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  • By Mark A. Cohen

The Clearspire Story


Clearspire holds a special place in the evolution of the legal industry. It is remembered both as a transformative legal delivery company as well as “the next big thing” that went belly-up. I explore Clearspire’s intellectual triumph and financial failure from the professional and personal perspectives.

Clearspire was a bold—if not brash—attempt to reengineer the delivery of legal services. We proclaimed, “This is your revolution” to an industry known for adherence to precedent and risk aversion. We turned the labor-intensive, law firm partnership model on its head, replacing its leveraged structure with a flat one that melded “bleeding-edge” technology and process to leverage legal expertise and to deliver legal services more efficiently, transparently, and cost-effectively than ever before. We provided clients fixed-fee budgets that described deliverables, personnel, tasks, and cost—and hit budget 98% of the time. We provided clients secure, real-time access to all of their Clearspire matters—including research, analysis, and intellectual capital created during the course of each engagement. We created an agile, collaborative, organically diverse workforce that was tightly aligned internally, with others in the legal supply chain, and with clients– financially, technologically, and culturally. And our technology and rigorous process enabled us to conduct operations around the globe.

Clearspire was the first “law company.” Our revolutionary two-company model—a law firm and a bundled legal services company– operated under a unified brand. We separated legal “practice” from “legal delivery.” We invested millions of dollars of our own money to create “Coral,” a web-enabled integrated, proprietary technology platform that enabled us to operate seamlessly across the globe. The name “Coral” was chosen because we wanted to evoke the image of a living ecosystem and apply it to law. Our mission was to realign the interests of the key stakeholders of the legal ecosystem: lawyers, other professionals, and paraprofessionals in our employ; Clearspire; and our clients.

The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, The ABA Journal and other mainstream global media sources wrote extensively about our model, our technology, and our bold ambitions. My co-Founder and I met with approximately 300 Fortune 500 General Counsel within a 16-month period. There was tremendous interest in our model and technology, but not a similar appetite for our law firm. General Counsel were leary to retain us as a law firm because we lacked scale, brand recognition, and were “too risky” a bet during the cautious days that followed the global financial crisis. We had opportunities to license our platform, sell legal staffing services, create a legal marketplace, and engage with prospective buyers in other ways that would have produced financial success. We also had multiple opportunities to collaborate with other established providers in the legal marketplace but failed to do so. I review our mistakes in detail as there are important lessons to be learned from them. It would be too self-congratulatory to say our disappointing financial result was solely because we were too far ahead of our time. We were; but we did not give the market what it wanted from us and became slaves to the elegance of our vision. This is a cautionary tale for entrepreneurs and established businesses alike: listen to the marketplace.

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My reasons for sharing the Clearspire story are professional and personal. The Clearspire vision and model is important from an historical and contemporary perspective. Clearspire’s model is relevant now–ironically, perhaps more than when we launched it. The practice of law and the delivery of legal services and their integration is, in my judgment, a paradigm to be replicated.

Clearspire also had a big impact on my development as a person. Seven years of frenzied work with no pay, a loss of two million dollars of savings, and the persistent gnawing of “what could have been” is hard to deal with. I struggled with unaccustomed professional failure, even as I was not totally convinced that the seven year gauntlet I ran was a failure. That caused me to reflect upon how I define success and failure and how I measure myself as a human being. “Failure” can morph into success if one takes away lessons that help them to evolve—professionally and personally.

Clearspire’s will play a part in the legal industry’s future. I’m humbled by our financial failure and buoyed by what I have learned and how that can be applied going forward. I sometimes refer to Clearspire as “my two million dollar tutorial.” I now measure my own success by a different standard than I did when I was a young, brash trial lawyer and managing partner making crazy money. The new measure is what propelled me as a boy—intellectual achievement, teamwork, and feeling good about what I’m doing and the people I’m doing it with. Clearspire has reconnected me with a value system that was shunted during my years of legal practice. I like myself better now and have returned to the “we” more than the “me.”

I’m convinced the final chapter of the Clearspire story has yet to be written, and I’m working on it. Call it “unfinished business.” As Yogi said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

“The Clearspire Story” originally appeared as a chapter (in English) in Legal Tech: Die Digitalisierung des Rechtsmarkts by Markus Hartung, Micha-Manuel Bues, Gernot Halbleib, Ulrike Barth, Marie Bernard.

More from Mark A. Cohen you'll find in our Thought Leader Section and via the links below. Articles by Mark are also published at Forbes and on his platform LegalMosaic.

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