What it takes to be a Successful Entrepreneur: DukeGEN sits down with Catherine Massey of LawDocsXpress

By Sarah Kate Fishback

Catherine E. Massey has more than 15 years experience as Owner & President of Legal Resources, Inc., a legal temporary and placement service based in Atlanta, Georgia, with clients all over the United States. In addition, she has more than 10 years experience in corporate management with emphasis in human resources. She has a BA from Duke University and an MS from Georgia State University. In this interview, she recounts what led her to start her own venture and offers advice for those looking to do the same.

Did you have any family members involved in entrepreneurship?

My great-grandparents and my grandparents owned a restaurant in NYC. I have a brother who started a business when he was in high school. He has upon graduating from college continued to be an entrepreneur. So there were some role models. I think while they were good role models for me, I never originally thought that I would become an entrepreneur. In fact, I expected I would either do something in the public sector or in the corporate world. Entrepreneurship was not something that automatically came to mind for me, it’s something I more or less evolved into over time.

Was that because it brought together your strengths and interests?

I think it was more to do with the way I was raised and the value system and the beliefs that I had and just my whole personality. I grew up in the late 50s, early 60s. My mother was a professional career woman by choice, not out of need, but by choice. So I had that as a role model. I had a father who was essentially gender-neutral. He believed that women were just as capable as men of accomplishing great things in life. I was raised believing that if I set my mind to things and if I worked hard and was tenacious and creative, I could succeed, that I basically controlled my own destiny. And I also grew up in an environment where taking risks was acceptable and it was almost considered the norm. So I wasn’t afraid to try things and to push the envelope. The one condition I grew up with is that it’s fine to make a mistake, as long as you learn from your mistakes. And that’s the lesson that I’ve carried with me, and really has helped me as I’ve grown my business, as I’ve grown from past mistakes. Each time I’ve built on the lessons learned.

I wanted to discuss Duke’s Public Policy school, of which you were a student founder. Perhaps my intuition is wrong, but I was curious as to whether being involved and getting that off the ground gave you one of your first tastes of starting something on your own or being part of a new venture?

Not so much getting the entrepreneurial focus, probably more so it was reinforcement that you can create your own destiny. When I became interested in the whole public policy area and discovered that Duke really didn’t have anything, I wound up structuring an independent study program. I actually spent a semester at that other school down the road in Chapel Hill that shall remain nameless, because they offered courses that Duke didn’t have. I guess the one thing that came out of that experience was seeing an idea become a reality and being accepted, and that was a positive experience for me.

Moving to your background, you went on to a corporate career before ultimately starting your own venture. Can you tell us about your career path?

I have a pretty colorful history. When I got out of Duke I knew I was going to go to graduate school. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. There were a number of university programs. I came to Atlanta and found myself connected with Georgia State University and they had just created what they called at the time, the School of Urban Life. It is now the Andrew Young School of Public Policy. I wound up deciding to go and get a degree, basically a master’s in Public Policy and at the time was offered a paid internship to work for the Georgia legislature. And from there, my boss at the time decided to run for Congress and he asked me if I wanted to come with him to Washington. And I went up and looked at life on Capitol Hill and said, yes, I’m interested in this but I don’t want to be directly a Capitol Hill staffer. So I wound up going to work for the National League of Cities and US Conference of Mayors and was their transportation and economic development expert and lobbyist.

I did that for a few years and then there was a huge court settlement in the late 70s where there had been litigation on an extension of the freeway system in Los Angeles. As a result of the court decision, there was a settlement plan that called for a number of action steps to be taken, one of which was the creation of a Public-Private partnership to look at linking transportation and economic development along the Century Freeway Corridor. And I wound up going out to Los Angeles to work on that project. As part of that project I had a private sector advisory council. And one of them eventually persuaded me to come to work in the private sector.

That’s how I ended up in the private sector. I sort of have evolved over time. I was in the corporate world for a little over nine years. I had gotten to the point where I had a major decision to make. I had gotten to a point in the corporation where my next level was an executive position and I knew I was being considered for one. If I stayed I was locked into a large corporate structure for the rest of my life and I didn’t want that.

I have always been a risk taker in everything that I’ve done and my philosophy in the corporate world was one of it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to ask permission. I would do things that I thought were right, were going to benefit the organization, were going to benefit the consumer, and were going to benefit the employees. Most of the time, it worked out well. I had a few spectacular disasters, but overall, my instincts told me I was doing the right thing and it paid off. But you know, when you’re in an organization where you’re constantly being told, “this is not the way we do things. We’ve traditionally done them this way,” you want to go out and prove them wrong. I found the business community a little too conservative for my tastes. And I just found government too bureaucratic, too uncreative. And I got to the point where I said, there is an opportunity for me to do something radically different, and I’m going to do it.

