Every Stellar Women in e-Discovery nomination that I have read evokes a sense of inspiration. Many have nominated the mentors, colleagues, and industry friends who have made an impact on the careers of others.
This episode of Stellar Women is unique in that our guest was nominated by her daughter, Desiree. When I met Desiree at the Women in e-Discovery conference, I told her about our podcast and our goal to celebrate female leaders in legal tech. She immediately nominated her mother, Khrys McKinney, to be a podcast guest.
Soon after, Mila and I met Khrys in Chicago and we discussed how companies can retain top talent and create a more inclusive work environment, while also sharing some laughs about my lack of technological proficiency and a potential business idea for the next big thing.
K. L. McKinney
Mary Rechtoris: Hey Stellar Women fans. I'm your host, Mary Rechtoris.
Mila Taylor: And I'm your co-host, Mila Taylor. Stellar Women shines a light on female leaders making their mark in tech.
MR: So Mila, how was your weekend? How was the Fourth of July for you?
MT: Great. I went up to Lake Geneva in Wisconsin with some friends and we lied in the sun. I even rode around on a jet ski. What about you?
MR: Did you drive it?
MT: No, I was too scared to drive it. I was just the back passenger and my hair was blowing in the wind, having the best time.
MR: Wow, I was also in Fontana, which is right next to Lake Geneva.
MT: Oh, did you have a good time?
MR: I did. I did. The weather was fluky. But I got some sun, hung with the fam, went to Chuck's.
MT: Yeah, we tried to go to Chuck’s but it wasn't happening. We were too sunburnt.
MR: Another exciting thing that happened this weekend. The US Soccer team won the World Cup!
MT: I actually did watch it.
MR: But you call it football?
MT: Yes. Football.
MR: It was 2 – 0. A big win.
MT: Yeah, it's very exciting. I was cheering for the team.
MT: We are really excited to introduce today's Stellar Women guest—Khrys McKinney, who runs her own business: K. L. McKinney.
MR: Khrys, thanks for joining us today!
Khrys McKinney: Hi!
MR: This is a really fun episode for us, because Khrys had a very special nomination from her daughter Desiree. I met Desiree at the Women in e-Discovery conference in Austin that happened in May. We were talking casually about different stuff. I told her about this podcast and our interest in elevating female leaders in tech. She said her mom would be the ideal candidate. And now we're here with Khrys. That's really awesome that your daughter nominated you.
MT: Yeah, we're very, very excited to have you.
KM: I'm very excited to be here.
MT: Kind of jumping in and I think I'm paraphrasing here. Your nomination said that “Khrys is the hardest working person I've ever met, and she doesn't sleep!” So, I want to know—where do you get your energy from? What motivates you to keep going?
KM: I'm not certain that I have energy. I feel like I was raised by litigators. My first job, I was 19 years old and I was doing an internship at NASA. I racked up a ton of credit card debt because it was the first big job I had. I didn't realize I was going to have to keep paying those credit cards after the job ended. So, when I went back to college and the internship ended, I needed to continue making money and a friend working at a large law firm in Houston said, “Hey, come over and work with me!” So I found myself suddenly working with litigators and having absolutely nothing to do with the engineering studies that I was doing just so I could work with a girlfriend. And it ended up being a whole lot of fun. And the rest is history. I've been in legal ever since, trying to encourage lawyers to use as much technology as absolutely possible. When you work with litigators, they don't sleep, they don't stop, they just keep going and going. You do what you have to do until it's done. So that just became a way of life for me very early. I don't know anything else. Soon after, I got married, had kids, and do the same thing with my family. It just keeps going.
MR: What was NASA like?
KM: NASA was a blast. It was so much fun. The people were very relaxed, highly intelligent, and always solving problems that nobody even really paid attention to. I attribute my time at NASA to giving me the ability to see problems that other people might not see. But it was so much fun.
MR: Yeah, it just sounds so cool.
KM: It was a very different culture than legal, let me tell you.
MR: But legal is so crazy though. After working with lawyers, you started your own business?
KM: Yes, but I was with lawyers for very long time. I was at the fourth largest law firm in the nation at the time. I don't believe they're of that status now though. But it was a pretty big firm, and I was there for 18 years.
MR: Wow. What prompted you to make that switch?
