Some lawyers start their career knowing they want to change the legal landscape. One way to make an impact is to embrace legal technology, including artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, and to fill gaps in legal service offerings. In this episode, Todd Smith and Jody Sanders talk with Rocky Dhir, founder of Atlas Legal Research, about legal innovations and how he scaled his business to meet the changing legal market. Listen in to learn about Rocky’s unusual path to a judicial clerkship, what he does at Atlas, and his side job hosting the State Bar of Texas Podcast.
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Innovation in the Business of Law | Rocky Dhir
Our guest is Rocky Dhir of Atlas Legal Research in Dallas. Welcome to the show, Rocky.
Thank you guys for having me.
We are pleased to have you here and looking forward to our conversation. It’s going to be an interesting one.
Don’t get your hopes up too high now, Todd. Let’s not sell something we can’t deliver on, but we will try.
He’s giving me a hard time before we even launch into the show. Before we commence teasing too much, let’s tell our audience or those who are not familiar with you, tell us about your background, where you came from, and maybe your legal education because you are a lawyer.
I had to make that clear to some people. They don’t believe it at first. They are like, “What? You graduated kindergarten. What is wrong with schools in America?” I get it. I appreciate you guys having me on here. I love appellate lawyers because they are like the brain surgeons of the law. I’ve got to sit up. I’ve got to make sure I’ve got my syntax correct because you are awesome and all that.
I feel honored to be a part of this august assembly and I use the word “august.” I had to look that up ahead of time. I looked up synonyms and was like, “We are ready to go.” My name is Rocky Dhir. I graduated from law school in 1999. I used to be one of the younger lawyers. When I said ’99, I would be like, “Wow.” Now I’m like an old fogy. That’s the last century. I graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1999. I grew up in the Texas area. I have been here since I was ten. I grew up in Dallas-Fort Worth. For anybody out there who’s from Arlington, Texas, I went to Martin High School in Arlington.
All the Dallas people always think, “Oh, Fort Worth.” They brush it off. Fort Worth is where it’s at. Fort Worth is an awesome city, and I want more people to know about it. I was born in India, and we took a long path to finally become Texans but it took us ten years. We made it here after living in various places in the United States.
I graduated high school. I went to undergrad at the University of Chicago. From there, I went to law school at the University of Michigan. I got out of Michigan. I’m talking like it was an institution like it was a prison. I got out. They paroled me. I went to clerk for the Honorable Jerry Buchmeyer in Dallas. After that, I started Atlas and the rest, as they say, is history.
I’ve known you for many years. People should know there’s a certain level of familiarity and comfort here. It’s one reason why Rocky feels comfortable teasing me in front of all of our audience. That’s fine. I can take it. I had noticed in doing a little preparation for the show that you had gone to school up there in the Northern parts of the country. I found myself asking how you wound up getting to Texas.
You grew up here, but you went up North to go to college and law school. Having been in Texas since you were ten. You said you moved around the country a little bit but was that a cultural shock, having gone from the culture in the great State of Texas and Tarrant County in the City of Arlington to winter coats and all the things you have to do to prepare yourself for the weather up there?
Seven years was enough of doing that, and I was glad to come back. I was like, “I will go as deep in the heart of Texas as I have to just to get away from that.” I’m not saying that in any way to denigrate the Midwest. It’s a great place. When we first came to the United States, I was a baby. It was Rapid City, South Dakota. That’s where my earliest memories are, believe it or not. Everybody thinks it’s just Mount Rushmore, but for us it was home. That’s where we lived. Those are some interesting first memories to have.
From there, we went to Denver, Colorado. We lived there for a time. We lived in Orlando, Florida, for a year and made our way to Texas. I had been accustomed to the cold, but there’s cold and then there’s Chicago. It’s two different things. I remember my second year of college and it was ‘93 to ‘94. That winter was, to date, the coldest winter in 150 years. No exaggerations.
I remember being outside, and the wind chill was minus 80. It didn’t matter how much Thinsulate you had on. You were going to be numb walking in. It was like losing an oral argument. It was one of those you walk out, and you go, “What in the hell did I get myself into?” I was outside at one point. I was writing something down, and the ink in my pen froze. That’s how cold it was.
I did that for a time. It taught me that I love Chicago. It’s a great city when the weather is nice. People in Chicago know how to party when the weather is good because they are used to being cooped up for nine months. It’s just cold, rain and all this. When it gets nice, they are ready to party down and hit it. Michigan was a wonderful place, but I was in Ann Arbor. It wasn’t exactly the real Michigan. I don’t know that I can say, “I walked away knowing what Michigan is like.” Ann Arbor was lovely and a great place, but after three winters there, I was like, “We are in Texas. We are staying. I’m not going anywhere.”
I have to defend Michigan a little bit. I have a family connection there, but there are a few places that are better to be than Ann Arbor in the summer, especially compared to Texas.
