Peter Aprile and Natalie Worsfold interview Adam La France. Adam is Knomos’ co-founder and CEO. With support and funding from the Canada Media Fund, MaRS LegalX, and Microsoft Ventures, Knomos is quickly positioning itself as the next generation of legal research and knowledge management. The group discuss Knomos’ principled and pragmatic approach to its upcoming public offering, the competitive market and what sets them apart, and conclude with what advice Adam has for current and future lawyers navigating their way through the rapidly shifting legal landscape.
Adam is lawyer and entrepreneur building Knomos, a visual platform for legal research & collaboration (think Google Maps for Law). Knomos focuses on data visualization and collective knowledge management to deliver an unparalleled user experience.
He may be a lawyer by trade but, he is a builder at heart. A graduate of McGill Law and called to the bar in British Columbia and Québec, his six years of legal domain and professional experience covers a range of legal practice, having worked at the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg, and as a sole practitioner. This critical insight ensures Knomos’ key features solve systemic problems in the legal industry, and that our platform’s core value is reflected in adoption among key influencers and stakeholders.
Peter Aprile is a senior lawyer specializing in tax dispute resolution and litigation. His vision as Counter’s founder and his everyday role at the firm are one and the same: to be an agent of change, uncovering opportunities and developing strategies that achieve more than anyone expected. A creative thinker, Peter studies problems from all different angles to find what others have missed. He’s also convinced that he likes winning more than most people.
Different people describe Peter in different ways. At the CRA and the federal Department of Justice, the word relentless comes up quite a lot. Admittedly, so does the word a**hole – but it’s often said with a certain grudging respect, if not affection. Peter’s clients call him a saint. Well, some of them, anyway. His colleagues describe him as empowering and harddriving, but fair. Peter’s friends call him loyal. His wife describes him as a lot to deal with, but worth it. Peter encourages his young daughter and son to call him “The Big Homie,” though with limited success. His mother describes him with the single word mischievous – before going on to complain that he should call more.
Natalie is a tax lawyer who represents individual taxpayers and owner-managed businesses in disputes with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). She also successfully challenges CRA decisions denying taxpayer relief and helps facilitate applications under the Voluntary Disclosures Program.
But what you really need to know about Natalie is that she’s a tax litigator with heart. When she takes a case, it’s not out of technical interest – it’s because she cares. And if she believes the government has got something wrong, she won’t stop until it’s been put right. She’s fierce.
Natalie is the co-architect behind many of Counter’s process workflows, software and data analytics systems, as well as our comprehensive knowledgebase (loving named Hank). And when it comes to preparing cases, she’s Counter’s secret weapon – happiest when elbow-deep in evidence, meticulously building creative solutions to seemingly impossible problems. Because the fact is Natalie sees things that other people don’t.
Natalie’s family and friends describe her as loyal, selfless, understanding and fun. They also mention stubborn. To her Counter colleagues she’s a combination of stellar brainpower and contagious enthusiasm who elevates the game of everyone around her.
Tech, Tools & More
Peter Aprile: [00:06] Hi, and welcome to Building NewLaw. It’s a podcast hosted by me, Peter Aprile, and my colleague, Natalie Worsfold. In each episode we interview lawyers, legal technologists, and other like‑minded people at the forefront of NewLaw.
[00:19] We hope that the podcast connects the NewLaw community and helps us all learn more about the approaches that are changing the way that we practice law. Enjoy the show.
[00:26] We’ve been having a great time recording Building NewLaw, and we’re really happy that so many people have engaged with us at conferences and online. It’s been absolutely amazing.
Natalie Worsfold: [00:39] I actually had a lady come up to me at the Small and Solo Conference. She wanted to learn a little bit more and was asking questions about our guest experiences and our experience in building a new law firm.
Peter: [00:50] Yes, she recognized your voice, right?
Peter: [00:53] The experience has been amazing and totally unexpected. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and ask about our law firm, what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, the tools that we’re using and building, and the things that we see on the inside of our law firm as well as the outside.
Natalie: [01:07] In an effort to have more of these conversations and help wherever we can, we decided to expand the Building NewLaw offering, and we’re going to start a segment called Ask Building NewLaw.
Peter: [01:16] Ask Building NewLaw is set to be an opportunity for listeners to ask us NewLaw questions, and if we don’t have the experience or expertise, we’ll ask one of our NewLaw guests to help.
