Q&A: Innovation and Entrepreneurship with Dave Deppe

The co-founder of a legal-documentation IT firm reflects on the challenges of going from startup to global in less than a decade, the challenges of finding the talent to make that happen and why Kansas City was the place to do it all.

Q. You started UnitedLex at a time that was pretty volatile for anybody wanting to get into anything financial and you’ve made it grow. What did you see as a big problem you wanted to face or change?

A. Generally, as an entrepreneur, that’s why I was drawn to legal because I saw so much opportunity to optimize. Identifying facts, data, evidence is something that is not as easy as it sounds when you really don’t know what you’re looking for. We developed Questio, which is Latin for “seeking truth,” which is an analytics application that we point at emails and attachments, the use of technology to identify ways to do more with less or more with the same, but to focus on the problem. So, the problem is we don’t know what we’re looking for, we have way too much data because the client doesn’t know what the scope is. They give us five years of data or two years of data. We have to identify what we’re looking for, and the only way to do that is to get a baseline of what you have. What are you starting with, and do you even have the right data to begin with?  The technology that we’ve developed around each of the practice areas, whether it’s contract management, intellectual property, immigration, litigation services, the cyber-risk solutions practice, are all designed to solve a problem that nothing else in the market can solve and to be consistent with the value propsition that we’re bringing to our clients and the value capture that we commit to guarantee them.

Q. When it comes to the entrepreneurial market in Kansas City, what was it for you then and what is it now?

A. I sometimes feel that entrepreneurship is like land—there’s only so much of it. So as development continues, we’re going to run out of dirt. There’s two ways to go: up, or you can go down. Our office in London is an example. There are cranes everywhere. They can only build up. So we call it the “London rising”. And so when I consider entrepreneurship, they’re with all of the giant tech companies and the broad platforms, like Office 365. How are you going to go out and innovate a new email journaling solution today? How are you going to compete with Microsoft? You can’t. And what value are you going to be able to create that’s going to be able to compete with a $55 per month Office 365 license? I think the opportunity to create, in an entrepreneurial environment, and to have it be really, really meaningful is so much harder today because the speed at which other companies can develop technology is so much faster. Fortunately, the thing that still makes it highly possible is the market’s willingness to continue to invest in tech in private equity and venture capital. I find that people that have been in family businesses that go to work have a real appreciation for entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. I feel like Kansas City has been highly welcoming. Ingram’s has been a phenomenal supporter of our business; we really appreciate that.

Q. Is Kansas City friendlier for entrepreneurs? Or is it a little bit tougher?

A. I get to see a lot of tech companies—SKC is also a great business. I think it’s around 22-23-24 years old and it’s a tech services business. I really enjoy seeing those types of businesses that Kansas City has continued to support locally as much as possible, and we certainly try to do as much locally here as we can. But I would like to see more local innovation on artificial intelligence, specifically in the area of human behavior, natural language processing maybe combined with latent semantic analysis, semantic indexing. There are so many business purposes for that, to be able to determine what someone’s textual neutral is. What is Jenn’s zero, so that I know when you’re being positive and when you’re being negative grammatically.


Q. So through text you can read it and understand a person’s emotion?

A. Conceptually, yes. The algorithms run and tell me when you’re happy, when you’re sad, when you’re angry. The idea is that what I would be able to do with that then, if I know this set of facts, which are that you may be suspected of trading company IP, and the number one way to do that is people attach it to an email and send it to their webmail address, from their work account. This happens every day, all day. But we have to try to find some intent, also, right? Because you may have just been sending things to work at home from your home computer or something. So, if we know what your baseline is and you’re negative, you’re upset, you’re angry, and, 99% of the time you never send an e-mail after 6 p.m., and I have eight e-mails after 6 p.m.—you’re negative, you’re angry, you did not include a subject line or a body, but you have six attachments. That’s my red flag. So, the platform is designed to do that through a range of different ways, but there’s a lot of human logic the investigators might set. I would love to see the Generation Y here, locally, really step up and bring some meaningful tech to the local market.


