Earlier this week, I reported that Alma Asay, the former litigator who founded the litigation management platform Allegory Law, has joined the law firm Crowell & Moring as senior director of practice innovation and client value. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to catch up with Asay and learn more about why she made the move and what her role will be.
Asay had been a litigator at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher when she launched Allegory in 2012 as one of the first cloud-based litigation management platforms. When Allegory was purchased by Integreon in 2017, she became its chief innovation officer. In March 2020, Asay moved to Litera, where she was a domain expert and advisor to clients on litigation.
Why She Made the Move
I started our conversation by asking her why she wanted to make the move to Crowell.
Asay said she was not someone who “ran away screaming from big law,” and had always thought of returning to a large firm. After leaving Integreon, she took a six-month hiatus to consider her future, and came to the conclusion that she wanted to work in legal innovation, but in a broad role where she would not be pigeonholed into a litigation focus. She also knew she did not want to be in a sales or commission-based role.
Her thought at the time was to seek a position in a law firm. “I wanted to take everything I had learned and take it back into the firm environment.” But she faced a challenge in that she and her husband had made the personal decision to divide their time between her family home in Virginia and his professional base of Los Angeles. She worried that finding a firm that would accommodate that split would be difficult.
When the opportunity came along to join Litera, she saw it as perfect, because it was the kind of broad, customer-based role she wanted, and one that would accommodate her bi-coastal family life. So she tabled the idea of joining a firm with the thought that she would come back to it when it made more sense.
“This evangelist role sounded great because I could get to continue to build relationships, offer expertise in the market, learn new technologies, be a face of Litera, and do all the things that I love doing, without the sales,” Asay said.
But while working at Litera, Asay came to see that it can be difficult for an outsider to push change within law firms, because even though she was not in a sales role, law firm professionals often perceived her as trying to sell something.
“Obviously there are a lot of great people doing great things on the outside, but I just kind of had this itch to be able to be in one place and build the kind of trust that you need with one specific group of people in order to try new things, in order to work hand-in-hand on change management and adoption,” Asay said.
Asay said she loved working at Litera and had no thought of leaving. But earlier this year, she met Kay Kim, who formerly held the practice innovation role at Crowell before moving last November to Simpson Thacher & Bartlett as director of practice innovation, and who suggested she consider the position at Crowell. She interviewed with a number of people at the firm and was impressed.
“One of the things that was important to me coming out of my time at Gibson was to find the same kind of comradery and the same kind of people who I would feel like I don’t mind working long hours with them – because I knew what I was signing up for going back to the big law side. I just wanted to make sure I had the same relationships that I had at Gibson.”
What Her Role Will Be
I asked Asay to elaborate on what her role will be at Crowell. She said that from her first meeting with Ellen Dwyer, chair of Crowell’s executive committee, Dwyer was clear that this was to be a client-driven role.
“Her concern with my background was that I might be too technology focused. I explained to her that it’s actually the opposite. After spending a decade in legal technology, I have a much better grasp of the fact that technology is not always the solution and technology can often be very difficult to deploy.”
“It’s not enough to throw [technology] out there and tell people it’s available. If you’re really going to solve a problem and drive innovation, you have to engage in change management. You have to get people to actually adopt the tool. It has to be the right fit.
“We were very much aligned that my role would be to understand from clients what their challenges are and look for innovative solutions where the firm can go to that next level in meeting or exceeding client demands.”
Understanding Clients’ Challenges
I asked Asay if her focus will be on problems clients face vis-a-vis how they work with the firm or problems completely independent of their relationship with the firm.
She said that they would not necessary be problems specifically related to Crowell, but in how clients work with outside counsel generally.
“I think there’s been this misconception in the industry … that corporate counsel are going to drive innovation because they’re going to tell law firms, this is how you have to do it. What I’ve seen happening is corporate counsel going to law firms and saying, ‘We don’t care how you do it, but we’re not going to pay the same amount – we want to pay less and we want to get more.’”
While some firms have responded to this by cutting fees or coming up with creative pricing models, Asay believes pricing is not the only solution.
“What I’m looking for is for clients to tell me instances where Crowell or other firms they’ve worked with have particularly impressed them in service delivery, and then look for ways we can replicate that.”
While one part of her approach will be replicating successes, the other part will be hearing clients’ challenges, Asay said. She described a scenario of a new in-house counsel in a company with a lot of similar cases needing to get up to speed quickly. She could help them find a way to get a better bird’s eye view of all their matters.
“So we’ll both be trying to get specific examples of successes and replicating them and specific examples of challenges that we can solve.”
Starting with A ‘Listening Tour’
As Asay steps into such a potentially broad role, how does she plan to get started? Dwyer encouraged her to start with a “listening tour” – to take time to learn about the firm, the people who work there, and its clients.
“I’m learning a lot and starting to put the pieces together, and already sitting on some ideas of places we might start,” she said. “I think, as I listen to everybody, there are obviously a lot of things we could do, a lot of directions we could go in.”
One lesson her career has taught her, Asay said, is that while innovation is always talked about as involving “fancy” and “amazing” ideas, there is also a lot of low-hanging fruit.
“There are a lot of challenges that clients have that are – I don’t want to use the word ‘easy’ – but they are much more easily solved than doing some big deployment of a new technology. One thing that’s come up in my conversations internally and externally, for example, is, client portal pages. Another thing that’s come up is reusing content.”
“Do I want to do some grand things? Sure, that would be fun. I also want to make sure that my primary focus is on practicality – what are our client’s challenges today that we can solve in a reasonable amount of time with a reasonable amount of resources. Let’s kind of chip away at some of those before we try to go do some grand fancy thing that no one’s really asking for.”
Reports to Executive Committee
I asked Asay where she fits in within the firm’s infrastructure and what kinds of staffing and resources she has available to her.
For now, she said, she is a department of one, reporting directly to the firm’s executive committee. While others at the firm are involved in practice innovation, they also have other responsibilities. One of the outcomes of her listening tour will be to recommend what her team should look like and who should be on it.
She is also working with the firm’s technology and innovation committee, which is made up of attorneys and other professionals across the firm, who are also thinking about innovation and technology and how the firm can take steps forward.
“I’ve met them and they’re going to be a tremendous resource for me as well, because I can bounce ideas off of them, in terms of what might actually move the needle with them and clients.”
Although Asay’s earlier career was focused on litigation, her role at Crowell will span all practice areas. Through her experience running and selling a technology startup and then as an evangelist at Litera across its product lines, she came to understand transactional practice almost as well as she did litigation, she said.
“I’ve just spent 10 years, talking with lawyers, talking with technologists, and understanding how different tools or other innovations address different areas of law,” she said.