Yet like an idiot, I left during the summers and came back here or went to clerk somewhere. I never quite got to enjoy the Ann Arbor summers. I may have to change that.
You did come back to Texas, and you mentioned your job with Judge Buchmeyer, who, for those of us that have been practicing law since the last century and maybe a little longer, is certainly a familiar name to us. Most notably for a lot of folks for his Humor Column in the Texas Bar Journal, it ran for many years. It is now being continued by his daughter. It’s a staple. Tell us about how you got going with Judge Buchmeyer and what your experience was like in your clerkship?
This was a non-traditional story. This wasn’t the typical, “Here’s my resume. Hire me to be your law clerk.” I often say, and he would’ve admitted to it if he was here to testify on the record. He hired me despite my academic record, not because of it. The way it happened was my first year of law school. A lot of folks who go to school in Texas may not realize how this is.
When you are a 1L, you are outside of Texas and apply to Texas firms to be a law clerk, after your 1L summer they don’t want to touch you. They are like, “We don’t know if this kid is going to stay up North. Is he going to go to one of the Coasts? Is he going to come back to Texas? Is he coming here to party and make some money off of us?” They are understandably skeptical, at least they were back in those days.
I couldn’t find a job to save my life. I thought, “I suck in all ways that you can possibly suck. What’s going on with me?” It was a 3L who saw me despondently walking around campus one day. He said, “Get your act together. Why don’t you intern for a Federal judge in your area?” This was February of 1997. In those days, the internet was in its nascent phases. You couldn’t google the name of somebody and find it. I went and found the directory.
They had these hardcovers and little pieces of paper inside. It’s called a book. It was a directory. I looked up all the Federal judges in this area, Fort Worth, Dallas, and applied to all of them. I called up the chambers, “Do you guys take summer interns?” The first name on there was Jerry Buchmeyer. He was the Chief Judge of the Northern District of Texas at that time.
In his chambers, it was one of the law clerks who picked up. I remember distinctly. She said, “We don’t interview for those until April.” I said, “I’m going to be in town next week for spring break. I will come any time of day. I will bring you donuts. I don’t care. I would love to meet with you.” She said, “Send me your resume.”
I did this thing called faxing. For those of you who don’t know what faxing is, you can probably find videos of it on YouTube. I faxed my resume over, and an hour and a half later, I got a call. They said, “We would love to see you next week.” I was thinking, “Finally, somebody realizes how brilliant I am.” It took a judge to realize, and that makes sense. These people are educated. They have been selected by the President and ratified by the Senate. No wonder he realizes how smart I am.
I came in the next week on Wednesday. It was spring break here. I walked in, and the clerks were all gracious. They sent me down. The second question they asked me was, “On your resume, in the interest section, it said celebrity impersonations.” I could do celebrity impersonations. They said, “Which ones can you do?” They had me do Bill Clinton. Ross Perot was still in the news back then. I did a Ross Perot. I did Kermit the Frog. I had these voices I did.
They took a sampling of them. They went and said, “We will be right back.” Three minutes later, they took me into the judge’s office. He sits me down and goes, “Where are you from? This is great. It’s a pleasure to meet you. What do you enjoy about law school?” He was a gracious man. He wouldn’t launch into what he wanted to know.
Finally, he goes, “I heard you can do impersonations.” That’s how it started. He said, “We are about to go to lunch.” He took me to lunch with his chambers, and with somebody who was applying for a judicial clerkship. She was interviewing for a clerkship that day. There were two interviews going on at the same time. It took her a moment to realize I was not her competition. I was interviewing for an internship.
We went to lunch, and he said, “When I give you the signal, I want you to do an impersonation.” He never gave me the signal. We come back to chambers, and he has everybody come together. He gathers them all in his chambers and says, “This is Rocky. He’s going to do an impersonation.” He had me do Bill Clinton, Kermit the Frog, or something. I did it. He’s like, “You are hired.” That’s how I got the job to be his intern. At the end of the internship that summer, he said, “If you want to come back, we would love to have you.” That’s how I got the clerkship. He never once saw my grades. Thank God.
Which one of the impersonations are you going to do for us now?
Do people still remember Bill Clinton?
We are going to put you on the spot, Rocky.
This happens all the time. I always get put on the spot because I have a child. Bill Clinton, back in those days. He had have been like, “I got to tell you, judge, you got to be careful because interns can get you in trouble. Trust me. I know how this works. Now, if you are not going to pay him anything, you got to be sure he is not going to go out and squeal on anybody. I can talk to you off the record. Please don’t swear me to anything.” Kermit the Frog would’ve said, “I have tried to warn Bill Clinton about flies but he doesn’t seem to listen.” It’s a whole thing we could get into.”
Is it still on your resume? I have to know that. I didn’t see it in your bio online.
I don’t think it’s on LinkedIn. I may have to add that in.
