Co-Founder & Chief Executive Officer
Trellis Research, Inc.
Los Angeles, California
Formerly associate O’Connell, Attorney & Morris
JD Rutgers Law School
BA University of Massachusetts
From law firm litigator to legal tech titan
On a key takeaway from law school that helped her build a business
On raising institutional money vs. angel financing
On the genesis of Trellis
Listen to interview:
ex judicata: With us today is Nicole Clark, an attorney and Co-Founder & CEO of Trellis, a legal analytics platform which was a game changer for accessing state court trial data now used daily by litigators throughout the US. Nicole is also a wonderful example of how some of the best new ideas stem from personal experience. Looking for something, being surprised that doesn’t exist, and then making it happen. Thanks for joining us, Nicole.
Nicole Clark: Excited to be here.
ex judicata: If you could give us a capsule sketch of Trellis in 2023, a little bit about the company.
Nicole Clark: Sure, we are a state trial court research and analytics platform, really trying to make the United States trial court system, which is fragmented across
thousands of individual courts, searchable from a single interface, and then be able to surface analytics and insights on top. We have thousands of litigators that use the platform. And they use us primarily for research on judges that they’re appearing before, research on opposing counsel, motion drafting, in that we have hundreds of millions of filed trial court documents that you can use as a brief bank of sorts and alerting on their cases and their clients.
ex judicata: Is it something that’s used in law schools as well, Nicole?
Nicole Clark: It actually is used in law schools in a couple of ways. One, as part of their legal technology class to learn this new technology especially some of our judge analytics and law firm analytics. It’s also used in another interesting way by law students. During on campus interviewing, or when they’re interviewing at firms, they can look up the firm, see the cases that the firm has and be able to talk to a partner specifically about cases that are relevant to the partner.
ex judicata: That’s great. Nicole, did you want to be a lawyer growing up?
Nicole Clark: I did not. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write novels. I got my degree in journalism. And then I realized that I was not going to be able to support myself with journalism. At the time, I kind of did a cost benefit analysis, it’s not the sexy answer. But where can I go to school that I think will have a return that makes sense for the money that I’m spending? Now, the funny part is I went to law school in 2008 and the market shortly collapsed and there were no jobs for us.
ex judicata: So, you go to law school which was not part of your original career plan. At the time did you think, of course you’d then be a practicing lawyer or did you have in the back of your mind that it was just a step on the way to something else?
Nicole Clark: No, I went through law school, and I ended up really liking it. I loved the whole process. The experience is great. When people ask me, should they go to law school? I’m like, if you’re doing it for the money, don’t do it. But if you’re going and someone else is going to pay or you can get scholarships and it’s a good law school, it’s a wonderful experience. While I was in law school, I knew I was going to be in practice.
I geared most of my classes and internships towards litigation. And then once I graduated, started as a litigator.
ex judicata: Okay, you graduate school, start as a litigator. How long into the practice did this idea start forming in your mind for what would become Trellis?
Nicole Clark: I would say there were seeds of the idea at the different firms I wound up working for. I would notice you get assigned a case, you’re in front of a judge and you don’t know anything about that judge. And so, you send around an internal email asking your colleagues if they’ve appeared before the judge in the past. And at best you get back anecdotes very specific to a personal case or experience. And then we make big decisions on that.
Like in California, you can move to get reassignment to a different judge so long as you do it within the first 15 days. So, it’s a very time sensitive and a very big decision for a case. I just couldn’t believe that we were making important decisions like this based on anecdotes. The idea started to percolate. And for a while I thought that maybe it was just my firm. Maybe if I was at a different firm or a bigger firm they have a different process to access this important information. And as I changed firms in my career, I saw that there was no difference. I concluded here was an industry with a lot of data and a lot of resources, and it wasn’t utilizing data in the way that other industries are.
ex judicata: As you started to think more about the idea and the potential value it could bring to the industry did you have sort of an informal group of advisors or people at other firms that you could run your idea by? Does this make sense? What do you think?
Nicole Clark: The first informal group of advisors was shown a minimum viable product, and I mean minimum, which they could use and see. For example, I had a friend at my firm, and he was saving PDFs of judicial rulings, and I was already thinking of this idea and we had already started collecting data. In talking to people, I knew the data was valuable. But it was being saved in these PDFs. Those aren’t searchable.
ex judicata: You then start socializing the idea with people in your circle. How about the economic realities? You’re working at a law firm making a good salary. How do you plan for something like this? This is one of the questions I’m most often asked. Because it’s so important, we created a tab on exjudicata.com devoted to money management.
Nicole Clark: One of the things I did was to further validate the idea and to make sure, because it is a very big jump. very risky. I didn’t have a ton of savings. I didn’t have parents I could fall back on. It was a huge decision for me. We actually started collecting data two years before I made the jump. During that time, I used it in practice myself this, very rudimentary version. I used it for two years. And my practice, my motion practice dramatically changed. That helped with the validation This is something that is real. If it helps me, it’s going to help other litigators. And the opportunity here is so big. And so ultimately that’s how I decided to make the jump. I was in a planning, validation mindset for two years. And then we tried to raise angel investor money. So friends and family money which gets you a few months and then you get another few months.
ex judicata: That sounds kind of familiar. We are in that another few months, and another few months friends and family raise.
So, when did professional investors get involved? What did you have to show before you could attract professional money?
Nicole Clark: Yeah. And getting institutional investment is very different than angel and friends and family money. We had been building the core product for a number of years. So I had that when I pitched investors. I also had to learn how to pitch professional investors. This is its own skill.
