· 21 min read

A Long-Form Interview with David Cambria, Strategic Advisor to 273 Ventures

Discussing the past, present and future of legal innovation

Discussing the past, present and future of legal innovation

David Cambria, heralded as the “Godfather of Legal Operations,” sits down with us to share and explore his journey from a young enthusiast in efficiency to a pioneer in legal operations. As one of the Strategic Advisors at 273 Ventures, Cambria’s journey is not just a story of professional ascendancy, but a testament to his lifelong quest for improvement and innovation. From early inklings of a desire to streamline processes to the pivotal moments that steered him towards the legal domain, our conversation delves deep into how his fascination with making things better sculpted a unique path in legal operations, paving the way and setting new benchmarks in the industry.

Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with us today. Anyone that is familiar with your work knows that you are one of the trailblazers in legal operations. Can you start by telling us about your early influences — college or even before then — that led to your interest in operational efficiency?

David: Growing up as one of six children, with my oldest sibling having special needs, the dynamics of a large family underscored the significance of operational efficiency, instilling a robust work ethic and a pragmatic understanding of how the world functions. My parents, out of necessity, exemplified these values, shaping my perspective profoundly.

Throughout my college tenure, financial constraints led me to work extensively — over 30 hours a week — to finance my education. Simultaneously, I actively engaged in campus life, assuming leadership roles in various capacities, such as student government, resident advising, and heading the orientation committee for three years. These experiences laid the groundwork for my pursuit of operational efficiency on a broader scale. I consistently sought ways to enhance the environments I inhabited.

Academically, my pursuit encompassed a dual degree in economics and political science. This academic blend honed my critical thinking and analytical skills, particularly in understanding behaviors, incentives, and organizational alignment. Exposure to professors deeply invested in behavioral economics significantly influenced my perspective on understanding behaviors and incentives, proving instrumental in my professional journey.

My ambition for a postgraduate or professional degree always centered on a legal education. Yet, my fascination with the law extended beyond its principles; it lay in how comprehending the “rules of the game” could streamline businesses and individuals navigating a world of risk. Entering law school, I harbored aspirations beyond the conventional trajectory of a law firm partner. While adept at legal advocacy, my passion lay in leveraging legal knowledge as an extension of my liberal arts education.

It sounds like you had this kind of operational overlay in everything you did from early on. Take us forward. You graduated law school and what was your first destination?

David: After law school, my professional trajectory began with a clerkship at the Dayton Board of Education — an intriguing role that, in essence, embodied a quasi-legal position. The unique aspect lay in the fact that the position operated within a fishbowl, under constant community scrutiny regarding the board’s decisions across various domains.

Simultaneously, I served as a student representative for West Publishing, a role that immersed me in the pioneering phase of adopting Computer-Assisted Legal Research (CALR) into the legal domain. It was an engaging time; West was heavily investing resources into training both their representatives and student representatives, recognizing the evolving landscape of legal education. This involvement took me to their headquarters in Eagan, Minnesota, multiple times. Moreover, they entrusted us with contributing to the development of online training and educational products. This exposure opened doors to an adjacent yet fundamentally critical realm within the legal sphere. My interactions with West Publishing proved to be pivotal in broadening my perspective on the foundational aspects crucial to the legal field.

West Publishing is one of the longest standing legal tech providers and clearly your experience there changed your thinking. Tell me more about that.

David: My time at West Publishing ignited a paradigm shift. Beyond the realm of legal research, I began envisioning ways to integrate capabilities into both classrooms and law firms. It wasn’t just about information retrieval; it was about leveraging corporate legal functions to expedite the delivery of legal services.

Interestingly, I observed a segment within the legal landscape — a cohort of former attorneys engaging in roles aligning more with my inclinations, centered on business and technology rather than traditional legal practice. It illuminated a whole avenue where business and law converged in ways I hadn’t previously considered. However, during my post-graduation interactions with my law school’s Career Services Officer, while well-intentioned, the concept of alternative legal careers was nascent. Their guidance mainly extended to options like nonprofit work or becoming a law librarian. Beyond that, resources were scant. This gap spurred me to chart my own course alongside like-minded individuals — an exhilarating prospect.

