Alma Asay, founder and CEO of Allegory Law, a litigation management software provider, learned that being a savvy woman in the chummy men’s club of Silicon Valley was a lot different than her experience at law firms and corporate legal departments.
Achieving financing for her start-up proved difficult at first, in part because Silicon Valley remains tone-deaf when it comes to female-run tech companies. “Working as a lawyer in New York, I was comfortable from Day One being in a room full of men. I felt like I was accorded respect and wasn’t made to feel different because I was a woman,” Asay says. “But when I jumped into the start-up world and spent seven months living in Silicon Valley, it was entirely different. It came from all angles.” For example, once while she was pitching to a venture capital fund, an executive offered her dating advice. “It completely threw me off guard.”
It was a cultural disjoint from her previous job. “In the legal world, most executives are used to being around professional women, even if numbers drop off as you get more senior. That’s not always true in the start-up world.” Asay began her career at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, concentrating on cases in media, entertainment and technology. Soon enough, she realized that her firm’s technological tools weren’t up to the information-heavy demands of litigations.
“The best tools we had at the ligation stage were Excel and Shared Drives,” she says. “Our teams had processes in place to keep track of all the moving pieces in the large litigations we were handling. But even then, it’s not feasible to manage a large litigation that size without better technology.”
Despite having to make do with antiquated software, Asay’s teams successfully litigated many high-profile cases, including preliminarily enjoining The Weinstein Company on behalf of NBC Universal to preserve NBCU’s rights to the reality show Project Runway. “But I felt like there was a tipping point, when the amount of information trickling down was far too much to handle, particularly in terms of all the documents that are essential to your case,” she says.
This legal information “tipping point” also presented an opportunity to develop software to better manage the flow of information. “I looked in the market, couldn’t find anything that was filling this void and thought, ‘Okay, we’ll just go build it!’,” she notes. “I talked with some engineers and it suddenly seemed possible.”
So more than four years ago, Asay left the legal world and founded Allegory. Of her software, she says, “we take productions or other exports from the discovery process while those documents are being triaged down to what’s important to each case. Our clients use Allegory before, during, and after the discovery process for traditional litigation activities such as drafting, filing, investigations, motions, depositions and trial.”
Allegory’s clients range from a two-person litigation boutique on the West Coast to the big firms that often make the cut for Vault’s ranking of Top 10 law firms. They also work with government agencies and other organizations. “My goal is not to replace lawyers or paralegals, but to actually enable them to do what they were able to do when the amount of information was smaller and more manageable.”
Still, life on the West Coast was frustrating, as many VC firms failed to grasp the software’s potential. So Allegory, after raising roughly $1 million in capital, concentrated on building relationships and clients in the legal world, who better understand its business model. “We now have opportunities to raise money from people or small organizations that aren’t traditional VCs. They’re more attuned to the legal market, which makes it easier. And I don’t get the sense that I’m being treated differently.”
That said, legal tech start-ups like Allegory face a growth challenge because many law firms are resistant to adopting new technologies. There’s “a long sales cycle” for Allegory, she adds. “We’re trying to change things. We know very well that lawyers will use new technology. If it works for them, they’ll stick with it and will tell everyone else, so there’s almost a waterfall effect of getting more clients on board. There’s a real opportunity, but it doesn’t work using the model that VCs traditionally like to see.”
Asay hopes her female-led company (Allegory has also had three female engineers to date) will help inspire other women. “Be smart about it, don’t be afraid to raise your hand,” she says.
“Nothing frustrated me more at Gibson Dunn than when a woman said, ‘I didn’t feel like it was my place to speak.’ I think sometimes women just beat themselves down,” she explains. “You need to keep working at it, keep pushing through. Even if it’s hard, keep going at it. There will come a moment when people can’t deny that you have talent and something to offer.”