What’s Next Solo: Dan Lear – From Lawyer to Avvo Industry Relations

Name: Dan Lear

Current Position, company and what your company does.

I am currently the Director of Industry Relations at Avvo. Avvo connects people to the quality legal help they deserve through industry-leading tools and services, including a free Q&A forum, a comprehensive lawyer directory, and fixed-fee services offered by local lawyers.

Prior to your current position at your company, how long did you practice law and where? What was your area of practice?

I started my career as a Paralegal at Microsoft, and then as an Attorney at two boutique technology law firms Snodgrass Annand PLLC and Ragen Swan PLLC. For eight years, I advised companies from startups to the Fortune 100, helping to develop agreements and terms for early cloud services offerings well before “the cloud” was an everyday norm.

Why did you decide to move from practicing law to your position at your current company, and how did you find your current position?

After eight years as a practicing lawyer, I realized that the legal technology missives I’d been writing for my blog, Right Brain Law, were more in-line with what I believed and how I could contribute to the industry. I switched to project management with a family business part-time while continuing to practice law part-time. This allowed me to continue to build my reputation within the legal world as someone with innovative ideas that went beyond the usual hourly billing thinking. While serving on a Washington State Bar Association commission on the future of legal services, I met Mark Britton, CEO and Founder of Avvo, and we quickly realized that our missions aligned. I’ve been at Avvo since 2014.

What is your title at your company, and what are some of your responsibilities?  Can you describe a typical day (if there is such a thing)?

As the Director of Industry Relations, I advocate within the legal industry to better improve access to justice, primarily through improved legal technology, including the use of Avvo. I frequently speak to Bar and industry associations, legal tech meet-up groups, and others to share how technology can help Americans get the legal help they need, and publish content across industry publications and on Avvo’s Lawyernomics blog. Avvo’s mission is making legal services easier, more transparent, and accessible for consumers. This is a paradigm shift for many lawyers and that’s where I come in. I paint a picture of a legal services delivery system that has the user – “the consumer” – at the center. Lawyers who put clients at the center of the legal experience serve those clients more effectively and also are better equipped to understand how to fix the systemic problems that contribute to lack of meaningful access to the legal system for so many.

On a daily basis I connect with key people and organizations inside and outside the legal industry and try to get them to know and, I hope, like me and my employer. I use Twitter regularly for my job (really!) and a usual week is filled with writing blog posts and articles, collaborating with internal colleagues on strategies to build relationships and expand our presence in important markets, talking to lawyers and legal leaders throughout the country, coffee and lunch meetings with local folks and people passing through Seattle, and thinking about who Avvo is as a company and how we want to be represented to lawyers.

How does your training and experience as a lawyer help you in your current position? 

Right or wrong most attorneys think that they can only learn from other attorneys. Being an attorney gives me instant credibility when I’m speaking to an a group of them. Also, as legal ethics is a frequent speaking topic, being an attorney who has practiced law and thought about how the rules of professional conduct apply to an attorney in everyday practice is very helpful.

What are some of the differences working for a technology company in contrast to working as a lawyer, either at a firm for others or in your own practice?

In a technology company there is much greater respect for the wide swath of disciplines needed to get the work done than in a law firm. In most law firms if you are not an attorney you’re immediately perceived as less valuable. In a tech company there are still hierarchies (unfortunately) but there’s a much greater focus on collaboration and an acknowledgement that it takes a broad set of disciplines for the business to survive and thrive.

What was the biggest challenge for you in transitioning from law practice to your current position?

I still struggle to understand and apply business principles effectively. I have an MBA but business in practice is different than business in theory. It’s hard. While many of the most effective or financially successful lawyers – at least those who work at in private practice or in-house – are also good business people, for many lawyers you get to just “put your head down and bill.” You have to make a business case for everything in business and it needs to be couched in the financial benefit to the company. And this can mean a lot of things and it’s constantly shifting. To be clear, personally I prefer solving these kinds of business problems and solving them in this way as opposed to approaching problems from a legal point of view but it is a big change.

Do you miss practicing law?  What have you done, if anything, to keep your law license and legal skills intact?

Honestly, I don’t really miss it but one thing I have gotten both as a result of meeting lots of lawyers in my current job and having gotten perspective now that I’m not practicing is that the definition of “practicing law” is very, very broad. While I don’t miss the kind of law I practiced in the way I practiced it and I left the practice with a real “good riddance” attitude I now appreciate that there probably is a way that I could be practicing law and really enjoying it. Ultimately, like lots of things, it’s bittersweet.

Do you have any formal training in technology or “hot” technical skills (e.g., programming, product development, data science) and are these skills necessary for your current position? 

 I don’t. While I just said I really struggle to effectively implement business ideas in practice I think even my theoretical understanding of business makes me more effective in this space than most lawyers might be. I’ve also spent almost my entire career working in business – as an in-house corporate paralegal then as a corporate attorney and finally now at Avvo – so I’ve picked up some good business skills and understandings along the way.

As far as technology, about myself I frequently repeat the adage: “In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.” Because I’ve spent all of my career around technology and have been naturally curious about tech and how it works, I’ve learned a great deal about it just being around technology. Therefore, among a group of lawyers (technologically blind for the most part) I (the one-eyed man) can legitimately call myself a technologist and get away with it. However, if you put me in a room with actual technologists, I’m toast.

If a solo lawyer was interested in following your career path, what advice would you have? 

My career path has been a bit wonky but, generally, I’d give a solo lawyer two pieces of advice (1) pushing off into a relatively uncharted and still nascent space like legal technology means being comfortable with knowing that the career path is pretty unpredictable. You’re leaving the world of associate to partner and the identify of being a lawyer for something much more ambiguous (and much more fun).

What excites you most about the future of legal technology?

The legal services delivery model is broken. The way legal services are and have been traditionally delivered is so antiquated and inefficient that technology can’t help but improve the system. I look at the legal landscape and I see so much opportunity for change and improvement. It’s a fun and exciting time to be working in this space.