Navigating this uncharted territory required forging my own path, yet West Publishing’s support proved instrumental. They were willing to invest in propelling online legal research forward, a concept that, at the time, raised concerns about cannibalizing print resources. Skepticism abounded — could we trust digital sources? Would the absence of physical copies undermine the authenticity of the law itself? These questions mirrored the resistance often encountered with transformative change, akin to the skepticism we witness in the realm of AI today, given its overarching impact.

It was quite uncommon for recent law graduates to venture into legal tech, let alone with a pioneering company like West Publishing. Can you elaborate on that experience?

David: Absolutely, it was indeed atypical back then. The excitement stemmed from the substantial investments made by West Publishing. Their focus on the law school program yielded significant dividends as these freshly educated lawyers entered law practice. West essentially created and possessed a cadre of adept individuals well-versed in online legal research, equipped to push boundaries and enhance efficiency in ways previously unimagined.

Their investment translated into a group of professionals ready to leverage online legal resources, driving innovations that hadn’t been fully envisioned before. The groundwork laid during their training proved invaluable as they seamlessly integrated this technology into legal practice.

What role or roles did you play at West Publishing?

David: My role encompassed a spectrum of responsibilities. Primarily, it involved educating and training law students and legal practitioners — a process that extended to collaborating with law firm lawyers and professional staff at law firms, corporate law departments, law libraries and academic educators and institutions, ensuring comprehensive training initiatives.

Another facet involved advocating for the value of these products within legal practice. It entailed educating and “selling” the concept or delivering legal work in new ways and articulating why embracing these programs and training sessions was imperative for the legal profession at large.

Moreover, regular visits to the company headquarters in Eagan were part of the routine, where we engaged in testing, exploring and modeling various use cases. This aspect of the job revolved around gaining insights into emerging technologies and exploring their potential adoption and application within the legal landscape.

You had a unique perspective on the interaction between users and products, particularly during a pivotal era. How did you navigate the feedback loop between engineers, product managers, and users?

David: Our system boasted numerous feedback mechanisms, and I served as one of the primary conduits feeding information back to the higher echelons. Geographically situated in Chicago, I had the advantage of being a prominent voice in the network. The abundance of law schools and proficient law firms in the vicinity ensured a constant flow of valuable insights into user experiences and needs.

What led to your career shifts after departing from West Publishing, and how did those experiences shape your journey?

David: After my tenure at West Publishing, I transitioned into a role as a channel and sales manager for a prominent semiconductor chip and data storage company. My responsibilities included fostering partnerships with OEM partners across the Midwest.

My venture into the tech sector stemmed from a desire to delve deeper into the evolving technological landscape. This ambition was fueled by my observations during my time at West Publishing and the rapid expansion of the internet and the dot-com era. I aimed to grasp the implications of these technological advancements comprehensively.

Working closely with OEM providers and cutting-edge companies during the peak of the dot-com boom was exhilarating, insightful, and incredibly informative. Additionally, collaborating with engineering teams at a technology provider significantly honed my understanding of computer hardware. Looking back, this period provided an invaluable educational and experiential foundation that greatly influenced my subsequent work in legal technology and legal operations.

Despite the excitement in the tech realm, my passion for the legal domain beckoned me back. The prospect of re-engaging with legal technology led me to a small startup, Serengeti, specializing in matter management and e-billing. Like a lot of start-ups at the time, this company eventually went through several rounds of funding and transition and was ultimately sold to Thomson Reuters. This opportunity allowed me to reimmerse myself in the legal sphere, a professional environment I found myself deeply missing.

Your diverse roles have given you a comprehensive understanding of customer needs in this market. How has your experience as both a consumer and a product builder shaped your approach?

David: Indeed, having been on both ends of the spectrum, I’ve had the vantage point of witnessing firsthand the impact of products on individuals navigating their adoption. Whether understanding the intricacies of functionality or assessing how these tools would empower users, my focus revolved around refining my abilities in listening and translating these insights into tangible value for end-users.

Following your time at Serengeti, you ventured into Visibillity, a small Chicago-based startup. What prompted your decision to join a company at its foundational stage?