I think you need to.
I don’t think LinkedIn has a mechanism for that, but maybe I can figure out a way.
That is a non-traditional path, which is something we’ve covered a lot here on the show. Certainly, doing what we do, clerkships are a common thing and internships with not only appellate judges but state trial judges. It was Jody’s experience. We are encouraging, and I admire your gumption. You managed to turn your talent for impressions into your first real job out of law school. Not everybody can say that.
Not everybody is as shameless as I am. Some people have a sense of decency and decorum. I lack those qualities. Jody, I’m curious, which judge did you intern with?
Judge John Wooldridge in Houston. He was a State District Judge.
Was that a 1-year or 2-year clerkship with Judge Buchmeyer then?
It was one year, and I wish I could have gone on forever. Honestly, it was the best experience I could have ever asked for. He was an amazing person to work with. All joking aside, I learned a lot about leadership from Judge Buchmeyer. As a law clerk, I didn’t realize the value of it at the time. I never had a real job. Growing up, my parents owned a printing business. I would work at the printing business when I was on breaks. It wasn’t like I went out and worked at a grocery store or waited tables. I was working at the family business. This is my first time working outside of that environment.
I realized I was learning about the law, but I didn’t realize what I was learning about how to be a boss. What Judge Buchmeyer would do with those law clerks is he entrusted us. As lawyers, it’s easy for us to be control freaks. Most of us are. There’s a way we like to do things. We like our sentences structured, and our emails drafted a certain way. We feel like we have to do everything ourselves.
Judge Buchmeyer would get a new set of law clerks every year. He trusted each and every single one of them to do their jobs. We would draft his opinions. He would read them over. He would make changes where necessary. Some judges will tell their law clerks, “Give me the research or give me a draft but I’m going to go back and retype everything.” That was rare with Judge Buchmeyer.
There were times when we would differ from him. There would be a difference of opinion. We would discuss it. He was never saying, “I’m the judge. Here’s how it’s going to be.” He would talk to us about it. It was a collaborative process where we could arrive at the right decision. The other thing that I admired about working with him and this is more what I learned about being a lawyer and how I think the law should be. He said, “Never rely on the briefing from the parties. Read the briefs. Cite check them, but never rely on one side’s brief. Always go back and research the law on your own from scratch. Don’t start with what they cited. Do your own research and see what the right answer is.”
Whenever we would draft an opinion, we were always confident that whether we were reversed or affirmed on appeal, we were convinced that we got the right result at that time based on what we knew. It was a one-year clerkship. If I stuck with it, even until now, I would still be learning new things from him.
You finished up your year, and what was next for you? You stayed in the Dallas area clearly. What did you wind up doing after that?
I started Atlas Legal Research right after that.
I was going to ask you. I did not assume that you went straight into starting your company, but you are that rare animal that goes straight from law school to a clerkship to starting your entrepreneurial venture, which is still going now. That’s awesome.
The real reason I went straight into it, one had to do with Judge Buchmeyer himself and the other one had to do more with me. What Atlas does effectively is we write legal briefs for lawyers all across the country. We write their legal briefs, summarize depositions, and help them summarize and understand medical chronologies. In short, we help lawyers with everything outside the courtroom.
Even if they are in trial, if they have to respond to a motion in limine, need to file one, need a trial brief or whatever will help them with those things. If they are on appeal pull draft appellate briefs for them, but effectively we are doing all this work outside the courtroom. Companies like Atlas, I wouldn’t say ubiquitous. Another word I had to look up in preparation to talk to two appellate lawyers, but it’s becoming less uncommon than it was many years ago.
When I started the company, this was very rare. There may have been 1 or 2 other companies that were doing something similar. When I talked to Judge Buchmeyer about the idea, he was all for it. He said, “Two thumbs up, go do it. We need more of this in the law.”He encouraged me to go out and start it. He said, “Do it right away because the legal jobs will be waiting for you if this doesn’t work, but do it now.” He gave me that blessing.
The other part of it was that I know myself. I tend to get trapped in inertia. If I were at a firm, I would’ve probably gotten there. I would’ve made friends, liked the money, and I would’ve gotten comfortable. At some point, I thought, “Maybe I could make partner.” The next thing you know, several years go by and I’m still at the firm.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. There are folks who have made their careers sometimes at a single firm the entire time. That’s wonderful. It’s not what I wanted. I knew that I would end up never starting this if I had gone that route. I went straight into it. I had $5,000 saved up from my clerkship salary. I said, “Let’s throw caution to the wind and see what happens.”
That’s interesting to know that part of your story because the whole time I’ve known you, it has been as head of Atlas. To take a step back from that before we move forward. One of the things that I have known you for, and you are generally known for in the legal community, is someone who has an interest in adaptation in legal innovation.