KM: Well, in the time that I was there, I probably had about five or six different jobs. I wrote every job description I had while I was there, except for the very first one. That was because I would identify a problem and come up with a business case for solving it. I convinced somebody who had decision-making authority to let me solve it for them. And they let me. So, I would suddenly have a new job. It was awesome. But eventually, it came to the point where there wasn’t anywhere else for me to go because it was a law firm. Unless I was going to be a lawyer, I couldn't develop any further. So, it was just time for me to make a change. And 18 years is a really long time to stay in one place. But it was a lot of fun and I did get to play with a lot of new technologies because I started out as a college student doing clerical stuff for them. Eventually I moved into litigation support and helped them build their litigation support department. I eventually started managing the help desk, training, and the trial graphics group. I also managed a small application development team that did matter specific applications. Getting to dabble in all those different things and being able to bring a different set of technologies to the firm with each new challenge or new role made it fun. And then it was just time to do something else if I wanted to continue to grow. I get bored kind of fast.
MR: I want to unpack what you said earlier, because I think it's really interesting. A lot of people would argue that, for almost anyone who's working, the job that they were hired for is not necessarily what they're doing now. How do you go about a) writing your own job description and then b) getting key stakeholders involved?
KM: Most of the problems that I've solved have had to do with frustrations that I was experiencing in the workplace, [such as] things that I thought were highly inefficient or ineffective in the way that they were being handled. If you're experiencing that kind of pain, somebody else in the organization is as well and there usually is business case for solving the problem. The question is—is the problem big enough to justify a dedicated headcount to solving it? Sometimes the problems that I identified couldn't justify a full headcount and that's how I ended up with five different groups reporting to me because each one of them may not have needed a full person dedicated to it. I think the best solutions in any organization come from the bottom up. They bubble up and what sometimes bubbles up are complaints and disgruntled behaviors and discussions. If you have the inclination to try to bring people together who can solve the problem versus just sitting around and complaining about it, there usually is an opportunity in that. That's the way businesses do well. That's the way companies, like the one that you work for, got to where they are. They just found a problem where people weren't happy with the solutions that they had, or may not have had a solution at all, and pulled together people that cared to try and come up with a better solution. I think if you develop at least a rudimentary plan for solving the problem, getting shareholder buy-in is the easy part.
MT: I like what you said, and I think it's probably what has differentiated you and made you so successful. I think there are two kinds of people. One, when there's a problem sit around and complain and say “I hate this,” whether it's the weekly report they have to do that's really manual every Monday, and every Monday they just say, “I hate this.” Or, there's the other kind of person who says, “Okay, this weekly report that I do every Monday sucks, and I hate it—how can we make it better?” And that’s what you've obviously done. You've been the person to pioneer those decisions and put in what might be an extra bit of work in the beginning, but really sit down and say, “Okay, this weekly report can get better.” That's how progress happens.
KM: They weren't always my ideas. Sometimes it was the ideas of people that I worked with. I didn't want to listen to the complaints. So, I would say, “Okay, now we've identified this problem, what are we going to do to solve it?” There are a lot of talented people in our collective shared environment. There's no reason for us to sit on pain.
MR: It's easy to sit around and be a negative Nancy. Sometimes it's fun. But sometimes you have to buck up a little bit. Tell us a little bit more about your business. What do you do?
KM: I do legal IT staffing and consulting. I started out doing consulting in litigation support at that time because there was no e-discovery in the early days. I would bring independent contractors to help out on engagements that I was working on. My clients were falling in love with the independent contractors and suggesting that they wanted to hire them. They were willing to pay a fee for doing so. I have no background whatsoever in human resources and found myself completely out of my comfort zone. I was able to get the help of some people that I respect to figure out how to make that work, and suddenly found myself in the staffing business. One of the things that I learned at the law firm that I worked at was that they had a really interesting business model because the firm had a business practice group and then they had a litigation practice group. I noticed while I was working there that whenever litigation was doing really well, business might not have been doing well, and the opposite was true. They balanced each other out which kept the firm so incredibly stable for the time that I was there. I never saw them suffer or worry about income or performance or any of those sorts of things. It was because of the balance of those two entities. You even saw the balance of power between the practice areas move back and forth over time. I think that had to do with [the fact that], when businesses do really well, there are a lot of business deals going on. When business was not doing really well, people are looking for somebody to blame. So therefore, litigation picks up. The two just seemed to balance each other really well. The development of my first business—because the one that I have now actually is my second business—I did the same thing, legal IT consulting and staffing. It seems that companies will hire very heavily when they're in growth mode. Then, when they're not in growth mode, they may not be as inclined to hire employees to solve problems. They may just want to bring a contractor in to help for a short-term engagement. So those two sides of my business seem to work really well for me, because when my clients want to hire, I can help them with that. When they're not really ready to commit to a long-term headcount, I can help them out on a project-oriented basis. It works really well.