I bought a house in Atlanta, site unseen, turned in my notice and moved from Los Angeles back to Atlanta. I did not have a clue what I was going to do. But it’s the best move I ever made in my life. When I got back here, I poked around for a while. I did some consulting and then a friend said to me, “I’ve got this friend who’s running a legal staffing agency. She’s British and she wants to go home to England for the summer, but she can’t because she’s got nobody to run her business.” And I had, among other things, an HR background. So I said, “Sure, I’ll do it. I don’t have anything to do for the summer.” And when the woman came back at the end of the summer, she said, “How’d you like it?” I told her, “This is great fun.” And she said, “Would you like to buy the company?” And I said, “Yep.” I bought a legal staffing agency and grew it over 15 years from a small agency in Atlanta to one that had operations in four states.

What led to you started LawDocsXpress?

In the late 90s, I saw a couple of things happening. First, I saw a big movement on the part of law firms to using the Internet for recruiting purposes. So a big portion of my business had been full-time placements, however, I saw that business going away because of changing technology. On the temporary staffing side, what I was hearing from my clients is, “I don’t need someone to come in and work for the whole day. I don’t even need them here for the four hour minimum. What I really want is someone to work on this specific project,” be it transcribing a file, editing a document, coding a document, whatever. It was very task specific.

So I’m hearing this from my clients, they want a different working relationship and seeing the effect technology is having on the whole staffing industry. And I am sitting on a pool of over 200 former employees who are stay-at-home mothers. They couldn’t work a normal 9 to 5 job, but they could do projects. And they wanted to keep up their skill set, but they wanted to do it from home. So in, I guess it was in ’96 or ’97, I wrote the first draft of my business plan for this concept of a virtual secretarial and paralegal services business. And it wasn’t until 2001 before I found the right software to enable me to put the two together in a Web-based environment and do it virtually and easily. So once I found this software and negotiated the deal with the company to let me have it at a significantly reduced rate, that’s when LawDocs was born.

We began beta-testing and actually launched the business one month after 9/11. But what that did for us is, it allowed us to purchase hardware and software, in most cases it was all brand new, at pennies on the dollar. So we were able to get the business off the ground with a minimal financial investment. And because our business model is so scalable, we’ve been able to grow it by adding on clients and using cash flow to turn around and expand. I sort of think of it, if you ever watch Star Trek, I call it the “tribble” concept. [Note to SK: Only Trekkies will get this; “The Trouble with Tribbles” was Star Trek’s most popular episode.] They just keep multiplying and multiplying. My databases keep multiplying and my secretarial support keeps multiplying and my administrators keep multiplying as the clients multiply. They all sort of go hand in hand.

So you effectively create a lot of jobs. How many people are in your database?

We’re pretty close to 100 working with us right now and nearly 500 on our waiting list. We are truly a virtual company. I don’t even have an office. And our secretaries, paralegals, and administrators are all over the country. Everybody works from home. Everybody logs into our secure server and does the work on our server. Everything’s handled electronically.

We create and file patent applications. We do coding and document summaries on matters going to trial. We will prepare PowerPoints and Excel spreadsheets. We maintain databases, transcribe and edit documents, handle docketing, pretty much anything done electronically, we will do. We have a lot of clients in California and California is very form driven and driven to e-filing and we do a lot of that work for them.

Your company had a unique start. Can you tell me about how the Georgia initiative that influenced you to start LawDocsXpress?

It made a huge difference. What had happened was that in 2002, the Technology Association of Georgia decided that they wanted to find a way to give women-owned technology or tech-enabled businesses a leg up to hopefully increase their chance of success. So they created a program called Project Woman Launch (PWL). They solicited applications from women-owned businesses, and LawDocs was selected as the first winner of the PWL approach.

What they did was they created a board of advisors for us. I had on my board someone who was a VC, I had an investment banker, I had someone who had marketed in the technology sector, I had an attorney, I had two people who ran e-commerce businesses, one who ran an e-commerce business in the legal industry. And this board reviewed our business plan, reviewed our strategy, and provided advice and counsel on a regular basis.

Out of that I got some excellent pieces of advice. The first one was – begin your marketing for the first year to two years exclusively in California. Because California gets the idea of doing legal work in a virtual environment. The rest of the country is not ready. So do the work in California. And for the first 18 to 20 months, that is what we did. We focused on California. To this day, the largest number of clients we have are there. This is a huge market for us. So that was one piece of advice.

The second piece of advice was we had a unique process and we needed to patent the process. I had never thought of patenting a process. I knew you could patent certain technology and certain products, but I was really not familiar with business method patents, which is what I have. So we now are in the final stages of approval on our two patents, on our process, which has given us a huge competitive advantage. Nobody can duplicate our process in this country because it’s a violation of our patent. My competitors have very deep pockets and for my business partner and I, we basically have self-financed the business along with some investment money. But I could never have competed had I not had the protection of the patents, and that was huge. That and the marketing in California were two invaluable pieces of advice.

And then the third piece of advice that we got was that because our business model is so scalable and because we can generate huge cash amounts as we grow, we were told not to go after any venture capital money. Because I had originally thought that’s what we would do. But it was strongly suggested that we didn’t need to do that. And there are pros and cons to that approach. I probably would have grown faster with VC money, but at the same time, I have very much controlled the direction of our growth. And with the slower approach, I have been able to put some systems and processes in place that will assure that we continue to maintain quality, that we continue to guard the confidentiality and security of the documents we’re working on, and that we continue to scale rapidly should the situation require it. I think by taking it a little slower I was able to build a better foundation on which to rapidly expand the company. And that’s going to be the next step for me – how big do I want to get?