Natalie: [01:26] There are no restrictions on the types of questions. You can ask about the business of law, systems, software, other people or products in the legal landscape. If you want to ask us or any past guest, or any NewLaw leader a question, please tweet at us using @BuildingNewLaw or the hashtag #askbnl.
Peter: [01:42] But if you really want to participate in the show visit our website at BuildingNewLaw.ca/askbnl. That page will have a widget that’ll allow you to record a voicemail question. That way we can splice your audio into the show and you can have your two seconds of BNL fame.
Natalie: [01:57] I hope we get a ton of participation on this.
Peter: [01:59] I’m really excited about this. We’ve been saying throughout this whole process that it’s the NewLaw community’s willingness to share and collaborate, and that’s what’s really going to make this segment really interesting and hopefully a lot of fun.
Natalie: [02:12] Thanks everyone that listens. Go tweet at us right now, or better yet go to our website. Leave us your voicemail question and be part of the show.
Sponsor: [02:23]The Building NewLaw podcast is supported by Counter Tax Lawyers, a new type of tax controversy and litigation law firm. To learn more about Counter, go to countertax.ca.
Peter: [02:34] Today we’re speaking to Adam La France. Adam is the cofounder and CEO of Knomos. Knomos is the next generation of legal research. It uses machine learning and data visualization to allow users to see and know more.
Natalie: [02:54] Legal research is one of those areas that we see historically monopolized by big publishers. I think it’s an area where collaboration or sharing of knowledge could help remove some of the more mundane aspects of being a lawyer. In other words, it’s ripe for disruption.
Peter: [03:09] Throughout law school and in his legal career, Adam saw the problems with the way lawyers conduct legal research, and he knew that it could better. In 2014, Adam joined forces with some gifted video game developers and put together a proof of concept for a better legal research platform.
Natalie: [03:24] Now just two short years later, Adam and the Knomos team have raised over $700,000 in funding and are currently working in the Microsoft Ventures Program to bring Knomos to the world.
Peter: [03:33] Here’s our interview with Adam.
Natalie: [03:35] Hi, Adam. Thanks for joining us. I was hoping you could tell us a little bit more about Knomos.
Adam La France: [03:44] Knomos is building the next generation of legal research and knowledge management technology. For us, what that means is employing technology like data visualization and machine learning to really transform legal research from what we consider a solitary exercise to more of a collective knowledge base.
Peter: [04:00] So what Knomos is essentially is a search and research tool. Is that fair?
Adam: [04:05] Yeah. I think at its core it is search and research, but in a holistic capacity. Whether that be legal research in the traditional sense like looking up public searches of laws and information, but also for other users it would be more integrated with work product or things that are internal to an enterprise or a firm.
Natalie: [04:24] When you say other users are you talking about lawyers? Are you talking about members of the public? Who’s this aimed at?
Adam: [04:30] Knomos is aimed at anyone and everyone. Legal research and the need to know more about the law and legal information isn’t limited to legal professionals.
[04:38] As far as we’re concerned, there is and will always be a version of the platform that will be made publicly available, but then there will also be more products that are geared towards lawyers, whether they be in‑house counsel or at law firms, or even within the government.
Peter: [04:55] You mentioned two things. You mentioned data visualization and you mentioned machine learning. These are the things I think makes Knomos different than other products. Is that correct?
Adam: [05:03] Yeah, I would say those are the primary attributes. The question we asked ourselves when we founded the company was, how might we approach legal information differently if we weren’t just limited to words on a page?
Peter: [05:16] Start with the first one. Tell us about how Knomos uses data visualization and why anybody should be interested in that.
Adam: [05:23] If you’ve heard the expression “A picture’s worth a thousand words,” you know we often say, “Why not more?”
[05:28] Humans can process visual information 60,000 times faster than the time it takes to decode text alone, so we’re leveraging data visualization to help users discover relevant information faster.
Peter: [05:42] I’m going to ask you to do something odd. I’m going to ask you to describe the pictures in words...
Peter: [05:49] which goes against what you just said the power is. But I do a search using Knomos. What do I see?
Adam: [05:55] The easiest way for me to describe visuals using words is I would say Google Maps for law. What we’re really appealing to there is principles of cartography and visual navigation. When I say cartography, there’s a couple of aspects there.
[06:10] One is the ability to give users a birds‑eye view, a bigger picture perspective, of all the different sources of legal information and how they all fit together. With detail on demand, you can really drill down in on a specific point of information and gain more insight there.
