Early on in my career as a consultant in the eDiscovery space, I felt it important to have an agnostic approach and be independent with my recommendations for solutions, technologies, and providers. Even in my earliest days running the advisory practice at Renew Data where we had our own technology and service offering, there were many situations where I advised clients to go another direction because of the specific scope of a project. As much as this frustrated our salespeople, I understood that there is plenty of business out there and it was good karma.
In 2010 Barry Murphy, Greg Buckles, and I founded the eDJ Group, a boutique analyst firm covering the electronic discovery and information governance space. The eDJ Group stayed above the fray at all cost looking at what was really in the best interest of a client based on their specific scenarios. We tried our best as analysts to take an agnostic approach.
I founded the eDiscovery Advisory practice on the same agnostic approach to technology and providers. That means passing up the lucrative referral or sales relationships with technology and service providers that pervade our market. Maintaining the integrity to advise clients based on their needs is key to the eDiscovery Teams strategic vision and achieving our desired state of KinDato (Knowledge and Intelligence through Data).
As the eDiscovery Advisory team continues to build on this agnostic approach, I had the opportunity to reunite with my previous business partner and very independent consultant, Greg Buckles. Greg still runs the eDiscovery Journal as well as the eDJ Group consulting practice.
JV: You and I have spoken many times over our careers about really taking more of an agnostic approach to looking at legal technology and legal service providers. Maybe we could start at the beginning by sharing why you chose to be independent and your experiences working independently.
GB: In my role as a corporate buyer of eDiscovery technology and services at El Paso Corp., I started finding conflicts inherent within the relationships between my service and tech providers. I would find out they would get points off a deal or if I chose a piece of technology, the sales rep would get 7.5%.
When I went from there to being a product manager, everybody around me was selling technology except for me. I was the person who owned the development of the technology, but there was no sales rep tied to me.
When I left Symantec to go back out on my own again, it really resonated with me that what the clients needed was someone who really was in their corner. I always thought that the consultants out there were purely making their money off consulting and then I would sit down with them and have discussions and learn that some of it came from the technology or service providers they recommended.
They’re like, “Oh, you’ve got to get yours. You’ve got to sign up with this company or that company because this one gives you a better cut.” I was trying to figure it out. “What do you mean a better cut?” Well, yes, you don’t really make your money off your billable hours. You make your money off the giant cases where they’ve spent millions of dollars, and you’re pulling in thousands in referrals because as the true consultant manager of the whole matter, you’re controlling the spin. So, you should get a cut.
My answer to that was “NO.” I should not get a cut. Not at all.
When I was watching all these deals and watching these partners, I decided to hang my shingle back out again. I was done being big tech, and I wanted to go back to fixing problems.
JV: Isn’t that a disincentive for people offering the right solutions?
GB: Well, it’s not just a disincentive. What it does is it draws people down the path of what benefits them the most. Unfortunately, that’s not benefiting the client and the corporation or law firm the most.
It’s what’s benefiting the sales reps, the consultants, and project managers the most. And it’s inevitable. I know great and ethical sales reps, product managers, etc., who really work hard and who I’ve heard tell a client, “No, you really don’t want what I’m offering, you want this.”
They are the exception. I’ve also seen when they do that, some of them lose their jobs. When you take a $10 million dollar deal to go to a big class action that’s going to go for the next five years and your consultant who’s leading it turns around and says, “Yeah, that’s not the right technology for this type of data. You really need to go talk to these people,” That consultant is probably going to be on the street next week.
JV: So, can you give me an example without naming anyone? We can be broader in terms of types of technology or approaches.
GB: Wow, I’m sitting here juggling three names in my head…ha-ha. I’ve mostly seen it when it comes to recommendations for what I call “secondary partners”. Many companies are pretty good about disclosing what I call the “primary partners” up front.
They come in and say, “Yes, we work with Relativity; we work with iPro; we work with this.” When you dig in to start trying to get the data and when they start as a secondary engagement, starting to help the client get their hands around how to collect from SharePoint, how to manage this, then there are usually a lot of subtle secondary relationships that aren’t usually disclosed.
Those are the ones that can really come back to bite the clients because they get steered down the wrong path. To me, fundamentally, all this comes back to the fact that there’s a fiduciary duty to the client. Who’s paying? Whose money is it?
I have no issues with sales. We need them. I have no issue with people selling the services. BUT, if you’re going to advise, then you should not have anything but your own billable hours at stake as part of the engagement.
JV: I think you’re right. There’s a significant value to having an independent thought. I think one of the challenges is explaining to a client that there’s value there, versus going directly to the provider that they think is best for them.
How do you counter? How do you work with your clients that are saying, “I’m pretty sure I’m going to use a certain technology? Why don’t I just hire their consultants to help me?” How do you talk to a corporation around that?