You are Exhibit A for this because you went through how nothing like Atlas was being done at the time and how Judge Buchmeyer encouraged you to do it. Aside from just taking the judge’s advice and thinking, “I’m going to do this while I’m young.” It is certainly good advice if you can do it. Did you always know that you wanted to do something entrepreneurial like that or what led you down that path?
I grew up in a business family. My parents ran this small printing business that my mom still runs to this day out in Irving, Texas. The business was part of what I knew growing up. My dad used to be a structural engineer back when he first came to the United States up until about 1986. In ‘86, the Texas oil market bottomed out. There were massive layoffs everywhere. Being a structural engineer meant a lot of the projects that his company was working on went belly up. He lost his job.
For us, that was a big turning point as a family. He was doing good work. He was rising through the ranks, and one day he said, “It’s over.” We just moved here maybe ten months earlier. He has two kids. He’s trying to make a go of it. Everything fell out from underneath him. It was during that time that he and my mom decided. I was part of the conversation as well. We decided we were going to go into business for ourselves. We are not going to let this happen again. I’m glad we did. It led to a whole different path for us. For me, that was just part of the psychology going into why I would start something on my own.
In terms of my personality or just who I am, I can conform if I need to but I don’t like it. Be at the office by a certain point, wear clothes that look like this and jeans on Friday, that wasn’t me. I can do it, but I like doing things my own way. Starting my own thing meant that if I was up late working and I needed to sleep in and start working at noon, I could do that. If I wanted to work all weekend, I could do that too.
There was nothing constraining me. It was always something that was in my blood. I said, “I’m going to do it.” I will say, “From the outside looking in, it can sound like an incredible story. This guy is enterprising. He went out and started his own business.” There’s another side to it, which is I had a lot of familial support. My parents were there. They lived in the DFW area.
When I was starting this business, I lived at home. When people talk about, “So and so lives at home with his or her parents.” I say, “Don’t look down on that. You don’t know why they are doing that. There may be something that they are working towards, and that’s why they are living at home with their parents.” I lived at home with my parents. I remember being 26 years old and was still in the room I grew up in, but it was a way to save on rent and be able to focus. Laundry, cooking, and all that stuff were done. I could focus on my business. Hats off to my mom and dad for giving me that level of support. The story would not have happened without them.
I’m trying to imagine you are at this crossroads where you can go into a law firm. I’m sure Judge Buchmeyer would have been glad to give you the recommendation to go in and practice commercial litigation or anything at a firm in Dallas, where it’s a strong legal market. I have no doubt you could have become employed in a traditional law firm right then based on the judge’s recommendation.
Not only did you say, “I’m going to do something different.” A lot of people these days, the something different they would do would be maybe to start their own law practice, which you could have done that too but you even chose yet another path from that to create this business. Now, you have been going for several years to fill a niche that, at the time, as you pointed out, I don’t remember anything like that being available.
The closest thing that law firms had available to them would be to hire law students to work in the summer or during the regular part of the year like freelancers. I would say innovative. I’m curious. You have been doing it for so long now. I would bet that you’ve seen a lot of ebbs, flow, and change over the course of the last several years in your business. I want to drill down some more on the business and what services you offer. You say it was everything outside the courtroom. Full-on support work for lawyers, it sounds like. Let me start by asking, how did you get your first clients?
I have to correct myself. It’s 22 years in 2022. Twenty-three since I graduated from law school but started this in 2000. I’m going to get to your question, but I will tell you how it relates back. When I started the company, lawyers were understandably skeptical about handing off something as important as a legal brief or research on a key issue to some dude that they meet somewhere.
To make things even stranger, I was sending this work to India. I had opened up an office in India, and I was outsourcing high-end legal work to India. We were not the first company to outsource legal work to India. There were other folks doing that, but we were the first ones to do high-end work, things like legal and appellate briefs going out to India.
Folks were understandably skeptical of the concept, but they also liked the idea that there was a time zone difference so work could get done faster. They liked the idea of lower costs. There was a whole reason why I came up with this rubric back in that time, we can talk about that if you guys want, but the way I got my first client was interesting, especially in the early part of my career. It goes back to Judge Buchmeyer yet again. He was involved in this group called Bar None. Austin has the Austin Bar and Grill. Houston has their own version of this. It’s a lawyer’s follies program that Bar None would put on every year. It would take place at SMU in the Greer Garson Theater.
It was just a group of lawyers, paralegals and legal spouses, all getting together to put on a series of funny shows, skits and songs that were all parodying the law and current events. Judge Buchmeyer was one of the founding members of Bar None. Every year, he would find one or more of his law clerks. He would say, I would love it if you go do Bar None. This might come as a huge shock, but he chose me the year of my clerkship.
I came into work from lunch one day, and there was this flyer for Bar None tryouts sitting on my chair with the name Rocky written on top in his handwriting. I was like, “I guess I’m trying out for this.” I did Bar None that year. I did five shows total, but I did it the first year. The woman who is, and still is, the Executive Director of Bar None, the one who runs it. Her name is Martha Hardwick Hofmeister. She and her husband, Kent Hofmeister, are powerhouses not just in the legal field, but they are an amazing couple.
