. To be sure, a great deal of TrialNet's information, particularly data about experts -- their effectiveness on the stand, their cost, whether they had testified to the contrary in previous cases, etc. -- was intrinsically valuable.
It was "electronic conference rooms," however, that made the system most attractive. "TrialNet provided an umbrella for sharing information in a software realm through very, very actively used conference rooms, including some rooms that only the client could use," Mr. Curreri pointed out. As the system grew, so did third-party relationships. If an insurance broker enjoyed a good relationship with a particular company, for example, and mentioned that the company did not have adequate legal resources on its extranet, account managers would promote TrialNet to that company. Soon, providers of other software applications realized that the collaborative aspects of things like document- and case-management were important, but Mr. Curreri never perceived any serious competition to TrialNet. Rivals like LegalAnywhere required specific software; a TrialNet client needed only a Web browser
Leaving the Law TrialNet grew, and in 1996, Mr. Curreri formally abandoned the practice of law and all its trappings -- status, steady income, corner office awash in diplomas and certifications. "As I became more involved in the development of TrialNet, it was apparent to me that work was blurring indistinguishably with hobby," he said. "The transition to full-time businessperson was a gradual one for me during that period, filled with both financial and personal benefits. "He moved to a different floor in the same office building to run TrialNet full time. "The transition from law to business was relatively pleasant," he recalled. "I was much more in control of my own calendar in business than when my calendar was under the control of judges and opposing counsel." The hardest part was leaving behind people with whom he had worked closely, particularly the clients. "I liked my clients, and liked working with them. "Business beckoned, however, and Mr. Curreri found that "it was every bit as challenging and intriguing as what I'd done in law."
Yet Another Net
TrialNet spawned a spin-off called WorkNETT that counseled clients on employment issues. WorkNETT (NETT stands for Networked Employee Training and Tracking) provided secure content and training, over the Internet, on matters such as sexual harassment. It specialized in advising companies with far-flung employees and managers, such as McDonald's Corp. Like TrialNet, it was easy to set up and use, required only a Web browser and had a fixed, up-front price.
The goal of the program, as is the case in much compliance training, went beyond mere discovery of instances of sexual harassment (and, through online written quizzes, helping occasionally to detect employee illiteracy) toward outright prevention. Training and focus on an issue help to "create an atmosphere in which harassment happens less," noted Mr. Curreri. If companies were sued, they could prove to jurors that they had taken reasonable steps to prevent harassment, and had afforded all their employees confidential means of communicating with human-resources staff about it and of reporting it.
WorkNETT featured an online video of a woman reporting harassment. "It made clear that she was helping the company do its duty," said Mr. Curreri. By this time, TrialNet had developed a series of litigation networks in the medmal, employment and insurance areas that connected thousands of lawyers. Jim Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape, called the network development "one of the five most significant Internet-related advancements affecting th nation's legal community."
Mr. Curreri has come to two realizations. First, information technology for lawyers and clients must be Web-enabled, so that it is easily accessed and portable. Second, collaboration -- a difficult concept to define, let alone implement, in the legal industry -- will work when it is client-driven. "It all depends on what the client wants," he noted. Law firms, traditionally slow to change, will see and realize the benefits of technology only after their clients do.
Tyme for a Change
For the most part, Mr. Curreri enjoyed business as much or more than the practice of law. "Generally, business is not as contentious as law practice-- in litigation, at any rate," he stated. "We lawyers bring a set of analytics to the business environment that can be highly valuable -- and i soften highly valued." Despite the benefits, running a company, without partnership or the security of a law firm, can take a toll even on a former Navy lawyer. "The high-tech industry is fast-moving," he lamented. "I wanted to go somewhere where there would be a team, with excellent resources to carry it out."
So, early this year, Mr. Curreri left the company he founded to become senior vice president of TyMetrix -- a business that began as an electronic billing company, but that has grown into a Web-based system for handling all aspects of legal billing. People were shocked at the move, he recalled, but just a few months later, TrialNet is still thriving." My decision, and its timing, would baffle many," he acknowledged. TrialNet had just hosted the largest national conference of users in its history, and Mr. Curreri had spent several days with investment bankers and angel investors' brokers.