MR: For the recruiting business, what do you find is a big thing that makes talent want to jump ship?
KM: Culture is king right now. I know I'm not telling you anything that you don't know. But I see it even when I'm recruiting, there are a lot of people looking for work right now. However, the high performing people realize that we have an employee's market right now. So they are being very selective about the organizations that they go to. Most of the ones that I am able to suggest move from the positions that they're currently in are willing to do that because of company culture. There are so many mergers and acquisitions that are going on right now that a lot of companies I'm noticing don't even have a culture. They've combined and are in limbo. They're trying to figure out “What are we going to take from organization one, what are we going to take from organization two, and what are we going to totally do away with?” It doesn't leave a whole lot of opportunity for the soft part of the organization—the culture, taking care of the people, and making sure that they have their professional needs met. In addition to that, because people are staying in their jobs for a shorter period of time now than they probably used to, employees are not as committed to their employers. They recognize that their employers are not as committed to them. That takes away from the ability to develop culture in organizations with a turnover of employees as fast as it is now. I think employers are of the mindset that we need to get everything we can out of this employee for the time that we have them and we want them to be able to hit the ground running as soon as they come in, because we know they're not going to be here for long. They think: let's get some value, because they're going to leave us. Then in the reverse, the employee is of the mindset: What can I learn? What can I add to my resume? How much can I gain while I'm here because I know I'm not going to be here that long. They’re going to merge or they're going to sell so I need to get out what I can before then.
MR: Companies are losing a ton of money, though.
KM: It's costing a fortune; I think it's costing them a fortune. I think that it's not necessary for that to happen, even in the wake of some merger, some acquisitions, some business venture that they have going on. Time is taken to do due diligence with regard to the company performance, the financials, the aspects of business, and processes, and so forth. It would take, I think, just a little bit of extra time on the part of the parties involved, to do the same thing on the cultural level, just to make sure that the employees are all taken care of. I'm working with a company right now that I think is very progressive. I'm excited that they're taking the position that they are—they're going through a merger and they've asked me to come in and help them to work on their post-merger corporate culture. In addition to that, to do what I can to take care of the employees that are going to be displaced through their merger. Both companies were very viable companies, they had great employees, and they had great individual cultures. There's no reason why the people that are departing can't add value somewhere else if you're able to find a good match for them. I think that thought process speaks volumes to the culture of the new organization—they're not going to just take care of the company, they're also taking care of the people, even the people that are departing. In e-discovery, so many organizations are highly distributed. You have people working from home, you have people working from remote locations, or you have little silos of teams across geographic boundaries. It is probably a little more challenging to develop a culture where people feel like they belong when you have that kind of environment. But if you do, then you are making sure that the people that you have are retained for a much longer period of time as they feel like they’re a part of what's happening. They feel like they're being heard; they feel like the organization knows that they exist, cares about them, and makes decisions with them in mind. I did some consulting for a group a while back that had weekly meetings for their project management team. They had project managers across the globe, but the weekly meetings were always held at a time that is highly convenient for the people who were in headquarters. They took no consideration into the fact that the folks in other areas of the world were having to join that meeting in the middle of the night. They expected them to always be there. I feel like it would have done so much better, even for the employees that were at headquarters, to see that there was an inclusion and a consideration for people who were in the other regions, if they were to have those meetings at another time of day even occasionally just to say, “we are thinking about these other folks.” It sends the message across the organization to take care of, communicate with, and make sure that everybody is in the loop. So everybody knows what's going on. And the left hand knows what the right hand is doing.
MR: Yeah, having to put their life on hold or their families or commitments that they have for this call.
KM: Yeah, they moved those meetings. When they moved those meetings, attendance was up, the participation in the meetings was much more animated across all offices. You just have to think about the small things.
MR: Let's go back to your business, because that's a big decision. Right? What was the decision-making process of that like, and what were the risks you were weighing when going out on your own?