I did Bar None that first year. Later that year, this would have been the year 2000. I got an email from them saying, “Would you be interested in joining the Mac Taylor Inn of Court?” I said, “Sure.” Martha and Kent sponsor and get me into this Inn of Court. I had no idea what it was but I thought, “It’s something they are offering me. I’m going to say yes.” Something I learned early on was when it comes to opportunities to join something with people that you admire you always say yes. I said, “Sure, I will do it.”
I went in there at my first Inn of Court meeting. I got up, introduced myself, and told him who I was as a new member. His name is Al Silva. He’s a lawyer here in Dallas. He came up and said, “Write your name and number down on this piece of paper. I’ve got somebody who could use your services.” The next day I got a phone call, and that was the first client. She is now a family court judge. It was a one-off. She never needed us again. My first repeat client came from the Inn of Court as well. It all came from the Inn of Court, which came from Martha and Kent, which happened because of Buchmeyer. It all relates back through the chain. This is proximate causation.
It goes to show you that you never know where your next case is coming from. You say that as lawyers, and you don’t know what relationships are going to bear fruit in other ways besides you enjoying the person’s company. As a member of the Calvert Inn of Court here in Austin, I can tell you that it’s a great organization for many reasons but there’s a business element to it. It is because you get to know people who do various kinds of things in law practice. It’s another great networking tool for lawyers to get connected and understand what others do to take care of their clients in the long run.
Tell us quickly how the business was built. You were outsourcing work to India. You were taking advantage of your crew doing work while the rest of us were sleeping and being able to turn around memos and projects quickly, for that reason, I would imagine. What was the overall arc of the company from then to now?
I wish I could tell you it was onward and upward, and we never looked back, but business undulates. It has these ups and downs. We certainly had that. We were slowly building a cadre of legal research clients who would use us for those types of matters. Around 2006, we were approached by a law firm not in Texas. They were out of state. They wanted us to do document review and document indexing.
In those days, you didn’t have computers doing it. People would go through each document and determine whether it was relevant or irrelevant for what issue. They wanted us to do that on a massive scale for this large case. We scaled up our office in India and started doing that work. About three months into it, the case was settled. We had this huge infrastructure that we had built up, and the whole thing was for naught.
We started to get more of that work, but it never quite was up to that level again. The business did suffer for a while. Starting around late 2006, we had our ups and downs. It was a struggle to keep things going. For a four-year period we were hanging on by our nails, but around 2010 we got approached. I can’t say the name, but I can tell you it’s a major international insurance carrier. They do a lot of commercial liability work.
They approached us to help their staff counsel offices. For those who are unfamiliar with staff counsel, it is where insurance companies, especially larger ones, have lawyers that work for them but they are deployed all over the country with licenses in their respective jurisdictions. They will handle work only for the insureds of that particular insurance company. If the three of us were in a staff counsel operation, it would say, “The law firm of Smith, Sanders and Dhir.” It would have a little asterisk and would say, “Not a partnership. The lawyers are employees of XYZ insurance company.”
This particular insurance company wanted us to do this on a nationwide basis for all of their staff counsel offices. To make that scale, we closed our India office and brought everything back to the United States. We don’t do anything in India anymore. It’s all here in the U.S. We do primarily legal research and briefing and a little bit of the document review, but that changed our business in a major way.
We went from working mostly with smaller law firms to now working with what are still small law offices, but they are part of a larger umbrella. We are working with about three of these big insurance companies, and that’s become our primary avenue of work. Every once in a while, we still get a plaintiff’s case or smaller law firms. Those are always fun because you never know what they are going to come at you with. A lot of our work now, the bulk of it is insurance defense.
I had no idea that you had made that transition. I remember well the days you were working with folks and your team in India a lot. Logically, you can see the attraction of that model for all the reasons you already covered. You were able to get good quality work at a decreased cost and on a different timetable. There’s a lot of appeal to that, I would imagine. That’s interesting that you’ve changed the business model now, and yet you’re still providing the same basic services to those staff counsel offices. I wouldn’t say you are the back office, but the legal brain behind some of those staff counsel firms.
The way they see us, at least from what they’ve described, is as the first to maybe 60 or so associates that you would have at a law firm, depending on the type of matter and what they need to be done. The first-year associate matter would be something like, “We need a memo on this issue that we can’t seem to figure an answer for.”
Sometimes they will come to us with complex issues and want us to start helping them from the start. We are getting them up to a point where it gets to summary judgment and possibly to an appeal if that summary judgment ruling gets appealed one way or the other. It’s funny because one thing I’ve looked back on, you were saying a second ago that I made these transitions.