David: At that point, I was eager to play a more significant role in product development. Similar to Serengeti, Visibillity’s commitment to the legal tech realm and its focus on serving the legal sector caught my attention. The challenge posed by spend management resonated deeply. I viewed it as a compelling path, especially amid the mounting industry concerns regarding escalating legal costs within insurance companies and corporate law departments. Joining Visibillity presented an opportunity to immerse myself in an evolving field — one that was in its nascent stages but held immense potential impact. It was an era defined by the transformative utilization of the internet, the integration of rules-based logic into legal work, and an amplified emphasis on alignment between legal service providers and their clientele. This environment promised fertile ground for innovation and progress.

Can you share insights gained from your time at Serengeti and Visibillity, early adopters in the legal tech realm?

David: My tenure at both Serengeti and Visibillity provided invaluable insights. It became evident that the challenges within law departments extended beyond the isolated issues we sought to address. Recognizing this, I was determined to explore opportunities within burgeoning consultancies that were reshaping the legal landscape.

During that period, Anderson Consulting had undergone significant changes, resulting in the formation of Huron Consulting by a group of former partners. Engaging in discussions about e-billing and law department dynamics, I was approached for a private consultancy opportunity. Rather than monetary compensation, I proposed that they facilitate an introduction to the head of a specific practice at Huron — an introduction that I believed could potentially align with my career aspirations. This agreement led me to engage in consultancy work, ultimately culminating in the introduction I sought.

This introduction marked my entry into Huron Consulting Group, where I spent the subsequent five years specializing in law department and law firm consulting. My focus spanned operations, organizational design, legal tech, spend management, and change management — a phase where I truly began to immerse myself in the broader landscape of legal operations.

From your tenure at Serengeti and Visibility, it seems you identified the need for a comprehensive overhaul, driving the emergence of better legal operations. As you ventured into consulting, how did you navigate this new frontier of legal operations? What was the landscape like when you began?

David: Back then, the concept of running legal affairs akin to a business was quite groundbreaking and novel. There generally wasn’t a dedicated focus on legal operations; it often existed at the periphery — if at all — often handled in a one dimentional way by accounting or finance departments. Essentially, early adopters of these disciplines hinged on the priorities of forward-thinking general counsel, corporate transformation initiatives or technology adoption.

At that time, legal operations were in their infancy, just taking root as a nascent business discipline within the legal domain. However, it was a captivating phase. I had the opportunity to engage in diverse projects spanning various industries; a pivotal period that significantly influenced my future career trajectory and personal growth.

How did your move to Aon unfold, and what were the challenges you encountered while building their legal operations from scratch?

David: My consultancy opened doors to collaborate with dynamic and forward-thinking general counsels, one of whom was Cam Findlay. After working on several projects with him, he extended the opportunity to join him full-time at Aon.

The prospect of stepping into an in-house role, with a dynamic leader like Cam and the legal team there, excited me immensely - it was essentially a blank canvas. Aon lacked any semblance of modern day legal operations and recognized a pressing need exacerbated by vexing regulatory challenges born out of state attorney general investigaions led by the now infamous Elliot Spitzer. Contentious matters drove the priorities in the early days as we dealt with adopting and creating new technoligies to assist with matter management, e-billing, law department analytics, e-discovery, litigation hold, litigation readiness, and law firm partnering and collaboration.

My tenure at Aon was dedicated to establishing their inaugural global legal operations function — a ground-up endeavor aimed at addressing these multifaceted challenges head-on.

At the onset, legal operations lacked a defined playbook. How did you navigate these uncharted waters?

David: During that period, there was a convergence of developments in matter management and e-billing tools, ushering in more robust capabilities. Simultaneously, there emerged a growing inclination toward reshaping the relationship dynamics with law firms — a shift beyond transactional engagements toward fostering true partnerships. Questions arose around the procurement of legal services, pricing structures, and evolving relationships that extended beyond conventional norms. Additionally, the expansion of law departments within organizations, typically characterized by relatively flat structures, prompted inquiries into their management and operational efficiency.

My trajectory intersected significantly with Aon’s transformational phase. The founder, Pat Ryan, stepped aside, and a new CEO, an alumnus of McKinsey, assumed leadership, bringing a cadre of McKinsey professionals to orchestrate a comprehensive organizational overhaul. This proved instrumental as I aligned our legal strategies with the broader company transformation. It provided me with invaluable insights into executing large-scale transformations, change management methodologies, quantifying changes, and cultivating a forward-looking strategic approach. This experience allowed me to bridge the gap between these broader transformations and the operational aspects within the legal domain, positioning legal as an integral part of the company’s overall transformation.

