UniCourt Influencer Q&A with John Tredennick of Merlin Legal Open Source Foundation
Open source software has largely replaced traditional proprietary software models in most industries, but what most lawyers don’t realize is that none are immune to this change: While many firms cling to their Old Faithful models, companies like Microsoft are gradually moving to the cloud, taking legal data off of antiquated servers and tearing it away from licensed software.
John Tredennick is leading the global movement to take legal data into open source solutions. An internationally acclaimed trial lawyer and legal technology pioneer, John spent the first two decades of his career as a trial lawyer at a national law firm before founding Catalyst Repository Systems, an e-Discovery and AI software provider that was recently sold to Enterprise Information Management (EIM) giant OpenText.
John’s most recent project is the Merlin Legal Open Source Foundation, a repository for education and resources surrounding open source solutions. The Merlin Foundations’ mission is to promote education about the benefits of open source software, providing a “central platform” for legal professionals to share knowledge about the development of open source solutions. “Our goal,” John says, “is to improve access to justice and to make legal and regulatory processes more efficient and effective through the use of open source software and cloud computing.”
We were fortunate to sit down with John to discuss his career trajectory, his motives in launching the Merlin Foundation, and how legal solutions using open source software are revolutionizing the aggregation and use of legal data.
UniCourt: Tell us your story. What is your background, and what initially sparked your interest in improving access to justice through open source legal software?
John Tredennick: I spent the first twenty years of my career as a trial lawyer and law partner with a national law firm. In the 90s I became convinced that PC and later Internet technology could help make a trial lawyer’s job easier. So we began developing software to connect my firm’s ten offices. By the end of the 90s, we were hosting litigation extranets for our cases and even cases where we were not acting as lawyers. We also started building compliance workflow systems for some of our clients.
In 2000, we spun out Catalyst, a legal technology company that focused on managing the review of discovery documents. Catalyst started small but grew to over 180 employees with five data centers located in the U.S. and Asia. Indeed, we started with a storage device that could handle about 500 GBs of data, one which I expected to last for the rest of my career. By the end we were hosting many petabytes of data around the world in dozens of languages. Who would have thought?
Over the years, and particularly in the last ten, I noticed we were increasingly using open source software for our platform. The servers ran on Linux, perhaps the most popular open source product and Apache, the leading web server software. We used ElasticSearch and MySQL for many search and database functions and wrote in open source languages. We were not alone; many other companies were seeing the benefit of this new approach to software development. We sold Catalyst to OpenText last January. Feeling too young to retire, I decided to focus the next twenty year stint on what I believe are the two biggest revolutions in technology today: 1) the rise and maturation of open source software; and 2) delivery of that software through the public cloud. I formed Merlin Digital Magic to develop legal compliance software, which was always my passion and decreed that the company would use open source products delivered securely via the AWS public cloud.
As we were building our first platform, I began to realize that many other legal professionals were using or developing open source products but that effort was largely in the shadows. These efforts went far beyond litigation and compliance efforts; rather they took on the whole spectrum of legal practice and access to justice, and those efforts spanned the globe. After looking around, I realized there was no central home for all these legal open source efforts—no place to find out about legal open source software, no groups supporting these projects and few people speaking about the movement. So, lacking any obvious alternative, I created the Merlin Legal Open Source Foundation to provide a place to showcase and support these efforts.
UC: Tell us more about the Merlin Foundation, and how, specifically, it seeks to make legal operations and regulatory compliance more efficient through the use of open source software.
JT: The Merlin Foundation is a non-profit corporation in the process of applying to the IRS for 501c3 status. We are just getting started but I have been amazed at the interest we have generated so far. I am proud to say that we have over a dozen legal technology leaders from different parts of the world on the Merlin Advisory Board.
Our mission is to foster education about the benefits of open source software; provide a central platform for legal professionals to collaborate on open source development projects; and distribute open source software under free license to individuals and organizations around the world. Our goal is to improve access to justice and to make legal and regulatory processes more efficient and effective through the use of open source software and secure cloud computing.
We will accomplish our mission by speaking and writing about the benefits of open source software and supporting legal technologists who are developing exciting open source projects. And finally, providing a central place where interested people can learn about open source software they can use in their organizations to make the delivery of legal services more efficient.
UC: What need or gap in the legal field do you believe that the Merlin Foundation addresses?
JT: There are a lot of lawyers who are leery about open source, in part because they don’t know much about it or realize that this is an important way software is developed today. Most use Windows as their operating system and Microsoft Office for daily use. What many don’t realize is how pervasive open source software can be in their computing world. For example, the browser that most people are reading this on is likely to be an open source product. Chrome is built on the Chromium open source project. Firefox is purely open source. And Microsoft’s new Edge browser is also built on Chromium.