If I’m being honest about it, I didn’t make the transitions. The transitions made themselves because opportunities come, and you have to see, “How do you adapt to this? How do you change?” I loved having the India office. It was so much fun. I would go out there twice a year, get to hang out with all the folks there, and live a different life for a few weeks every year.
There came the point at which the loaded cost of doing business there versus doing business here was almost the same. It was no longer this advantageous thing to have the India office. This business with the staff counsel operations forced me to sit down and do the calculations. I said, “It doesn’t make sense anymore to keep this there.”
Our business is changing, and the needs of the business are changing. With that, it means that we’ve got to reevaluate everything. It was hard to tell the folks there that we were shutting this down. They understood. They could see the writing on the wall. We tried hard to give them several months of notice. Everybody was employed gainfully at good places before they left. We didn’t leave anybody unemployed. I’m happy that we took that step. We didn’t burn any bridges, but it was a difficult decision. Sometimes you have to make those when you are doing these things.
The way that you described the way the company is fitting in with its clients now. We found our segue into appellate practice because you talk about a lot of things that appellate lawyers do. That’s pretty cool. I would say it’s good for you and good for the companies you work with to have that support. I was curious about your take on some things that are seen as innovations in the law now. You certainly have played your role in legal innovation. At this point now in the life of the business and still thinking about legal innovation, what do you see as being the trends in legal innovation nowadays from your observation?
It’s a big question because there’s so much going on in the law, not just in terms of a law practice but also in terms of business of law. There are two aspects to that. Law practice is what we do. It’s how we deliver justice, legal services to our clients. We also have to have a roof over the building. We have to be able to make payroll, all those things. That becomes the business of law.
In terms of law practice, some people have already talked about it and some people are already working on it, but artificial intelligence is going to play an increasingly prominent role. Whether and to what extent, there are those who think that AI is eventually going to take over everything, including the practice of the law. For that to happen, you would have to have judicial decisions also rendered by AI, which means, effectively, artificial intelligence is going to be the judge.
For as long as you have any human interaction with the law, you will need to have some human element to the practice of law, in my view. At the end of the day, as lawyers, if you are asking the AI to argue what the law is, I wouldn’t know how to program the computer to do it but conceptually, it’s not a huge leap to say, “Let’s go read the cases and the statutes. Here’s what the law says, and present that to a jurist.”
If you are trying to advocate for a change in the law or talk about an area that the law may not be as vocal on, or there’s maybe a dearth of Case Law on a particular question, that’s where the human element comes in, figuring out, “What’s the right answer. What is the moral answer?” From a policy perspective, assuming I was a judge in this case, “What policy do I, as a judge, think would be best abdicated by a particular decision?” That ultimately is going to be where AI runs into a bit of a challenge.
If we replace all of our judges with artificial intelligence, theoretically, I don’t know if it would be a justiciable system. I don’t know how fair it would be, but you could have a working system where everything is controlled by AI. I do think as we move forward, AI is going to make our jobs as lawyers both easier and harder.
It’s going to make it easier in that there are certain things that the AI will be able to do that we used to do. For example, document review. It’s already being done by AI. It also means that we, as lawyers, have to be even better when it comes to the analytical component of what we do because sorting out the documents themselves is no longer part of our day-to-day work.
Knowing what those documents mean, figuring out where they fall in, and being able to make that argument to a judge or a jury, we have to be on our A-plus game to make that come home. AI is where we are going to see a lot more innovation in the future. When it comes to the business of law, there are a lot of directions we can go in. Most immediately, a lot of this is going to come down to cybersecurity.
Shawn Tuma, who is up here in Dallas. Todd, I know you and I have both known him for many years. He was at the forefront of this. Even back in 2010, he was sounding the alarm about cybersecurity and how to protect our data. While we were all listening, I don’t think most of us understood what he meant. He was talking at least over my head, but it turns out time has proven Shawn correct. I give a big shout-out to Shawn Tuma for sounding the alarm.
Cybersecurity is going to be big for us as lawyers, not just as a practice area but also in terms of protecting our offices, our clients, and their data. It’s something that a lot of lawyers don’t feel well equipped to do, but we are going to have to learn. Those are the two big areas. If we had hours and hours I could go into others, but if I had to pick two that would be it.
We may have to have you back for another episode to do a law futurist episode. This is all fascinating stuff. Let’s transition a little bit to the State Bar of Texas Podcast because we do want to talk about that. You are the host of the State Bar of Texas Podcast. Can you tell us about how that got started and how you found yourself doing that?
When you say I’m the host, let’s make it clear. I don’t want that to, in any way, denigrate the State Bar and reflect poorly on those fine, hardworking people who asked me to do this. It has been a real honor. I look forward to the podcast. I love recording the episodes, and I don’t get paid for it. It’s not like I’m minting money being the podcast host.
We are familiar with that idea.