What role have mentors played in your success?

Several of the people who were advisers as part of the TAG exercise have continued to serve as unofficial advisors to us and I will continue to see them on a quarterly basis or if I have an issue I’m struggling with I will call one of them. So they’ve continued to help me. I view them as very specific business mentors.

In terms of just general mentor types, my late father was very influential in guiding me and I had a lot of respect for him as a business man and I sought his advice and counsel throughout the years. He was the one who, before I even contemplating LawDocsXpress said, “You need to be doing something Internet-based. That is the future.” And he harped on that and harped on that, and I said, “Dad, I get it” (laughter).

And the other one was a gentleman who was chairman of Southern California Gas, which was part of the company that I worked for in California. He had a daughter my age and was very protective of me as I was moving up the management ranks within the corporation. He helped me learn to play by the rules and still accomplish what I needed to, given the fact that I was a young woman in largely an oil and gas company. So I was a bit of an anomaly. So those were the two that really helped me a lot, just in a general sense.

But I think all along there were people who, at different points in life, served as mentors. I am firm believer that you need to draw on all of the resources that are out there to help you design and grow a business. Or even if you choose to go through the corporate world or the public sector, there are people who can be extremely valuable to you. In my time, it was much harder to find women who were trailblazers.

I would love to have had a woman mentor, particularly as I was going up through the corporate ranks. And that’s part of why I am so committed today to trying to give back to women who are on the start of their career journeys. Because I don’t want them to make the mistakes that I made or if I can help them in any way, they’re going to benefit. I was fortunate enough to have some men in my life who were very broad-minded and supportive of me. I was really fortunate, and I know that.

What advice do you have for others who are thinking of starting their own venture?

There are a few things. One is I always suggest trying to get the broadest experience that you can, particularly real life experience. Despite the fact that I’ve had a very colorful career, it has really helped me in running the business, because one minute I might be doing human resources, the next minute I’m doing risk management and then I’m looking at technology strategy. So the fact that I had such a broad background and have at least a working knowledge of many different areas has made it much easier to manage the business. You’re going to be wearing many hats. You don’t have to be an expert, but you should have broad knowledge.

A second thing is you have got to be flexible and adaptable. Things are changing very rapidly. There is no one day that will be the same. Particularly in the early stages of working with the business you are going to be doing so many different jobs and you’ve got to be able to transition smoothly from one to the other and you’ve got to have a system for making sure that you follow through on things.

Another thing that I always tell people is acknowledge your strengths and your weaknesses. I made a mistake early when I owned my staffing agency. Initially, I surrounded myself with a number of people who thought very much like me. And our expertise was in the same area. We had too much group think, too much commonality in expertise. And we missed some things. Over time, I brought in a different set of individuals to work with me, who would challenge my thinking, who played to their strengths and my weaknesses. And when I started LawDocs, my partner and I are totally opposites. She’s the techie, she’s into the minutiae, she likes looking at the processes and taking them apart and understanding. Whereas I want to see the big picture, I want to see the client impact, I want to see them employee impact, I want to know what kind of societal impact things might have. So we work together very well because we’re such opposites. Now, we do butt heads often because we see things differently. But I think we get a stronger business by virtue of being able to disagree and come and find some common ground that makes the best sense for the business. But you’ve got to acknowledge that you can’t do it all and figure out what you’re not good at and surround yourself with people who can do those other things.

And then, finally, and I think for women this is very hard, you have got to take some risks. You have got to step outside of your comfort zone. I’ve always believed that without risk there’s no reward. And it doesn’t mean you have to do something terribly radical. It doesn’t mean that you have to just throw caution to the wind. But women tend to like security. And when you focus on security, you don’t push the envelope. And I truly believe that you have got to take some risks. And if you don’t take that leap of faith, you’re never really going to grow a business.

What’s very thrilling to me about the entrepreneurial process is how much I’ve learned about myself. And what my levels of tolerance are and what my levels for risk are and how I deal with uncertainty in a business situation.

It also helps to really believe in what you’re doing. When I started LawDocs, my goal was to change the way law firms managed workflow. And in so doing, to create opportunity for a group of people who could not work traditional law firm hours. And I have had more women say to me, “I can be home with my children, but I can still earn a decent income and I feel like I’m contributing something.” Or I have people say to me, “I’ve been able to spend time with my aging parents and take care of them.”

To hear that people that work for me are able to achieve personal dreams and to do this while they’re getting fairly compensated and contributing to the greater good is the most rewarding aspect of my job. To me, as a woman… trust me, I want to make a lot of money and I have every intention of making a lot of money, it’s not only about the money. It’s about creating opportunities for people. Every one of my management team started out with me as a secretary or a paralegal. And I will grow my entire management team internally with the exception of maybe two positions because I want to create opportunity for those who have given so much to the success of my business. That’s part of what I’m trying to accomplish in my business. And I want to make us all rich in the process.    

Read more profiles of Duke alumni entrepreneurs