GB: I guess I’m lucky in that I’ve gotten such a reputation of calling it as I see it and I’ve been outspoken at calling the conflicts where I see them, that I generally don’t have to sell that. Most people come to me when they feel like they need a fair broker.
Because of the years that you and I did as market analysts for eDJ we also are in a unique position. The vendors will respect our RFP (request for proposal) as being neutral because we spent eight years engaging with them, with or without NDAs (non-disclosure agreement) in which we earn their respect.
You can tell me your prices, and they’re not going to be publicized. I’m not going to go run back and publish that. I’ve never published a pricing list, and I have them from a hundred different RFPs. You must have trust on both sides. But how do you brand that and send it out there? I don’t know. I’m not the best at marketing.
JV: I think conversations like this, Greg, are probably a good way of doing it first and foremost, right? Because I don’t think there’s a lot of corporations or buyers are people like that. Many types of traditional technology groups.
I have seen people go to Gartner or Forrester or the type of big analyst firms to decide on their technologies. That doesn’t really fit into a very niche category of what we do with electronic discovery and information governance techniques. We’re starting to see that blend more with the information governance technologies, in my opinion. Still, they don’t really have resources to go to.
GB: They don’t, and as Barry Murphy, you, and I discovered, anyone who goes to one of the larger market analyst shops and expects that that shop is going to cover all the actual market, is being unrealistic. Those large market analyst shops to this day cover the people who pay for analyst time. I’m not saying that this is unethical. I’m saying that you have to be a smart buyer and recognize that model.
When I was product management for Symantec, it was clear to us we were paying Gartner and Forrester to spend time going over our products or go to market so that they would know understand and position us within their models so that when consumers came to them and said, “I need archiving, I need discovery over email”, Gartner and Forrester would have us on their list—hopefully at the top. We were at the top for a long time. I’m not saying they change their rankings, but you don’t get their time without a lot of money.
JV: Let me bring up an interesting question. Can you maintain your agnosticism if a provider or a technology person is engaging you and monetarily paying you to help them build product roadmaps, assess their technology, do technology integrations? Are those conflicting with the agnosticism?
GB: I’ve done those engagements extensively; especially when we were market analysts. I have dropped pretty much all of it since I went back out solo because of that potential conflict.
I’ve had a couple of long-term relationships where they’ve called me back and said, “We just want to talk to you about Office 365 because we know you’re doing a lot.” And I say, “I don’t have the time for that.” To which they respond, “We’ll pay your time.”
My general rule with clients is if I engage in an RFP and one of those providers is on the RFP list that I’ve done work in the last 12 months with, then I’ve got to turn around and at least disclose to that client that I worked with company X’s go to market plan last year. They’ve generally not had a problem as long as I’m not making any more money based on what is picked.
If I’m running an RFP and I’ve got somebody in it that I will make more money from, that’s where the conflict comes. That’s the one I’ve avoided. You bring up a really good point around this. What you laid out was exactly what I would call that secondary relationship issue. That is subtle and it’s behind the scenes.
Unfortunately, it is incredibly common when it comes to any kind of marketing work. Which is why I don’t do it anymore.
JV: You’d be OK with that, for example, with technology work. Say a technology provider asks, “I need your help integrating with Microsoft 365.” Would you be willing to do that kind of work? Would that be a conflict?
GB: Absolutely. That would not be a conflict, but I would absolutely be willing to do that work, based on it being a straight engagement. They are the client at that point. I’m going to treat them like I treat a normal corporation.
I’m going to go in and do the work. I look at that also as the output of that work benefits them, it benefits me, and it benefits my clients. That kind of work, that specific kind of work, really pays off in the deep dive of knowing the product and knowing the rest of it. So, there are lines to it but it’s tricky.
I think at the end of the day, you have to have a clean conscience when you deal with a client and say, “You need services, hosting and analytics. Here are the players. Let’s go after it and get you the best deal we can. I can’t make money off that in any way, shape or form whatever your decision is; but would I be happy to be engaged with someone like Microsoft if they ask me tomorrow to go in and do an in-depth quality assurance acceptance testing, like I’ve done for one hundred other companies, so they can get the raw data? Absolutely. Would do it in a second. And every one of my clients would benefit.
JV: I think we probably need to send this video to the Microsoft people because it sounds like you’re volunteering.
GB: I have been. I’m not going to do it for free because it’s a lot of hours, but I would love to.
JV: If you do something well, never do it for free. Greg, that’s the key.
GB: Probably the best thing I do good at is breaking other people’s toys. And telling them how to fix it.
JV: It seems to me, the benefit to a client to have someone like one of us who lives in that world, we don’t take monetary payment for from the providers for marketing support, we’re not going to pitch, and we don’t take referral agreements. And we’ve been offered it. It’s like, “Hey, if you pitch our hosted review platform, we’ll get you 20 percent.”
