As many of you know by now, Xcential and I have been placed in an unfortunate position of having to deal with litigation with a large Washington D.C. lobbying firm, Akin Gump. We have been getting a lot of press, and I feel it is my duty to explain the situation as best I can.
Back in late 2018, Xcential was approached by an attorney at Akin Gump interested in applying our bill drafting and amending application, LegisPro, to improve the process of drafting and amending federal legislation. Initially, he was interested in using LegisPro to generate a bill amendment. This eventually evolved into an investigation into whether LegisPro could generate a federal amending bill from an in-context marked up copy of the law itself. The Akin Gump attorney expressed frustration at having to type, in narrative format, the proposed changes to a federal bill, and sought a simpler solution.
Amending law in context was a use case for LegisPro’s amendment generating capabilities that we had long anticipated. I had even written a blog exploring the idea of amendments-in-context in 2013 which got a lot of coverage on Chris Dorobeck’s podcast and at govloop. I have long made a habit of reporting on the developments in the Legal informatics industry and the work I do at my Legix.info blog including this blog post from April 2018 which describes LegisPro’s feature set at that time.
First a little explanation about how LegisPro is configured to work. As there is no universal way to draft and amend legislation, we must build a custom document model that configures LegisPro for each jurisdiction we work with. Legislation, particularly at the federal level, is complex so this is a substantial task. The customer usually pays for this effort. For the federal government, we did have document models for parts of LegisPro, but they were specific to different use cases and belonged to the federal government, not Xcential. We were not entitled to use these configurations, or any part of them, outside the federal government. This means that, out-of-the-box, LegisPro was not tailored for federal legislation in a way that we could share with Akin Gump. We would have to build a new custom document model to configure LegisPro to draft federal legislation for them.
Once the attorney had had an opportunity to try out a trial version of LegisPro using an account we had provided, we had a meeting during May of 2019. To provide clarity to the conversation as our terminology and his were different, I introduced the terms amending-in-full, cut-and-bite amendments, and amendments-in-context to the Akin Gump attorney. This is the terminology we use in the legal informatics industry to describe these concepts. Seeing the attorney’s enthusiasm towards addressing the problem and being convinced this was a true sales opportunity, I said I would find the time to build a small proof of concept to show how LegisPro’s existing cut-and-bite amendment generator would be configured to generate federal style amendments. I had previously arranged to have a partial conversion of a part of the U.S. Code done by a contractor to support Akin Gump’s trial usage of LegisPro. In the months that followed and using this U.S. Code data set, I set about configuring LegisPro to the task, much of it on my own personal time. Akin Gump did not cover the cost of any of this including my time or the contractor’s fees.
I flew to Washington D.C. for an August 29th, 2019 meeting in the attorney’s office to deliver the demonstration of a working application in person. He was duly impressed and kept exclaiming “Holy S###” over and over. We explained that this was just a proof of concept and that we could build out a complete system using a custom document model for federal legislation. He had already explained that the cost for a custom document model was probably out of reach for Akin Gump, so we should consider the implementation as an Xcential product rather than a custom application for Akin Gump. We considered this approach and our offer to implement a solution was a very small percentage of what the real cost would be. We would need to find many more customers on K Street to cover the development cost of a non-government federal document model. He had explained this approach would earn Xcential a “K Street parade,” a term we used to describe the potential project of building a federal document model to be sold on K Street
As it turns out, even our modest offer of about $1,000 to $2,000 per seat (depending on various choices) and a range of $50,000 to $175,000 for a custom document model and other services was too much for Akin Gump, and they walked away. Our 2019 pricing sheet clearly mentioned that the per seat prices did not include the cost for document conversion or configuration/customization and that a custom document model might be required for an additional fee. Furthermore, we had discussed the need for this custom work on several occasions. Our offer was more than fair as building these systems typically runs into the millions of dollars. Despite considerable costs to us in terms of my time, the use of a contractor, and travel to Washington D.C., we were never under any obligation to deliver anything to Akin Gump, and Akin Gump never paid us anything.
In the process of configuring LegisPro to generate federal amending bills, I came up with some implementation changes to the core product which we felt were novel. They built on a mechanism we had already built for a different project and for which we had separately applied for a patent a year earlier. We went ahead and filed for a patent for those changes, describing the overall processing model using a term I coined called “bill synthesis,” echoing my experience with logic synthesis earlier in my career from which I had drawn inspiration.
Two and a half years later, we learned that Akin Gump had filed a complaint to assume ownership of our patent application. This made no sense at all as our patent application is very implementation specific to LegisPro’s inner workings. The Akin Gump attorney involved had played no part in the design or coding of these details. What he had done was to describe his frustrations with the federal bill drafting use case to us – something we had long been aware of. He was simply asking us for a solution to a problem that was widely known in the industry and previously known to us.
When I got to see the assertions that Akin Gump makes in its court filings, I was astonished by their breadth. Rather than technical details, the assertions are all high-level ideas, insisting that an idea for an innovation the attorney had conceived of in the summer of 2018 is the “proverbial ‘holy grail’” to the legislative drafting industry. However, this innovative idea, as described in the complaint, is an application that closely resembles LegisPro as he would have experienced it during his trial usage in early 2019, including descriptions of key services and user interface features that have long existed.
What does not get any mention in Akin Gump’s filings are the details of our implementation for which we have based our patent claims — around document assembly and change sets. This is not surprising. The attorney is not a software developer and Akin Gump is not a software firm, it is a law firm. Neither he nor the firm have any qualifications in the realm of complex software development.
I can appreciate the attorney’s enthusiasm. When I came across the subject back in 2001, I was so enthusiastic that I started a company around it.
But for me, this is very hurtful. I worked hard, much of it on my own time over summer to build the proof of concept for Akin Gump. Yet I am portrayed in a most unflattering way. While I recall a cordial working arrangement throughout the effort, that is not how Akin Gump’s complaint reads. There is no appreciation for the complexity of writing or even configuring software to draft and amend legislation. The attorney forgets to mention that I succeeded in demonstrating a working application in the form of proof of concept on August 29th in his office. There is no understanding of the deep expertise that I brought to the table. The value of the time that I had spent on this project already was likely worth more than the amount we asked from Akin Gump to deliver a solution.
I wake up many nights angry at what this has come to. We work hard to make our customers happy and to do so at a very fair price. We are a small company, based in San Diego, and having to defend ourselves against the accusations of a wealthy law firm is a costly and frustrating undertaking that distracts from our mission.
What is ironic is that, by taking a litigation route to claim a patent, Akin Gump has all but closed off any likelihood of ever having the capability. There are few software firms in the world capable of creating such a system. In the U.S. I only know of a couple, none of which have the experience and products which Xcential can bring to bear. For this solution to ever see the light of day at the federal level, it is going to take a substantial effort, with many trusted parties working collaboratively.
I once had a boss who would often say “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Just because you have something in your toolbox, you should choose wisely if using it is the right course of action. For a law firm, litigation is an easy tool to reach for. But is it the right tool?