"The company was doing well and it was clear that, if I stayed, it was going to be purchased," he said. He expressed his concerns to a close friend, Doug Leland, who maintains an "executive coaching" practice. "Our discussion over dinner was a real eye-opener," Mr. Curreri remembered. "It was like getting permission to ask -- and answer-- critical questions about my life and career." It was clear that if he stayed with TrialNet, the company would not be able to provide the services he envisioned. Without a venture-capital buy-in, growth would fall short of the rate he felt was required by the market over time. With a capital infusion, on the other hand, he was not confident in the long-term attractiveness of the working environment.
"With a little tweaking, it may be possible to turn the current job -- or, at least, the current profession -- into the dream life it was intended to be," he said. That no longer was possible at TrialNet, however. "My options were to start a brand-new company, or merge TrialNet through an acquisition, or to seek VC funding or to go to TyMetrix." TyMetrix, at one point, unsuccessfully had sought a partnership with TrialNet.
Fits the Bill
TyMetrix has the "exact same vision that I had," said Mr. Curreri. The hassle, delays and inefficiency of billing are a source of friction between lawyers and clients. With TyMetrix, much of that is alleviated, because clients set the parameters of billing, and learn what they are getting for their money. Lawyers can bill clients electronically, using either their existing time-and-billing software or that provided by TyMetrix. In either case, the system is customized to each client's demands.
"The rules are established by the client," emphasized Mr. Curreri. "Many are administrative, such as the day of the month the client likes to be billed, and some are substantive. "Substantive rules include not billing more than 24 hours in a day on the aggregate number of cases worked for that client. TyMetrix analyzes the data and generates reports to the client about legal decisions and investments the client is making. According to Mr. Curreri, it is this final piece that constitutes knowledge management.
"Knowledge management isn't just about word documents, nor is it just aboutany kind of file you can upload and get to," he said. "It's the financial piece of the attorney-client relationship. Now that we have all this [financial] information, we can integrate it with a case-management system, and serve it up to the user in a work-flow analysis." Aggregation of information -- for example, knowing what a client has spent on discovery in a particular type of case -- reveals a great deal about the lawyer-client relationship and about case management. Lawyers typically are more informed than clients as to the potential cost of a given matter, but they do not aggregate information from similar cases they have handled. Now, clients can do that for themselves.
This may strike fear in the hearts of many lawyers, but there are inherent advantages for a law firm in using an electronic billing system. "For one," Mr. Curreri pointed out, "they get paid in three days and can bill as often as every seven days. This can bring the billing cycle down to ten days." Payrolls can be planned around reliable bill collection, and accounts receivable can be reduced significantly. Works in progress are more carefully monitored, and cost advances on behalf of clients can be brought down. "My law firm often had a $500,000 advance on outlays on behalf of clients for experts," Mr. Curreri recalled. "It amounts to an interest-free loan to the client." There is no particular advantage to clients in paper-based billing -- what Mr. Curreri called "bills on slabs of trees." Except, perhaps, if they want to claim they did not receive the bills.
Collaboration is the key to lawyer satisfaction, concluded Mr. Curreri. "What I really want to do is advance this concept of lawyer collaboration within the best possible framework, so it has the most potential to succeed. I've spent the last four years of my life, seven days a week, working on that." Mr. Curreri believes that collaboration is the answer for lawyers who increasingly have found the practice to be less collegial than it once was. He asserted that "you enjoy the practice more; you can be more dynamic" by working efficiently, devoting more time to mission-critical issues rather than the paper chase. "Working together in a collaborative environment is very much in everyone's interest. But not everyone is going to figure that out with alacrity."
Mr. Curreri is a realist, however. "The nature of the legal profession is that change always will be gradual, and that change will only occur only when those changes are in the interests of all the parties," he observed. "But ultimately, this or any technology prevails not because of hype, but because it benefits every user. And that's a continual challenge, to make it better and better." There will be more technology companies that serve lawyers and clients well, Mr. Curreri predicted, and there will be more lawyers who work with and for them. "I think what's happened to me is a very typical pattern. It's not a question of if; it's a question of when."