GB: I immediately cannot do that, and I have to be upfront with them about that and why. I was an entrepreneur with our own technology that had a significant amount of money put into it. As an advisor, it was to me one of the most important points of credibility. The credibility aspect of it was really the most important thing for me. I needed to be able to be candid with my clients and the people that I was advising.
Sometimes what we had wasn’t the best solution for them, and there may have been alternative solutions and approaches for them. Here’s the reasons why. Yeah, I may have angered my salespeople, much like you had that experience. I have some that still want to talk to me today because I left millions of dollars on the table. but it was the right thing to do.
JV: I think that was one of the reasons why a few years later, when we started to look at trying to build an analyst firm around this; I was drawn to your approach. Which was, we’re going to be agnostic. We’re going to take the veneer off what this industry is about. That drew that to me.
I think as we’ve been building the DNA of the eDiscovery Advisory team, that really became one of the core aspects of it, of what we’ve been trying to build here. Which is, we can look at different technologies, because that’s what we do.
We innovate, we build workflows, we work on automation, and we have to look at different types of technologies. At the same time, if a customer asked me who the right client and technology they should use is, it should be completely independent based on what I think the scenario is, the business environment, and whether they need a more traditional ASLP (alternative legal service provider) or those type of things.
There are all kinds of different approaches around that. To me, I think the core issue is credibility. I have always wanted to have that credibility in the industry to be able to have that independent voice. That’s one of the reasons why I respected your experience over the years. You’ve mentored me a lot on that to make sure that we’ve stayed within those ethical boundary lines of being agnostic.
GB: Even when you’re leaving money on the table. And I will say I find it interesting; I always use the term technology agnostic to help communicate that I don’t care what they pick. I think that’s not accurate. It’s not the best term.
The reason why is that we all bring our familiarity, our knowledge base to the table, and we do have preferences based on our experiences with other clients, other engagements with different providers, different technology platforms. So now I’ve shifted to have more of a conversation about transparency.
When I do an RFP now, I rank the providers, based on my experience with them. What I’m doing is I’m telling that client, “Yeah, I’ve worked a ton with Relativity, or I’ve worked a ton with this particular client, Lighthouse, I’ve done a bunch of engagements with them. I know them. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but I think it’s not agnostic. Instead, it’s being transparent to the client and it’s giving them the benefit.
I think one of the best things as advisers we do, is we call out what we don’t know, not just what we know. When I’m doing an RFP and there is a brand-new provider who I’ve never worked before, never even demoed before, but I pick them up because I always do blanket searches to see what is new in the last week, who’s launched a new product that I’ve never seen before because this happens. Then I’ll send it out to him. I’ll send an RFI (request for information) out, see? Are they really interested? Does this apply to them? I love calling that back out to the client and saying, “I don’t even know these people, I’ve never even looked at their technology, but I’m excited about doing it if you want me to.” On a lot of those, I end up discounting or even dropping the time on it.
I’ll go, and I’ll do a briefing independent of the RFP so that I’m not underneath the client NDA. We’re not talking about my client; we’re just talking about your technology. I’ll burn an hour or two of my own time to get up to speed on that player. I’ll spend time doing LinkedIn searches to find out if I know any sales reps who moved over and are working for them. Do I know anybody on the product management team over there? I look at their brag slide that they always have on their website. I look at it and go, “Oh, that’s one of my clients. Let me call them up and talk to them”. That’s background work.
The client expects me to show up understanding and knowing every single provider and technology suite in the marketplace, and that’s impossible. Nobody knows it. But the agnostic term I’m starting to drift away from, and I’m using more about transparency and more about trying to communicate to them; the big thing is I have no money in this.
JV: Right. It’s interesting. Maybe the title of this article or the series is “From Agnostic to Transparent” or something along those lines, “Transparency is the New Agnosticism”. I’m just throwing those out there for you.
GB: I’m still struggling with it because I think the term I’m looking for; I think there is a good word for this. I just haven’t found it. It means essentially a lack of financial bias.
JV: No skin in the game.
GB: Yeah, that doesn’t always work when you’re doing board meeting talks. Ha–ha! I’ve learned not to be quite so casual in some of those.
JV: As we’ve continued to learn and mature. So awesome. Well, Greg, thank you. I think this was really good content in terms of getting your perspective on this. It has been valuable. Again, there’s not a lot of people like you in the space, and I think it’s good to continue to call out some of that work.
GB: It is what we live with and die with our clients right now, every day. So, you better get used to it. Things like these, like any of these recordings, transcripts, etc. are all the kind of things we have to learn to deal with.
JV: Thank you Greg, as always.