The Internet which transfers information is likely running on open source software as are many of the applications we use every day. So the notion that open source is insecure or less feature rich is just not the case any more.
The gap we hope to fill is around education about, support, and a celebration of the many open source efforts that are already going on. And, as with the rest of the technology world, these efforts will continue to grow.
UC: Why should law firms and legal technology companies use open source software and public cloud computing?
JT: I am not suggesting that open source software is right for every purpose. Many firms have become expert at using Word or are happy with Microsoft Outlook. Changing to Google docs or Gmail might save them a lot of money but the cost of relearning such fundamental software might not be worth it.
At the same time, if I were starting a new organization, perhaps a government agency in a developing country, I would think long and hard about whether the Microsoft licensing fees were worth it. Many companies are using the Google suite and find that its features are more than sufficient to get the job done; some people prefer Google Docs and Sheets (free or low cost rather than open source) to Word and Excel. Or even LibreOffice (which is open source). The Foundation’s goal is to help people realize that open source software can be an excellent alternative to proprietary products and sometimes even better. It is also to help people realize the power of open source collaboration and how legal professionals working together can develop custom products better tailored to their needs than generic licensed software.
UC: Do you think that the continued advancement in open source software and public cloud computing will facilitate increased access to justice?
JT: I sure do. If you look at the rest of the tech world, you can see that open source projects are flourishing. I don’t expect that trend to stop but rather accelerate.
The legal profession has always followed behind on technology. Right now I see projects beginning to spring up and I expect that trend will continue as well. Like most software, they are being delivered securely through the public cloud. While many in legal still worry about the cloud, they are increasingly turning to Office 365 which runs off of Microsoft’s Azure cloud. It is all happening as we speak. While open source and cloud computing are relatively new to the legal world, it will be old hat in the next few years. Heck, when I started Catalyst, most law firms were still using servers they kept in their office closets. How many do that these days?
UC: What are some of your favorite sayings? Do you have any real-world examples of how you’ve seen these sayings come to life?
JT: I would suggest that anyone deploying new technology for their organizations remember the First Rule of Wingwalking. And this rule applies whether you are licensing proprietary software or open source. It is mandatory if you want to succeed in legal technology.
Don’t know the First Rule of Wingwalking? It is pretty simple.
The First Rule of Wingwalking is: “Don’t let go of Nothing, until you have a firm hold on Something Else.”
And for those with even more ambitious plans, I would refer you to that great philosopher Mahatma Gandhi: “If one were to eat an elephant; it is best eaten one bite at a time.”
UC: What are your professional goals for the coming year? What projects are you working on? Are there any upcoming events or conferences in the open source, cloud computing, or legal tech space we should be aware of?
JT: There is nothing more exciting than starting a new venture. Right now we are focused on getting our message out and recruiting people who are excited about our mission. We are also trying to learn about and feature legal open source projects.
There are giant conferences focused on open source technology and, of course, cloud computing. However, we are still early on the legal side. I am not aware of any conferences yet focused on legal open source. I have been a judge for a legal hackathon however, which is at least in the same area code.
My goal is to do something for the legal community that helps move it forward and improves the delivery of legal services. In the end, access to justice is about both complexity and costs. If we can help move the legal open source movement forward, I believe we can both reduce complexity in legal processes and make delivery less expensive.
UC: As the Founder and CEO of an eDiscovery company, what would you say to others interested in starting their own legal tech companies or working in the legal tech industry?
JT: Welcome to an exciting field. Technology has revolutionized the legal profession over the past two decades but we ain’t seen nothing yet. Innovations in machine learning and artificial intelligence are revolutionizing the delivery of legal services just as they have revolutionized the delivery of health care. We are automating legal functions by the minute, connecting legal professionals around the world and developing cloud friendly software we can deliver in almost every region of the world.
For those leaning into the revolution, these are exciting times. You have the opportunity to constantly learn new technology and help your organizations reimagine how they work with clients and colleagues and refine their offerings. For those afraid of constant change, I urge you to jump in the pool and start swimming. The water just isn’t that cold and the swim is fun.
Embracing the Legal Technology Revolution
As John acknowledges, lawyers tend to be wary of open source software, largely due to a lack of understanding of its efficacy. However, accepting the ubiquity of open source software is the first step in embracing it as the future. Legal technology leaders like John are working to fill the gap in education, support, and celebration “of the many open source efforts that are already going on.” In doing so, lawyers and legal professionals can come to embrace the myriad of ways that technology will continue to make their lives – and their practices – more efficient and effective.