I’m sure you know how the free work model works. You guys should sue yourselves for wage and hour claims, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s a service I get to do with the bar. I don’t have to run for election. I don’t have to do any of the politicking. I do this, and it’s a ton of fun. The actual podcast that we know of now started in June of 2018. In case you are wondering how I know that. I looked it up before we had this discussion because I had a feeling that it might come up. I was like, “How long have we been doing this?” It’s crazy that we are now at several years.
Before the “podcast” the state bar annual meeting would have a little YouTube. It was Texas Bar TV. Todd, you have been on that before. You have come on and been part of Texas Bar TV. I would sit there and get to be a cheesy game show host. It was awesome. I would be like, “This is Rocky Dhir with Texas Bar TV. Welcome.” We would get people that were at the annual meeting and do interviews, whether they have spoken.
Sometimes it was a man or woman on the street who was walking by, and we would talk to them about who they were, what they were doing at the annual meeting, and what they found interesting. They eventually turned that into this podcast. That launched in June of 2018. It’s great because we still get to put content out, but people don’t have to see me. They can listen. It’s a little bit of relief for the listeners. They are like, “No face is involved.” That’s how it started.
Have you done any episodes as Bill Clinton or Kermit yet? Is that a future project?
It has been a number of episodes now. I did some impersonations on one of them. One of the guests who knew that I would do it was like, “I’m going to call you out. You got to do one.” I did. I have to go back and see which one it was.
Any particularly memorable or favorite interviews?
There was this one guest that was this total nerd. It was about Automated Certificates of Service. His name was Todd. He was an appellate lawyer. He was Todd Smith. That was October 2021.
He gets excited about that topic. He’s the only one in the State of Texas, but he does get excited about it.
All kidding aside, he made it interesting. When I first saw this, I was like, “Certificates of service, who in the world is going to listen to this?” When we talked about it, I was like, “I get it.” I learn a lot doing the podcast because I learn about stuff that I otherwise would’ve never thought about. Case in point, we did one on the new ethics rules in Texas. We did the podcast. They asked me to host one of the webinars that was going to be live cast through TexasBarCLE. I would’ve looked them up at some point, but this made me study the rules and I got to learn a lot about them.
With the work that I do at Atlas, I’m not a practicing lawyer. We are working on our briefs. I don’t get a chance to get into the weeds of being a practicing lawyer. The podcast gives me a chance to dive into that. Jody, to your question about memorable episodes. I don’t know that I would say that there are favorites, but there are some that stick out.
This is not a commentary on the guests themselves. This is more about either the topic, something funny that happened or a rapport that was built. Our first episode was with a gentleman named Anthony Graves. To date, that might be the most riveting episode we’ve had. We came out the gate strong.
Anthony was falsely convicted and was put on death row for a murder he did not commit. It was a long, arduous road to get him exonerated but that happened. We thought, “What better way to celebrate the launch of our podcast than to talk about a situation where I don’t know if you could say justice worked, but justice worked eventually?” It’s conditional.
We also had Bryan Garner in those early episodes, and that was a trip. We interviewed him at his house, which was a lot of fun. He’s got the most amazing library I have ever seen. He has a building in his house called the scriptorium. It’s where he does a lot of his dictionary work. One of the fun ones was, you guys might remember from 2020, the whole cat lawyer incident that happened with a lawyer named Rod Ponton out in West Texas. Lawyers all over the country were talking about the cat lawyer.
We had Rod Ponton and Judge Roy Ferguson. Judge Ferguson was the judge in that particular episode. Rod’s famous words were, “I’m not a cat.” We had a chance to not only talk about the humor in it but also their roles as members of that situation. If you have never had a chance to sit down with Judge Roy Ferguson, he’s an extremely thoughtful individual. He’s thought deeply about all of these issues. I bet even when it comes to what brand of milk he’s going to buy, he’s thoughtful. I’m roasting him a little bit, but I say that with absolute respect.
Judge Ferguson was part of another episode we had on the podcast. This was at the 2019 State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting. He was going to come talk about some topic that he was on a panel for. I don’t remember that one, but after he was done the mics and headsets were off. I said, “Judge, now that you are out in Austin, you are normally from West Texas, are you still Judge Ferguson or do you get to be Roy?”
He started talking about why he prefers to be called Judge Ferguson. It wasn’t the reason most people would think of. Being out in West Texas, it’s geographically large. In terms of population, it’s sparsely populated. He said, “If anybody calls me Roy, even my closest friends, people figure the fix is in, that I’ve got favorites. Being in Austin, I was at a dinner sitting at the bar, and a guy down the bar recognized me from a case that I had tried with somebody that he was related to. Even here, I have to make sure that I’m the judge. Everybody treats me with that same level of dissociation.”