Q. Does having a headquarters really matter any more—a physical location—especially for a tech company?

A. I think as long as you have people and not robots, you need a home base, especially for shared services. Shared services is probably the life blood of your organization and to have a truly elite shared services department, it’s a lot harder than I ever thought it would be. And Kansas City has been a phenomenal headquarters for us. And the Sprint campus has been amazing—the people here are amazing, and I couldn’t be happier. But I will tell you that I have a lot of friends that are in virtual companies that have risen to CEO or COOs, etc. and they pull it off just fine. I have a lot of friends that completely outsourced shared services—they don’t have anyone internally.  I think you can only do that to a certain scale, but I think the short answer is it depends on the business. But what I can tell you is that if we had to do it all over again, I would do it again in Kansas City.


Q. There’s a lot of competition for work force, what is that like for you?

A. It’s hard. It’s hard because in legal specifically, it could take us six months to a year to get a project manager that doesn’t know our space up to speed before they can work in front of a client. I don’t have a three-month or six-month curve—I have a 12-month curve. I have to stay ahead of that curve, so we’re looking multiple years out constantly. The biggest challenge was getting the young lawyers that we need, and today we probably have 1,400 to 1,500 lawyers. We started a legal residency program, the first of its kind, with the University of Miami law school, to begin with. We have about 11 law schools that we created a legal residency program for, so the L2’s and 3’s can actually start the program while they’re still in law school. And so those young lawyers then learn from UnitedLex in the residency program, about the business of law. So they’re coming out of school and we can commit employment to them for a certain period of time thereafter, and the idea then is that we can put these young lawyers that are trained on the job, that know everything there is to know about the management of litigation discovery, and then our clients hire them and they go in-house as these discovery lawyers. I can’t go to a job fair at a college and expect to find something that would be pliable enough for us to have near-term impact. I wish that was the case. And for shared service roles, I’m talking really specifically about the business domain, the strategic business unit services that we provide. And that’s hard, but I think that’s why we take such good care of our people, at least, I think we take good care of people—it’s certainly in my heart to do that. I’m sure I’ve failed somebody every day.


Q. Is that the hard part about being a boss? Just feeling like, “You know, today, I know I probably didn’t do my best for somebody.”

A. Yeah, it kept me awake for years. And it wasn’t what I was doing or not doing, it was the weight and the responsibility that I felt for the literally thousands of families that we were supporting. I carry that burden. Our CEO, Dan Reed, carries that burden. The two of us carry that burden, that the entire company rolls up to both of us, or at least one or the other of us. And it’s something you learn to live with. But the responsibility is why I wanted the job. At the time I remember thinking, “Just give me the ball.” And I got the ball and I thought, “Wow, this thing is heavier than I thought it was. In my mind, this was so light.” But that’s where you really have to then rely on your culture. And the amount of effort that we put into caring for the hearts of our employees and caring for our clients. My operating philosophy generally from the beginning was that, was outwardly facing, we can’t be anything other than meaningful. To believe that you are the best, to believe that you can do something for the legal industry that no one else can do, and then do it. And to do it consistently and be the first one or the only one, time after time after time.


Q. So how do you deal with that?

A. If you want the trick of the trade, it’s probably the simplest thing, and it’s to care about the people that you expect to deliver the value on which your business is based, period—and be consistent about it. And if you fail, if you fall down, you go deal with that the right way. Because we’re all going to make mistakes; we’re going to make professional mistakes, personal mistakes, and how you react and how you respond to those define your character and your culture and your company. And that coarses through our DNA. So all these things were talking about, whether it’s technology, recruiting and hiring—people want to come to work at UnitedLex because the opportunity is so vast. There isn’t another company in the world that would give you anywhere close to this level of opportunity in the legal space.


Q. So how do you reward those who seize those opportunities?

A. As we promote, innovation is rewarded here. We have several patents on the technology that we’ve developed and the 20-year-old kid to the 55-year-old are on the patent, because they can work together, recognizing each other’s skills and ability and then having a cultural overtone that is positive and encouraging makes a massive difference. And when there’s a slowdown of the pulse, there’s a lot of reasons for that. Maybe work slows down. Maybe there’s this super long winter that we had last year that we thought was never going to end. But whatever the reason is, they’re going to identify how to work together and that’s the most rewarding thing, for me. And I know that you’re expecting what happens that will stand the test of time? And while it’s not one of your questions, I would want my legacy to be that people that left UnitedLex, for any reason, were never able to replace what they felt when they were here. That’s how I would define success, in my final minutes.