Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Gaining Strength from Automation & Prudent Financial Management

It’s a rough year out there. You probably know someone who’s been laid off or is in danger of it. Maybe that person is you… It’s in uncertain times like these that it pays to be a small, debt-free business. We at Valora are also very fortunate that we rely almost entirely on technology to provision our services. Valora has always tried to be prudent with spending and investment, but even we had no idea that the economy would turn this ugly this quickly. In this environment we find ourselves in a surprisingly strong position against a number of other service providers in our industry. Here’s why:

1. Valora is profitable and has been for over 6 years now. That means that our customers are ensured that we will continue to be around for many years to come. It also means that our employees are ensured of their salaries and their jobs, so they are focused on our business, not on “looking around.” We are happy simply to be doing our jobs and making our customers happy.

2. Valora does not carry debt, so no one is able to make a claim on us. There is nothing like the threat of a looming margin call to put everyone on edge and change corporate priorities. A surprising number of litigation support service providers are highly leveraged, which means they fund their operations on debt. Sometimes the debt was used to finance an acquisition. Sometimes it was used to buy a lot of advertising, marketing and sales presence. And sometimes it is just being used to make payroll. Debt can take the form of a bank loan, a leveraged buyout, venture capital and a host of other instruments. But no matter how you look at it, debt means the money (and the return) ultimately belongs to someone outside the company. And that someone else gets to call the shots. So, even though you may be speaking to your salesperson, account manager or project manager, they are not the ultimate debt-holder and do not have the final say. In some very ugly cases in this industry, the bank has actually become the lien-holder on the business. At Valora the only ones we answer to are our customers – which is just how we like it.

3. Valora has a service focus on automation, which is inherently low-cost and efficiency-driving. Valora’s competitive advantage is our technology and service provision, specifically our ability to automatically perform population analysis, unitization, coding, smart ESI processing, and review. Our “tagging” technology automatically captures all kinds of relevant information: bibliographic (dates, subject lines, authors/recipients), content (names mentioned, key words, issues, concepts) and categorical (duplicates, near duplicates, email topic groups, privilege, responsiveness). Because we are using automation to perform these tasks, the cost is low and the turnaround is quick. Low cost and immediate results are very important requirements in tight economic times. In fact, cost concerns are beginning to eclipse all other service requirements. Fortunately, with automation, you can easily get to “fast and cheap” without having to sacrifice quality or flexibility.

It is generally accepted that legal services go through the following progression over time: first senior attorneys perform the work, and then train more junior attorneys to perform the work at lower cost to the clients. Next, the work shifts to paralegals and other in-house labor. Then contract laborers perform the work, first onsite, then offsite, and then offshore. The final step is to create software programs that can perform the work more efficiently than any type of human labor at all. We have seen this progression in copying, coding and now in ESI and document review. In fact, the latter two are happening so fast, in large part due to economic pressures for low cost and high speed, that the outsource/offshore steps are being skipped completely. Instead, most firms are jumping straight from performing the work themselves to letting automation do the trick. If software can do the work for 2% of the manual cost and 10,000 times faster, why not? The more we feel the economic pinch, the more automation becomes a necessity.

This last point is indicative of the changes going on in the much broader economy as well. Businesses everywhere are looking to leverage technology to replace variable costs. In fact, a big piece of President Obama’s stimulus package is aimed at moving targeted industry sectors to finally embrace technology as an essential tool for operations.

Unusual times call for unusual measures. Give automation a try and see what you get. You might simultaneously be your client’s hero and save your job!