He said, “Even friends of mine who come to my house for a barbecue call me Judge Ferguson, and there’s a reason.” He started talking about this, and for the first time ever I said to a judge, “Stop talking.” We put the headphones on him. We got him the microphone, and we turned it into a podcast episode. It was fascinating. That was so organic.
We are about to head to the annual meeting. Are you going to be bringing your microphone?
I’m there. The dance card is filled. It’s back-to-back podcast episodes. They are not going to be the normal lengthier ones, not like this one where we are getting into the details. These are going to be 20- to 30-minute episodes. It’s filled up all day Thursday and until 2:30 on Friday. We’ve got a lot of folks to talk to, so I need to bring some Ricolas, a lot of water, and some hot tea.
I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be fun. The part that I will miss is being able to do the spontaneous ones because now it’s all scheduled out. Being able to pick somebody who comes and says, “What’s this?” We tell them there’s a podcast. They tell us about their story. We put them in front of a microphone and start hearing their story. What the annual meeting has taught me is that we have a lot of fascinating people in this state. Luckily, a lot of them happen to be lawyers. Hearing their stories is always a highlight. I love it.
We look forward to hearing those episodes when they come out.
It would be great for any insomnia you might suffer in the future.
That’s what we tell people about our show, too. We are getting to the end of our episode, and it’s always our tradition to end with a tip or a war story. I don’t know if you’ve got one or the other that you would like to share here in the last couple of minutes.
This isn’t so much me, but this is one of my colleagues here at Atlas. He was writing an appellate brief in Ohio. This was going to the intermediate court in Ohio, and it was on an issue that he knew well because he had briefed it before. When he was looking up Case Law, he happened to find a case that he had worked on. He wrote the winning brief, and the justices had largely used his analysis in the brief. He effectively cited himself, but he wasn’t on Lexis or Westlaw as the attorney of record because we were effectively writing in the background.
He was like Ben Affleck in Argo. The Canadians got all the credit, but he did all the work. He was sitting there. He was like, “This is so cool.” At the end of it, he was like, “Nobody is ever going to know. I was like, “What do you say? Argo, cite yourself.” That’s what he did, but it was fun.
In terms of a quick tip, what I would tell lawyers and especially appellate practitioners is don’t be afraid to get help. A lot of times, as lawyers, trial lawyers and appellate lawyers, there’s a tendency for all of us to be control freaks. We want to have our hands on everything, and sometimes what you want to do to expand your practice is to get that work-life balance you want because the law is tough. It’s tough because it never leaves you. 3:00 in the morning, you will wake up and realize, “There’s a Case Law search I need to do. There’s a part of the record I neglected to look at.” The next thing you know, you are up at 3:30 in the morning looking at this.
One of the ways to mitigate that is to find people you trust whose work product you can rely on and give it to them, offload it on them. Review, read and make it your own, but it’s okay if their writing style is a little different from yours. It’s okay if they use semicolons instead of full-stop sentences. You have to prioritize what’s important and what isn’t. Once you find that you are going to find that your life becomes easier, and you can get more accomplished not just in your practice but in the other things that matter, too. You asked me for one or the other, and I gave you both. I apologize.
Thank you so much. This has been great.
I’m not used to being the guest. You guys made it easy. Thank you.
I’m happy to do it, Rocky. Thanks for being with us.
- Atlas Legal Research
- LinkedIn – Rocky Dhir
- Bar None
- Mac Taylor Inn of Court – Facebook
- State Bar of Texas Podcast
- Texas Bar TV – YouTube
- Todd Smith – State Bar of Texas Podcast Past Episode
- Anthony Graves – State Bar of Texas Podcast Past Episode
- Bryan Garner – State Bar of Texas Podcast Past Episode
- Rod Ponton and Judge Roy Ferguson – State Bar of Texas Podcast Past Episode
- 2019 State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting – State Bar of Texas Podcast Past Episode
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About Rocky Dhir
Rocky Dhir’s dual interest in innovation and the law prompted him to establish Atlas Legal Research, LP in 2000. Atlas provides legal research, legal writing and document management solutions to corporate legal departments, law firms and insurance staff counsel operations. Through his work as Atlas’ CEO, Rocky helps clients become more efficient and more competitive in a legal landscape that requires lawyers to embrace new methodologies. Rocky is a firm believer that lawyers can enhance success by embracing business and management principles.
Rocky received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and his J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School, where he served on the Michigan Law Review. After law school, Rocky completed a federal judicial clerkship with the Honorable Jerry Buchmeyer of Dallas.
A published legal author and frequent speaker on adaptation, legal innovation and social media, Rocky is a member of the Mac Taylor Inn of Court in Dallas and is also a proud member of the Rotary Club of Dallas, where he previously served on the Board of Directors, the Club’s Foundation Board of Trustees, and as a two-time co-chair for the Club’s annual Salute to America’s Veterans. You can also find online videos of Rocky conducting interviews for Texas Bar TV, the official YouTube channel for the State Bar of Texas.