I can see how that all runs together. And where did you go from there?

David: I went from Aon to CDW, where I was the director of Enterprise Information Management as well as assisted with legal operations. I got connected to them through another general counsel I had helped during my Huron days, Christine Leahy. She was kind enough to introduce me to some of her colleagues to say this person could be very helpful across a number of dimensions. One of them was enterprise information management, which included data loss prevention, e-discovery and records management. It was am amazing opportunity to learn how a sales-driven, entrepenural company serves its clients and proactively sought the assistance of legal to drive stakeholder value.

I was there for a few years when I had a conversation with Cam Findlay who said, by the way, I’m coming back to Chicago. I’d love for you to join me again at ADM and build out a legal operations function.

What was the state of affairs when you got to ADM?

David: The law department at ADM operated with a service-oriented ethos, but lacked scalability and holistic risk management strategies. It functioned without structured systems or comprehensive frameworks for legal service delivery, efficiency, or operations — akin to a local law firm embedded within a global enterprise. It resembled more of a midwestern small-town law firm than an integrated unit within a multinational corporation — a state of affairs akin to starting from scratch.

Legal spend was decentralized, allowing anyone across the globe to independently engage legal services. This decentralized approach resulted in a lack of uniformity in legal approaches, no centralized database for tracking work, and limited visibility into ongoing legal activities. Essentially, it was at a nascent stage in terms of law department operations. While the legal capabilities were sound, there was a critical absence of frameworks for business stakeholders to navigate engagement, measure outcomes, or comprehend the engagement processes; this was a gap that needed immediate attention.

Is it fair to say that, since legal ops hadn’t had its moment yet and there were not a million people doing it like there are today, that ADM was similar to the state of play at many organizations at the time?

David: I’d say ADM was somewhat typical, but what struck me was how they operated despite their global stature and substantial revenue. Surprisingly, for a Fortune 25 company, their legal operations were not aligned with that status. Comparatively, most other complex Fortune 25 entities had initiated efforts to enhance legal operations significantly earlier — around 5 to 10 years prior. Industries like banking, health sciences, or pharmaceuticals faced stringent regulatory pressures, necessitating a more proactive approach in legal operations. Perhaps ADM didn’t experience the same level or immediacy of regulatory constraints as swiftly as these sectors did, allowing them to lag behind in legal operational advancement.

Would you say the size and scope of the regulatory overlay is one of the determinants of the kind of speed to maturity on some of these functions?

David: Regulatory oversight acts as a significant catalyst propelling change within these functions. External pressures compel general counsels to rethink their approaches to Legal Service Delivery. This pattern was notably consistent during my consultancy days, engaging primarily with clients from sectors like Pharma, Financial Services, and Technology Companies. Agricultural or certain consumer businesses often encountered fewer regulatory challenges, thus experiencing a different trajectory in terms of operational evolution.

With these transformation exercises, it seems there is a person to be the transformer and the person to manage or mind the store. As someone who often worked in-house, what was that like for you? Did you feel most akin with one side of the transformation exercise?

David: My role often balanced between spearheading transformation and sustaining it once implemented. What set me apart was the ability to navigate both aspects effectively. I was fortunate to have a supportive general counsel who didn’t perceive change as a one-time event but as an ongoing evolution to enhance our legal operations continuously.

At Aon and ADM, I learned a valuable lesson: driving change wasn’t just about initiating it but also about living with it. Being in-house meant earning the trust of colleagues, convincing them to embark on the journey and ensuring they saw sustained value in those efforts. I found strength in articulating the end goal and demonstrating the tangible value of their contributions.

During my successful tenure at ADM, winning multiple awards including Law Department of the Year, Innovation of the Year, and Transatlantic Law Department of the Year, I was approached by Baker McKenzie. They invited me to leverage my skills in bridging the gap between legal services and clients’ evolving needs. My role as Chief Services Officer involved embedding operational discipline within the law firm, aligning their services with clients’ sophisticated legal operations and service delivery requirements. I oversaw various crucial functions and a global team of over 700 individuals, aiming to bridge the law firm’s offerings with the evolving demands of clients.

How have you helped support and build legal operations more broadly?