[06:27] We learned early on there isn’t going to be a one size fits all data visualization. What we’re really digging into is different visual representations at different points in the user’s workflow that really add utility to them and the information they’re looking for at that point.
Peter: [06:43] So depending on the stage of research or the nature of research, that visualization that you get is going to be different.
Adam: [06:49] Exactly right. We intend to focus on three main types of visualization. One is a macro level view. The second one is the networker interrelated view.
[06:59] Then the third one is a micro view when you’ve really drilled down and you’re looking at one source of information, one resource in particular.
Natalie: [07:06] That drilling down and the interconnectedness that you’re talking about, is that where the machine learning side of things comes in?
Adam: [07:12] That’s part of it. Machine learning is a bit of a buzzword, and it can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
[07:18] What it really means to me is using both statistical analysis and creating models that help the algorithms learn over time, so that they can help surface more relevant information.
[07:30] Machine learning as applied to legal information can do any number of things, whether it be document classification and tagging, sentiment analysis of how one judgment is citing another judgment, or even things including recommendations.
Natalie: [07:45] So as Knomos gets more users it will learn more about the connections between the various pieces of information within it?
Adam: [07:51] Correct. One of the things that is foundational to our approach is that machine learning and how we apply it isn’t limited to the legal data itself, so how laws or how cases cite each other.
[08:04] But it really is tapping into the user activity as well, because law is informed by how lawyers use it, how judges use it, and in that context, the next generation of research should be able to provide users with more contextual information.
[08:20] It should be able to provide them with the ability to understand that information within their organization, whether it be a firm or within the broader body of people using the law as well.
Adam: [08:37] Currently, we’re in private beta development, which means we’re working closely with key partners, both in the government and the courts as well as a couple of private enterprises.
[08:48] This is all part of as we build up towards the public release of the platform later this year. That public release will be partly informed for a public‑facing legal resource, and then additional products specifically geared towards lawyers and professionals to follow.
Peter: [09:05] Why the decision to do the public accessible platform first and then move on to other areas, like having lawyers or professionals have access?
Adam: [09:14] There’s a couple of reasons there, one being principled, and one being pragmatic. On the principled level, we didn’t just want to build a better mousetrap for lawyers. The need for better legal research tools is not limited to professionals in the field.
[09:29] There’s a real ongoing crisis or ongoing issue in terms of access to justice. A lot of that stems from not having true or meaningful access to legal information.
[09:39] On the pragmatic side of things, it’s also easier to build something small and to get it right and then to continue to iterate and refine on that as you build for more sophisticated audiences and the specific needs of lawyers in the professional segment.
Peter: [09:54] Is there anybody else doing anything similar to this? Who are your competitors in the field? Who’s trying to get to market that you see out there?
Adam: [10:00] There are competitors in the field. The one company that your listeners may have heard of is Ravel. They’re looking at applying both visualization and some type of predictive analytics, so machine learning to case law.
[10:13] We see that as a great sign in terms of both the market need for what we’re doing and the longer term value of what we’re building.
Peter: [10:20] From what you know about Ravel and where you guys are going, what do you think the key difference is at this stage?
Adam: [10:25] To put it bluntly, same‑same, but different. I think we’re applying similar approaches, but to very different ends. Ravel, to a certain extent, and I mean this in the best way possible, is focused on building a better mousetrap for lawyers.
[10:41] For us, applying visualization or machine learning to legal information writ large, and when we say that we really want to take a holistic perspective. Applying it to case law is one thing.
[10:52] Integrating and aggregating content from not just laws and cases, but everything from government publications and forms and anything and everything that is going to help people be more informed about their legal rights and empower them to act on them.
Peter: [11:08] You’re including anything on the Internet as well, like any blog articles and things of that nature. Is that the idea?
Adam: [11:14] Longer term, absolutely. I think the power of what we’re building and the ability to network and cross‑reference that information is by no means limited to primary legal sources in the traditional sense.
Peter: [11:27] I think that’s amazing.
Natalie: [11:29] I notice that you’re working with a bunch of video game developers and that really, really intrigued me. Can you tell us about how that came up?
Adam: [11:36] When I was in Montreal I was at law school at McGill, and I met a couple of people in the video gaming industry. We got to talking about how the video gaming industry over the past 40 years has made leaps and bounds in terms of both technological process, but also user‑driven design.
[11:57] The interest in working with people in the video gaming industry was really to say, how can we take some of these industry leading examples and build a better user interface and build a better user experience?
Natalie: [12:09] That user interface or user experience, it’s been a key factor in how you’ve gotten your funding.
