Is kCura’s Academic Partners Program the Most Important eDiscovery News of 2015?

kCura Relativity Academic PartnersTwo weeks ago, Relativity Fest 2015 brought two key news items: the Relativity 9.3 launch, and kCura’s Academic Partners program. The 9.3 launch crossed the wires immediately, but it was the Academic Partners program that seemed to be to be the real area of interest at the show, particularly as it appeared in CEO Andrew Sieja’s keynote address and press and analyst discussions later. In fact, between their recent attention for their work supporting the technology infrastructure of the Chicago school system and choice of global education advocate Salman Khan as their keynote speaker, it would not be unreasonable to name ‘education’ as a general top-of-mind theme for kCura.

At the same time, observers will be forgiven for viewing the Academic Partners program as at a piece with the eDiscovery vendor community’s growing attention to the promotion of standards and best practices education. Examples include both professional education promotion, as in FTI Consulting’s Ringtail training and certification program, or law school program support, such as Catalyst’s “eDiscovery in a box” practicum. Without minimizing the efforts of any competitor, kCura’s program stands out for its focus on (as it says in the name) partnership. While ostensibly a subtle distinction, this marks a notable shift from  certification or resource promotion efforts for the emphasis on active engagement in the professional education of the attorneys and other legal knowledge workers. The closest antecedent to kCura’s program lies in what Westlaw and LexisNexis have done in legal research. This shift is significant, both in kCura’s engagement with much-needed change in the preparation of legal professionals for modern practice and its savvy recognition of an emerging site of competition within the eDiscovery vendor landscape.

In addition to making the full Relativity toolset available to students, the most notable aspect of the Academic Partner program is its depth of support for educational institutions in the development of eDiscovery curricula. To this end, kCura offers several tiers of support, depending on the sophistication of the academic partner. These tiers begin with guidance regarding the development of program requirements and curricula for organizations that have no existing program (with a notable emphasis on how to get a program ABA approved). The second tier involves the provision of kCura and Relativity expert resources, while the third involves a “train the instructor” program and provision of free Relativity access in review contexts. The fourth level includes full system admin rights and ability to deploy all of the solution components. In this way, the company is not simply setting standards or providing solution resources, it is providing a combination of framework, guidance, and resources to match an education partners’ needs. Already, these efforts have earned kCura approximately 50 education partners, with a key focus on continual development.

The reason that kCura’s education partner efforts emerge as some of the more important eDiscovery vendor activities of 2015 (despite similarities with competitor programs) emerge from two primary locations: (1) the depth of focus on the advancement of professional development in modern legal practice and (2) the long-term competitive positioning that becomes available in kCura’s program.

The Good Legal Citizen View

Sieja rightly noted in an analyst and press session that legal education emphasizes legal research and reasoning, but largely overlooks legal investigation. While this has always been true, the shifting demands of practice have brought us to an inflection point. Modern practice has seen tremendous expansions and changes in the data management and analysis aspects of practice. However, law schools have done a poor job of keeping pace with these realities beyond the odd survey or skills course.

The irony is that law schools have a great deal to gain by providing education in these areas. At a time when job placement is low and law schools struggle to attract applicants, education in the practical aspects and emerging technological requirements of practices offers meaningful differentiation for both individual students and education programs. To this end, kCura recounted how one of its community college partners is seeing paralegal students earn $80,000 a year within three years of graduation. That’s a good spot for a community college graduate and, while not apace with BigLaw associate salaries, would be an acceptable sight for many recent law school graduates.

Perhaps more importantly, we should note that the general immaturity of academic programs in eDiscovery is as much a consequence of limited resources for program development as it is academic distance. From this standpoint, increased activity of eDiscovery vendors in the support of legal education and professional training and certification makes sense in a “rising tide raises all boats” sort of way. Vendors that engage in these efforts contribute to the standard of practice and simultaneously help promote familiarity and adoption of their tool sets; something that is particularly important, for example, when we look at areas like predictive coding as many obstacles to adoption in cultural attitudes as anything else. This has been generally true for vendor education programs. The difference lies in the depth and scope of support for program administration and development that kCura offers; factors that go a long way to moving the competency levels of graduating attorneys from “general awareness” to “basic practitioner.”

The Shark Tank View

At the same time, kCura’s Academic Partners program is notable for the role it plays in the company’s own business development strategy by promoting familiarity with and defining expectations for the Relativity toolset in future use uses.

The eDiscovery market has matured to a point where functionality, in and of itself, is not a differentiator for vendors. At this stage, generally speaking, we can find the same bucket of capabilities among any of the major vendors in the space. This has prompted increased competition in less tangible aspects of the product portfolio, with vendors increasingly highlighting elements such as: pricing model, cost of ownership, platform scalability, usability, deployment model, or professional services. Particularly given the speed with which vendors in the space start to replicate one another’s functionality (see predictive coding, analytics, visualization, and information governance), differentiation is hard to come by.

Education, user stickiness, and early market engagement and seeding are  increasingly important competitive factors for the eDiscovery landscape. This is why we’re seeing expansions in education and certification programs in the first place.  User familiarity, acculturation, and persistent demand is an increasingly important vector in eDiscovery vendor competition.

From this perspective, the Academic Partner program is a no-brainer as kCura seeds its own user demand and develops entrenched demand. These factors are also consistent with the factors that Blue Hill has found to be contributors to the selection of Relativity. This research identified two major factors that resulted in the selection of Relativity: (1) the ease of adoption by and relatively low cultural resistance to adoption encountered among attorney users and (2) the size and maturity of the Relativity user base. This second factor was particularly important for how it was seen as providing value not just related to solution use, but also in tangential factors such as the ease of finding third-party partners and litigation support candidates experienced with the solution as well as providing a expansive support network of peer users. As such, the Academic Partner program represents a doubling-down on these factors and a means to enhance the factors that already differentiate kCura.

As we’ve observed, other vendors have similar programs. Faced with the scope and depth of kCura’s program, these efforts are now going to face pressure to expand or risk losing ground. kCura is not just providing resources, it is making it easier for schools to teach eDiscovery at a fundamental level, simultaneously making it increasingly easier for students to accept Relativity as the default solution. Competitors will need to respond in kind to capture and preserve mind share, particularly as the baseline of eDiscovery competence increases in sophistication level. kCura has put itself in the best position to respond to and define this shift. It will be up to the competition to determine how to respond in kind.

About David Houlihan, Esq.

David Houlihan researches enterprise risk management, compliance and policy management, and legal technology. He is an experienced advisor in legal and technology fields with a unique understanding of complex information environments and business legal needs.
Posted on October 29, 2015 by David Houlihan, Esq.

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