Nicole Bradick is a lawyer and Chief Strategy Officer at CuroLegal, a strategy, design and development firm focused exclusively on innovation in the legal industry. Run by lawyers, Curo helps legal industry clients develop new solutions to legal industry problems. Curo works with clients to design and build digital products aimed at making the law more accessible and making lawyers more efficient. Nicole is particularly interested in how to use good design to create better products and experiences for both lawyers and consumers.
Nicole has been published or quoted in several national publications, including the Boston Globe, the ABA Journal, Venture Beat, the Huffington Post, the Atlantic, and more. She has spoken at countless national legal and technology events, including South by Southwest, Reinvent Law, and ABA TECHSHOW. For her work in this area, Nicole was named a 2012 ABA Journal “Legal Rebel” and was named to the Fastcase 50 list of global legal innovators in 2014.
I grew up in Virginia, so I learned how to walk there, and that’s been pretty great for me. I still live in Portland (no, not that Portland). Since living in Maine, I’ve learned everything I know about the law — including the fact that the practice of law is not for me — and that it’s entirely possible to run an impactful business with a wide reach while living outside of major cities. Life here just happens to be pretty sweet.
Curo occupies a pretty unique place in the market. We are a strategy, design and development firm focused exclusively on the legal industry. We are primarily concerned with moving the industry forward and doing our part to create a more efficient, accessible, and fair legal system. We work with a broad range of legal industry clients, including legal tech startups, legal aid organizations, bar associations, law firms, etc. We work on some pretty exciting projects, either brought to us by clients or initiated by us, with outside partners brought in.
Some of our recent projects include a Veterans legal checkup product, a product for the American Bar Association aimed at helping solos/small firms create more efficient firms, an application to help victims of hate crimes (to be released soon), and a project that involves a wholesale rethinking of how legal aid services are delivered in a major US city.
I’m most proud of my team and the work they produce. For me personally, I love that I’m at a point in my career where I can reach down and help those just starting out because so many people helped me along the way. I have a soft spot for female legal tech entrepreneurs and really enjoy being in a mentor-type role.
Innovation to me is simple. It entails:
What’s not working? What’s working OK, but can be done better? How do we add more value? Once the problems are identified, take action to improve the situation. I include solutions big and small here — you don’t need to create the next ROSS to be innovative.
With respect to innovative technology in the industry (which is my wheelhouse), you certainly don’t need to have deep technical knowledge. I build technology for a living and do so without having to write any lines of code. You just need to have some fluency, an up-to-date knowledge of what tools are available/what’s possible, and build a team that can fill in the knowledge/skill gaps. I think more than anything, it’s useful to learn how to engage in structured problem-solving in order to innovate.
Living in a smaller city, if you don’t want a traditional job, you really need to strike out on your own. It took me about five years to realize that practicing law was not my thing. When I started to look around for other opportunities to use my JD, I found very little that interested me. It did, however, force me to study the industry. Once my eyes were open to the challenges facing the law, the opportunities were plentiful and I just had to pick a direction.
Of course it’s scary — all major change is scary — but for me it was the only option. It only took me about a week of running my own business full time to realize that I was doing exactly what I should be doing, so that was some pretty solid validation.
It’s certainly not for everyone. The space is getting more and more crowded, but there’s plenty of room for new and innovative ideas. If you feel like you have one, make sure you understand how your life will change in pursuit of that idea. Talk to other entrepreneurs in the space and seek out mentors. If you’re in need of funding for your startup, be sure to talk to others who have worked with investors, because that’s a whole different ballgame.
If you’re thinking about working for an existing legal tech company, I have no advice to give except to do it. If you’re unhappy with the practice of law and have a particular interest in technology, there are so many legal tech orgs out there hungry for talent or to train the right people.
I think the problem is more one of exposure as opposed to official instruction. There are some schools out there, like Suffolk Law and Michigan State University, that offer some pretty specialized tracks, and I think it’s critical that those programs exist. I don’t, however, think that this needs to be replicated at all law schools.
I think most students right now go to law school and never hear a word about technology or creative problem solving. At a minimum, schools should encourage presentations by people working in innovation and/or technology. Even better, schools should be looking at adding a bridge or regular course on these topics. This kind of exposure helps get students thinking about the possibility of things being done better than they are right now. There’s enough to learn about the actual law and the practice of law that having every student become an expert in technology and the tools for innovation seems impractical. I do, however, think that law practice management (with a practical technology component) should be required for all students at this point.
My biggest challenge was one I created all on my own. I started my first company while I was on maternity leave with baby #2 and I had a two year old at home. I was still practicing law. I cut down to practicing part-time, and part-time was home with babies and getting the business off the ground. There are certainly better circumstances for launching a company.
I honestly don’t know how I overcame it — am I still overcoming it? Looking back now, I think I had some freakish superpowers post-childbirth that I certainly no longer possess. It took a lot of late nights, a lot of emotional ups and downs, and a hell of a lot of grit (which I didn’t know I had prior to that time).
Much of the law itself is a rules-based system, so it was always going to be susceptible to automation. What we’re seeing now is the natural evolution of an industry as the available tools become more sophisticated and accessible. Expert systems have been around for ages, but we are seeing tools emerge right now that allow users to easily create their own expert system applications. We have every reason to assume that anything in the law that can be reduced to an expert system will be automated well into the future.
As far as machine learning goes, there certainly is a lot of opportunity there, but I think we’re just now wrestling with issues of algorithmic bias, what it means to be a lawyer and to provide legal services, etc. There has been a lot of work done in machine learning on more benign issues in the law, but it will get hairier as we go along. I think we’ll need to proceed with caution and be wary of these issues (as well as how regulations need to evolve to accommodate positive advances), but there’s so much opportunity to increase accessibility and, ideally, fairness in the system as this form of technology advances.
“Much of the law itself is a rules-based system, so it was always going to be susceptible to automation. What we’re seeing now is the natural evolution of an industry as the available tools become more sophisticated and accessible.”
The first generation of legal technology focused on bringing us a lot of new functionality, but we’ve reached a level of maturity where the focus going forward should be on a) usability and b) accessibility. The first wave of legal tech products were exciting and new, but quite difficult to use in many cases. The focus was much more on the back-end functionality as opposed to the user interface (including the administrative interfaces). I think we’re seeing now a focus on improving usability in legal technology, but for a lot of the older companies, it’s incredibly difficult to make these changes without scrapping it all and starting over. In addition, new frameworks like React and Angular are making it easier to create lightning-fast products which reduces friction for the user, but converting to one of those products takes a total overhaul of the front-end of the software.
Both short- and long-term, we have a legitimate crisis when it comes to access to justice. There are a lot of solutions and innovations in this area, but what we need is a massive structural overhaul of the system.
I think this starts with the industry agreeing on what it means to “practice law” and “deliver legal services” in light of advances over the last 20 years, and relax regulations that are designed to protect lawyers that were made without reference to the current justice gap. We have a major issue with a court system that is painfully lopsided, and that may be one of the hardest issues to tackle.
I could really use some kind of device that physically prevents me from engaging in Elaine-style dancing after one cocktail.
Thank you very much for your time and a quick peek into your life, Nicole Bradick!