Adam: [12:14] In a large part yes. The Canada Media Fund, since 2010 they have an experimental stream that goes to funding innovative interactive digital media.
[12:26] We said, how could we develop an interactive digital media platform for law, something that is more than just a simple search box with a laundry list of blue links? When we applied to the federal government, it was specifically on the development of that interactive UI.
Natalie: [12:44] Having that extra funding from the Canada Media Fund, that’s what led to the interest from Microsoft?
Adam: [12:49] I think it led to interest from a lot of people. To be perfectly honest, when the federal government gives you $700,000 to build the next generation of legal research, people stand up and take notice.
Peter: [13:00] What are you doing with Microsoft?
Adam: [13:02] The short answer is, we over the past four months have participated in the Microsoft Accelerator Program.
[13:09] Their Accelerator Program is designed to do just that, help you accelerate the growth of your company, whether it be on the technical front or the business development front, at a rate that would otherwise be unattainable on your own.
[13:23] On the technical side of things, what we’re doing with Microsoft is really building out our core technology in a way that seamlessly integrates with the Microsoft technology stack.
[13:33] One of the questions we invariably face from people is, “How long and how much is this going to cost for me to implement?” By partnering closely with Microsoft, we can really work to reduce those costs and reduce that effort.
Peter: [13:46] How long ago would you say this journey started?
Adam: [13:48] It’s been a couple of years in the making now, so I would say early 2014 is when it all came to be. We’re only about two and a half years in at this point, but we’ll see what the next seven and a half bring.
Peter: [14:01] Unbelievable. Two and a half years. That’s staggering, and so I almost hesitate to ask, but within this two and a half years the hardest and most surprising lesson that you guys have faced?
Adam: [14:10] I think the hardest lesson is getting comfortable with hearing no a lot more than you’re going to hear yes. It is a challenge.
[14:18] It is a daily challenge to really put it out there and to understand that sometimes when someone says no, it actually has nothing to do with the value of what you’re building and its future potential, but it may be for reasons entirely beyond your control.
Peter: [14:33] We’re seeing this shift in your company and other companies that are in the space or are part of that, and they’re driving towards how law is going to be. What do you think that practicing lawyers need to do to be on the right side of that change?
Adam: [14:46] For most practicing lawyers, the simple answer is to really and truly focus on where they add value to their clients. Focus on those higher value activities like providing advice and counsel.
[14:58] Make way, make room, for new technologies and new systems that help automate and help augment their ability for them to do their job effectively.
Peter: [15:08] I agree with you. The only difficulty I have with it is this. I think that’s easy for us to do. Then I think about younger lawyers, lawyers entering the profession or at the early stage in their career.
[15:17] I think, “You don’t have the skills to deliver that high-level work. You haven’t figured it out yet. You don’t have enough reps. You haven’t acquired enough knowledge to get there.” I wonder what happens to them or how they get there, I guess.
Adam: [15:31] I wonder it, too. It’s hard to learn by doing if clients are no longer willing to pay for the hourly rate at which you learn. I think experiential learning, whether it starts earlier, so before they even enter the profession and that can inform changes to legal education.
[15:48] But I think, too, it’s how do we approach more of an entrepreneurial mindset within the firm, because there are ways that lawyers can get those reps under their belt without necessarily having those costs ultimately passed on to the client.
Natalie: [16:02] If you’re a student or you’re newly entering the profession right now, what do you know now that you wished you knew then?
Adam: [16:10] What I know now relates to more than just law. What I would counsel young lawyers is to broaden their field of vision. Don’t limit your continued knowledge, your professional experience, to stay solely focused on law.
[16:23] Stay abreast of developments in other industries. Stay abreast of developments in fields that are of interest to you. Stay passionate. Stay curious. Stay intellectually hungry in a way that your skill set continues to grow and evolve.
[16:35] Those will give rise to opportunities. Those will give rise to apply your legal education and practice in a way you might not have otherwise thought possible.
Peter: [16:45] There’s a lot of people doing interesting things in the NewLaw space. Who do you see? Who’s under the radar? Who do you look at and think, “Wow, that’s kind of cool?”
Adam: [16:53] Margaret Hagan, Stanford School of Design. I’m always impressed by some of the ideas that come out there. There’s also the Open Laws movement in Europe are doing some pretty interesting things as well.
[17:04] I think that’s what I see as promising in this “NewLaw space” is that there is a real groundswell of interest and activity. There’s so many different applications that are just looking for ways to improve upon the current status quo.