KM: I really didn't make a full decision. I would love to tell you that I went through some fabulous process to decide that I was going to do that. But I really didn't make a full-on decision to start my first business. I started playing with the idea with some friends. And I'm kind of an all or nothing girl. We started on napkins, specking about what we were going to do, then we decided to meet for dinner one night. Then, we decided to meet again and the meetings kind of continued. Over time, we had a business plan and we were like, “Oh, well, we've got something here! Now what are we going to do?” And nobody really wanted to quit their day job. I had hit a little ceiling at the place where I was and thought “I think I want a new day job.” So, I left and it worked. Some professor at a business school is probably, you know, itching right now hearing me say this, but I think that that's the way that a lot of big things happen and lot of big businesses come about. It's not that somebody steps back and says, “I want to have a business.” They start solving a problem and it becomes an entity of its own.
MT: That's awesome. I feel so many times you hear “I did this, and I did this,” and it's so much more relatable to hear that a lot of businesses just start exactly as you said—from solving a problem and then the rest comes later.
KM: Yeah. It was me and a bunch of guys. I was the only girl in the group that was developing the plan. In the long run, it ended up being just me. They all said, “it's nice to talk about this conceptually, but I don't really want to do anything about it.” So that may be the difference: being willing to take action on a plan and develop a plan. It was just a one step at a time kind of process for me. Suddenly, I woke up one morning and here I am.
MR: Love that. We need to solve a problem.
MT: I know.
KM: Now is the time. For anybody to try and solve a problem—especially in legal IT. This is the time for technology to really take its place in the legal environment.
MR: Khrys, you saw me trying to set up the audio. I'm horrible with technology.
MT: Yeah, just don't do that kind of technology.
KM: We're all so focused on e-discovery right now. e-Discovery is fabulous. It's my bread and butter and where the majority of my work comes from and it’s where I probably have more expertise than anything else. But the whole rest of the practice of law still needs help. We can take the things that we've learned in e-discovery and apply them to other areas of legal.
MR: What's a booming area where you see it's applicable?
MT: Mary's looking for a business idea from you.
MR: I’ll write it down.
KM: Cybersecurity is hot right now [along with] Information governance, and all that is left of the EDRM. Everyone is paying a lot of attention there. I'm excited right now about “Justice for All” as a concept, though. I've had an opportunity to work on a project with a group that focuses on Justice for All. I like the idea of trying to dabble there. We're all very focused on big data and big law where we are, but there's a whole world of legal out there that has nothing to do with that.
MR: For our listeners who might not be aware—what is Justice for All?
KM: People or businesses having access to the court systems that can’t afford the Am Law 100. That could be in developing worlds, that could be in a small town USA, [or it could be] a small business that is needing help with some contracts. Or, they suddenly have an opportunity with a big corporation but they don't know how to do their contracts and maybe don't have the resources to hire the lawyer that can affect that for them. Justice for All—everybody.
MR: We talked on the phone, Khrys, you said you were in a time of your life where you were exploring new things. What brought this on? And what's something cool that you've done?
KM: I've always been that person who was looking forward to the next thing. I have trouble actually enjoying the moment I’m in because I'm always worried about where I'm headed. It's a strength and a weakness, I guess. But the thing that I did most recently that I was really excited about was a global legal hackathon. I've always said that I never wanted to have a software company. I never wanted to develop a software and give it to people for money so they could complain about it. Right? I felt like it would be very difficult to make a business around a software solution because you have to try to keep your customers happy and you have to constantly continue to develop this product that eventually is going to become completely obsolete and have to start over again. I'm like, “How can you make money doing that?” And I'm sure you can, because you know, we're sitting at Relativity where that is done really well. It just didn't seem like it was for me. Then, this global legal hackathon came along. I thought that I wanted to go try that just for fun and see what it's like. Over the course of a weekend, I pulled a team together and we had a workable product by the end of the weekend, so then I thought—there's no reason why you couldn't actually develop a plethora of software solutions and have fun doing them. So now I'm interested in software development again. I'm excited about that and I'm thinking that that might be my next undertaking after I get a few other things settled with my current activities.
MR: Always staying busy. Khrys, thanks for coming in today. It was awesome talking to you.
KM: It's great talking to you both, too.
MT: Thank you so much! Listeners, please subscribe to the Stellar Women in e-Discovery podcast on whatever platform you use to listen to your favorite podcasts. And with that, for Stellar Women in e-Discovery, I'm Mila Taylor.
MR: And I'm Mary Rechtoris.
MR & MT: Signing off.
Mary Rechtoris is a senior producer on the Brand team, Relativity’s in-house creative team, where she works closely with the multimedia team and the larger marketing department to develop and socialize new ways to tell stories.