David: I dedicated myself to fostering and expanding the legal operations community through several initiatives. Firstly, I co-founded a regional group of legal operations professionals in the Midwest. Secondly, I was among the co-founders of CLOC, a global organization that brings together legal operations professionals worldwide. Thirdly, I helped establish the legal ops division within the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC).

My aim was to broaden the understanding and importance of legal operations, continuously educating and advocating for its significance within the legal landscape. Additionally, I served as an editor and co-author for the Law Department Operations survey, which has now been running for 16 years, and the Legal Pricing and Project Management Survey, which has been ongoing for four years.

Do you think what is going on today with generative AI is similar to the beginning of the internet and even the early days in online legal research?

David: What strikes me is the resemblance between the current landscape and the early days of legal technology and online research. There’s immense potential here to revolutionize how legal work operates, similar to the transformative impact witnessed previously.

This transformative potential spans various facets within the legal domain: from operational enhancements to research methodologies, from refining writing processes to empowering lawyers to better serve the marketplace.

Moreover, what’s fascinating is the alignment of these advancements with the everyday lives of end users. Just as the internet and email became integral parts of both professional and personal realms, the current innovations like ChatGPT are equally pervasive, intertwining with work routines and personal lives seamlessly. This widespread integration mirrors the technological shifts that have shaped our daily experiences over time.

What do you see coming in the next zero to twenty four months?

David: Transparency is key when it comes to the solutions emerging from Legal AI vendors. Over my years as a buyer, I’ve found caution is wise when dealing with vendors who lack reasonable transparency about their products.

However, there’s a notable alignment between technology and legal services now. Finally, technology can fulfill the aspirations many have held for it. Pair this advancement with a more tech-savvy buyer base in the legal realm. Legal has been gearing up for a major technological overhaul for the past decade or so, preparing to transform how legal services are procured and provided.

This alignment, coupled with the increasing sophistication of buyers, holds the potential for significant advancements. The evolving legal market faces economic incentives driving this shift; it’s not just about a nice-to-have tool, it’s becoming a necessity. The future of legal work hinges on leveraging technology for sustained growth and viability.

In the next 24 months, expect optimization at the core of legal practices. There will be strategic thinking aimed at boosting efficiencies, both operationally within departments and in supporting businesses like law firms and law departments.

Towards the latter part of this period, a broadening of perspectives will occur. People will delve into innovations and capabilities they hadn’t previously considered. Concepts like the use of agents and the application of technology to unexplored realms of work will likely gain traction. The horizon of legal tech is expanding, and it’s an exciting journey ahead.

Do you foresee winners and losers emerging in the legal tech landscape, possibly leading to a shift in market share among existing players?

David: There’s an existential quandary stirring among many vendors as they grapple with what the future holds. Mere addition of capabilities doesn’t suffice; it’s about fundamentally addressing what needs to be done.

In this evolving landscape, winners and losers will inevitably emerge. Those who fail to adapt and evolve, whether they’re companies or law departments, might find themselves lagging behind. It’s about embracing change; those who resist risk falling on the wrong side of this equation, struggling to redefine their identity, possibly when it’s too late.

Consider the law department’s role: How can they serve their clients and organizations if they aren’t fully immersed in and embracing the changes themselves?

Reflecting on this transformation, I came across a humorous thought today: As 700 OpenAI employees potentially move to Microsoft, someone humorously remarked on Twitter, “Please tell me you’re using artificial intelligence to figure out all their employment contracts. If you’re not, that would be the irony of all ironies.” It’s a moment that encapsulates the evolving landscape and its intrinsic demands for adaptation and utilization of technology in a tech-driven world.


The 273 Ventures team has developed the Kelvin Legal Data OS to organize and connect data from various structured and unstructured sources, including documents like contracts and briefs, timekeeping entries, and laws and rules. Kelvin ships with automation for legal-specific use cases, like due diligence and regulatory monitoring, as well as connectors for common systems like Aderant and TeamConnect. Kelvin is LLM-agnostic, with support for practically all commercially available large language models, including GPT-4, Claude, and Llama 2. Kelvin is a modern purpose-built platform specifically designed for the legal industry, with an emphasis on compliance with information security standards and data protection laws. Kelvin can run on your own physical server or private cloud, on a developer’s laptop, or in any public or hybrid cloud environment.

For press inquiries: hello@273ventures.com

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