Speaking with Ian Levit, co-founder and CEO of Levit & James, on his company’s 30+ years in the legal tech industry at ILTACON 2018.
Kevin O’Keefe: Who am I talking with?
Ian Levit: This is Ian Levit one of the founders and vice president of Levit & James.
Kevin O’Keefe: What does Levit & James do?
Ian Levit: We do software for law firms.
Kevin O’Keefe: And what does that mean? I mean, obviously you’re covering a lot of land.
Ian Levit: Well, our most successful product came out 14 years ago. It’s called Best Authority. It’s the most widely used product for Table of Authorities. In fact, 85 to 90% of the law firms attending ILTACON 2018 are customers.
Kevin O’Keefe: Not bad, not bad. I don’t know if anybody could make that claim other than you.
Ian Levit: Microsoft and Adobe for sure, and I think that’s about it. We are rushing a new product out. We’re showing the Beta, which means in software months, it’s two months and in real months, in about four months we’ll be able to sell it to customers. We have a bunch of customers testing.
Kevin O’Keefe: So how’d you get the idea to start the company? Or how did it all come about?
Ian Levit: All right. We’ve been in business 32 years. My main partner, Fletcher James and I both used to work on mini computers and the main mini computer that was used in legal at large and medium sized firms, for those who remember the company, was a Wang VS and ILTA started as the Wang VS legal user group. So we showed up here, and our first product helped them migrate from the Wang system where they did their word processing, and it was very clever. It would take a Wang document, bring it over, convert it, most people used Word Perfect or Word, put it in their new document management system and retain all the metadata so you know who created it, when, etcetera. And we got about 300 customers out of that and we said, “wow, we should stick in legal.” We did some custom software for a number of years.
Kevin O’Keefe: Going back to that beginning time of 32 years ago, as the two of you, and you say, okay, we’re in software. What was the business that you were doing back then from a day to day basis? What were you doing before you showed up at the precursor to ILTA?
Ian Levit: Well before then we’d been working on minicomputers. We had some big customers like the Bank of New York. We did multiple systems – Dun & Bradstreet, we automated a large part of their South American operation reporting into the computer system – and places like that. So we had a good experience in writing software for very diverse kinds of businesses. So that was a good start.
Kevin O’Keefe: How did the two of you get started in computers and say, okay, we don’t need to go get a job at a company, we’re actually going to form a company?
Ian Levit: Well, by the time I met Fletcher, he was one of those smart math guys, went to Columbia University, and he could have gone into the number of directions I think. He ended up working at a small computer company where I ended up working, that went out of business, but we went on from there.
Kevin O’Keefe: So the two of you, that goes out of business, and you’re go, okay, why don’t we do something? I don’t know if it’s as simple as that?
Ian Levit: Well it took a little while. We both were doing consulting at various kinds of identities, but we kept in touch and we eventually got it started.
Kevin O’Keefe: Through all the years, you’ve got a lot of territory that you go through that you owe to your company. I mean, a lot of entrepreneurs may have started something. They think they’ve been doing it a while, and it’s been two years, and I’m thinking, “wow, I don’t even know if you’ve been around long enough to know the real highs and lows along the way. Have there been low points of owning your own business, and being in the market of trying to do new things, or has it been relatively smooth for you?
Ian Levit: Oh, I wish it had been relatively smooth all the time. Wouldn’t that be nice? t’s like winning the lottery. Well, when it was just the two of us, the cashflow demands were not that great. So if you get a couple of big assignments for a few months and things slow down for a few months, it averages out all right. But as you begin to grow…When you’re doing consulting, it’s one thing, or being paid hourly, and you might charge, although these days wouldn’t be that much, you charge quite a bit, right? Partially for those reasons, but we were much more naturals for developing software for a larger market. It fit our capabilities better. And as we started to grow Fletcher, maintained control over R & D and the programming aspect. And I, for better or for worse folks, became the face of the company. And now we’ve been at ILTA 20, 25 years through its various names.
Kevin O’Keefe: And how many people work in a company now?
Ian Levit: We have about 18.
Kevin O’Keefe: Okay. So you do get a lot done with 18 people.
New Speaker: Oh yeah, well we have over a thousand customers on the Best Authority product, right? It’s a very stable product. Fletcher’s great at designing stuff that will run in a very stable way once you get the bugs out. But we have three full time support people, although they all have other assignments at the company, so they don’t just do that, and go crazy with a limited amount of things to do. We have one, two, three, four, five developers now. About a year ago, we hired two additional people. It takes a lot of man hours to develop good software, because something that’s really simple people can do themselves, but something that’s going to have real legs and dominate the market – and we do dominate the market – has to be very clever and very stable and, again, we’re good at doing that. It’s good fortune, right? But it’s not luck.
Kevin O’Keefe: No, it’s not. You’re working hard. What do you tell an entrepreneur that’s thinking about it today? They’re going to quit their day job, they’re going to go directly from college into starting something. What do you tell them? What’s your advice?
Ian Levit: If you’ve got a good idea, you should try to do it. It’s good to partner up with other likeminded people. A friend of mine’s nephew did that recently – all smart kids recently out of Ivy League schools, got a few years experience, decided to launch a company, and they have a good shot. Although most startups fail.
Kevin O’Keefe: At five years it was somebody else in my company who used to tell the team, “hey, most companies fail by five years, we’re at year six or seven.” And I kept thinking, “What do you think?” I don’t wake up in the morning, thinking I’m going to fail. I’ve got to keep that out of my mind.
Ian Levit: There are a lot of serial entrepreneurs. I just ran into an old friend and he was telling me about how he got to the company’s working on now. And of course I knew him 10, 15, 20 years ago, and if you’ve got the knack – and you don’t know if you have the knack until you do it a few times – I’ve seen people be way more successful. Real talent.
Kevin O’Keefe: Thank you sir.
Ian Levit: It’s been a pleasure.