When we finally brought in institutional money the business was up and running. We had the early version of the product and had, albeit small, some revenue at the time. That’s the kind of traction that you’re going to have to show for a seed round. Now some people can get pre-seed money. When something is just still an idea. I don’t think
I could have done that. Second time founders are for the most part the only people who can raise pre-seed, non-friends/family money.
ex judicata: Because they already know you and you’ve been successful at one. Sure that makes.
Nicole Clark: Exactly.
ex judicata: What was, as you were conceptualizing all this, the biggest challenge? What did you have to get over in your mind to take the leap? Really, because this is so important to a lot of people who will be reading this. What do you have to clear in your mind before you make the life altering decision to leave law?
Nicole Clark: I look back on my time as a lawyer and feel like I had blinders on. If I’m not happy, I’ll just move to another firm. That was all I saw. And I didn’t see any other possibilities. Jumping for me was the result of believing in the product and the business end. I think it was realizing that I knew this business was going to be built and would be a large business whether I did it or not. That helped me to move forward. Ultimately, I began to feel not taking this opportunity that was burning inside me was riskier than taking the leap and leaving the practice of law.
ex judicata: That resonates. Kim and I think about it in kind of the same terms. We’ve been thinking about this idea of creating a portal for lawyers that want to do something else for a long time. If we don’t do it, someone else is surely going to do it. And it is just this total belief that if we can get a product out there, there is an audience and a business can be built. So, it’s a pleasure to talk to you in this forum and it’s very valuable for us personally.
Nicole Clark: That’s exciting. And there is an audience that needs this. Thinking back now it’s like the blinders were taken off in starting the business. And I now see endless opportunity in things I had no idea existed before. And so, I think it’s a really awesome thing that you guys are doing.
ex judicata: Thank you. It’s really affirming to hear somebody in your position, who has built a business from scratch in the legal marketplace, believe what we believe.
How do you think your law school training, Nicole, helped you to become a successful businessperson?
Nicole Clark: Well, in a variety of ways. One law school is super grueling, and starting a business is incredibly hard, you know, it’s a grind for sure. You’re working a lot. Another thing I took away from law school is that I could learn anything. I remember learning securities law, and this was stuff I’d never come across. But if I set my mind to it, I could learn it. And in business, especially when starting a new company you have to wear many hats. Many of these roles will be new to you. But believing that you can learn, start doing it and knowing that you’ll be able to figure it out. I mean, that’s core to starting a business.
ex judicata: That is so interesting because we’ve asked this question of the people we have interviewed many times, and I think this is the first time anyone actually mentioned this aspect of it. What always comes up is, of course, the ability to think analytically, the ability to solve problems, manage risk etc. But the belief that you can zero in on anything new and learn it should go right under what is often referred to as the JD skill set.
Talking about doing stuff that you don’t know, did you have any kind of background in the numbers? I mean, you’re a journalism major. You then go to law school. I guess you had to learn to read spreadsheets and the like. Things as fundamental as ‘What is a balance sheet?’
Nicole Clark: I’ll tell you I’m a lot further along in the business and the numbers aspect is still a thing that is, you know, not for me. Early on I had a co-founder who did understand the numbers . That was helpful from the beginning. And then as the business grows, you hire people smarter than you at the things that you don’t want to necessarily get good at. But I had smart people help me so I could then focus on the bigger picture. You try to find and connect with people that balance you out.
ex judicata: One of the things that we did at ex judicata was make our first course for transitioning JDs one on financial fluency. Because so many lawyers struggle with the numbers. In our case, because Kim is smarter than me, she’s been handling the financial forecasting and day to day cash management. So important.
At what point in your business did you have a formal board of directors and how important was that, do you think, to attracting professional investors?
Nicole Clark: Early on we had our board on paper. Really two people who were talking with each other all day so there wasn’t much that was formalized. But once we raised our seed round, that lead investor joined us on the board. It only gets more formal as you move through, and the board gets bigger.
ex judicata: Was there any particular piece of advice you got when you were making a leap to business that stayed with you or pieces of advice?
Nicole Clark: We were lucky early on in finding advisors and mentors. Success in startups is a combination of luck and hard work. One of the things that was lucky for us is we joined an accelerator shortly after launching the business, which was Techstars. We became surrounded by a group of mentors. And so the great thing about that is there wasn’t only one mentor, there were different mentors for the different aspects of the business and that was really, really valuable.
ex judicata: Were you on site physically with the accelerator? How does that work exactly?
Nicole Clark: We were on-site in person. They were just adding the Los Angeles cohort when we started. We were lucky.
ex judicata: In the Techstars setup was there anyone else in the legal technology space?
Nicole Clark: It was all kinds of tech companies. However, the managing partner was a corporate lawyer before moving into startups, so there was someone who understood the industry. It was helpful to bring her on board to have that insight. Legal tech is a small circle and there hasn’t been many huge exits yet. Some, we’re getting there. And as more people get into legal tech there’ll be more of us to help each other.
ex judicata: If I’m not mistaken, Y Combinator, another major accelerator, was started by two lawyers.
Nicole Clark: You’re right.
ex judicata: That there are non-practicing lawyers everywhere doing all these great things they set out to do is part of our message. They did it. You can do it. That’s why we do these interviews, to show practicing lawyers what other lawyers who transitioned have done and how they did it.
Nicole Clark: I was going to say that fits in exactly with your mission, which is that non-practicing lawyers are everywhere in all kinds of jobs where they may be a lot more content than feeling stuck in the practice of law.
ex judicata: Perfect, Nicole. That’s such a wonderful place to leave it. Thank you so much and Mike for helping us set it up.