Peter: [17:19] Thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate you sharing your journey and Knomos’ journey. We look forward to great things.
Natalie: [17:26] I actually learned a lot from speaking to Adam. There are aspects to Knomos that I had no idea that that was the intention behind it. I’d seen the data visualization, and I knew he was mapping legislation and case law and things like that.
[17:42] But I didn’t realize that they were focused on using law firms and the knowledge that they’ve got either within them or on their website as a way to understand law a little bit better.
Peter: [17:52] There’s a lot of great stuff that lawyers and law firms are publishing online, and any system that can map all that and bring all those pieces together is certainly going to be a much more powerful research tool and network.
Natalie: [18:05] Right now you’re kind of constrained, because you go with a paid legal research database that won’t contain information from various firms. Your research is limited to what’s been included in that specific database.
[18:17] Whereas as Knomos grows, it will eventually include credible information that law firms have put out and shared with the public.
Peter: [18:24] Yeah, it’s anything that’s on the line.
Natalie: [18:27] [laughs]
Peter: [18:29] We talk about it with our own knowledge management system, right? Although extremely valuable, the limitation is that it’s in a closed system.
[18:37] Everything else that we use for research in terms of legal research providers is within that closed system as well. If you give me a tool to be able to connect these worlds, that would be pretty powerful.
Natalie: [18:48] I like the idea, too, because he’s talking about how it stops research from being static. I know internally a lot of law firms do the same research over and over again, so they just take a previous memo, or whatever, and add to it.
[18:59] It was interesting to hear that this connectivity would be dynamic in the sense that you’re always connecting to the most recent version of any particular piece of knowledge.
Peter: [19:09] If you can find a way as they seem to have found, and, again we’ll continue to look at this. It’s a product that’s obviously, still evolving.
[19:16] But if they can connect that text and then present it in a visual way that we can digest in a way that we couldn’t otherwise, or better than we could otherwise, that is going to augment lawyers in a way they couldn’t be any other way.
[19:30] Give me pictures. Let me dive down. What does Adam have and Knomos have in common with almost everybody else we’ve been interviewing?
Natalie: [19:38] I think Adam’s a great example of another person who’s seen a problem. He was going through law school creating visual maps of all the connections and all of the case law and everything that was involved in what he was learning and saw how that helped him so much that he’s taken what he perceived to be a problem in how law was taught and now he’s followed through on a solution that is going to open law up to everybody.
Peter: [20:02] It’s interesting, because different people that we’re talking to are coming up with solutions in different ways. Morgan Borins, they went out and asked their clients what they were experiencing and then built a solution.
[20:13] Adam is somebody that has come at it, I think, a little bit from the other end as you were saying. Because he was a visual learner and because he was teaching himself law in a visual way that led him to this product.
[20:25] There’s a whole host of people who are really going to benefit as this product continues to develop and see law in a whole new way.
Natalie: [20:31] Kind of ties in, too, in our conversation with Sam. It was like, do you need to go through a painful experience or some kind of problem in order to see better solutions?
[20:41] Adam’s coming at it from the personal angle that you’re talking about, and then I don’t think Sam was going through any kind of separation, but he’s seen a pain point and worked to fix that.
Peter: [20:50] Then tying that in to Adam’s message, right? What do people need to be aware of? What do they need to do? I guess to sum up his point is keep your eyes open. Look for things that could be done better and then build a solution for that.
[21:04] These are just guys that saw a problem and then started acquiring knowledge or relying on existing knowledge, and then as Adam said, collaborating with a bunch of really smart people who see a world or have different skills, and then building something that solves a problem in a whole new way.
Natalie: [21:20] You’ve got to have the vision, and then you’ve got to have the grit and the stamina to follow it through.
Peter: [21:25] For at least two and a half years.
Peter: [21:32] Vive la France!
Natalie: [21:33]For this episode’s show notes and transcript, please visit our website at buildingnewlaw.ca. We’d love to hear from you, and if you have any feedback, feel free to send an email to email@example.com or come and find us on Twitter @BuildingNewLaw.
[21:53]Don’t forget to subscribe on iTunes, our website, or wherever else you get your podcasts. This has been Building NewLaw. Join us again for another episode exploring the approaches, processes, and tools that are redefining how we practice law.
Sponsor: [22:06]Thanks for listening to the Building NewLaw podcast, brought to you by Counter Tax Lawyers. To learn more about Counter, go to countertax.ca.
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