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I Invented It – An Interview with Smokeball Founder & CEO Hunter Steele

Patrick Davis

Written by

Patrick Davis


February 21, 2020

Smokeball started as a legal technology start-up in Sydney early in the 21st century. Since its founding it’s expanded not just across Australia, but across the United States as well. Our VP of Marketing, Chris Gerben, sat down with Hunter Steele, Smokeball’s Founder and CEO, to trace the roots of the company and better understand how he built and continues to transform the company and its product.

CG: Smokeball is a legal software company focused on providing legal practice management solutions for small and solo law firms. You wrote the first lines of code that became this software, but how did you get interested in the legal industry as a place to apply that code?

HS: My dad was a small law firm operator with a staff of five, and he had his business in New South Wales, Australia in a town of about 30,000 people. I realized very early on in watching him that he worked long hours. He would go in at 6 or 7 in the morning and get home at 7 or 8 o’clock at night. He was not just working long hours, but bringing home a fair bit of stress, too. And this stress was a transferred stress. Because when people go to a small law firm it’s just about the most stressful time in their lives at that time. And so when people go see a lawyer they’re giving the lawyer the responsibility of helping them through a high-stress, personal situation. And for the lawyer trying to cope and manage that stress and not get to a state of burnout is a really important thing to understand and manage.

You’ve identified a common problem that a lot of small law lawyers experience: bringing stress home. Did you ever see ways that your dad addressed this problem in ways that seemed effective?

When I was 17 I saw my dad implement some software that he thought would help him manage the firm a little bit better and help it be a little bit better at business (and hopefully help him reduce the level of stress he brought home.) I saw from these early days how technology could have a huge impact on a small law firm.

Did this experience lead you to study technology?

Well, yes, but I was initially studying law at university before getting my IT degree. And it was while studying law that I saw how well they teach future lawyers to implement the law, but not how to run a business or communicate with clients. That was my “A-Ha!” moment where I realized that small law firms weren’t just law firms, they were actually small businesses and that most of the lawyers and the people who own and operate these businesses had zero business training. This creates a massive gap, and I identified it early on as something that could be solved through technology and some training.

So did you start addressing this gap while studying law?

Not exactly. A few years after university I met someone who had just started their own legal technology company. We had a great conversation and I decided to join him on that quest to help solve these problems that I wanted to solve.

That was my “A-Ha!” moment where I realized that small law firms weren’t just law firms, they were actually small businesses

Was that company what became Smokeball?

No. Fast forward a few years from that initial meeting and I was able to start a new journey on my own along with two other people. That group of three has grown to over one-hundred employees who now make up Smokeball.

Obviously this all took place in Australia. How did Smokeball end up helping small law firms in the United States?

In Australia, where we started, there were about 10,000 small law firms that we could help at the time. But in the United States, there were about 250,000 such firms that we could help. What I had seen as I continued to research small law firms in America is that many were still a long way behind in closing the gap of using technology to make their law firms better businesses. We brought Smokeball to the United States to help these small law firms better help the communities they serve.

Why the focus on small law firms?

Small law firms are some of the most important parts of our collective communities because they help us solve our problems in our times of need. While bigger firms may be concentrating on the most billable hours, small law firms are helping us through divorces, purchasing a home, or recovering from an injury. Small law firms help their communities in real and tangible ways, and we’re proud to produce a software that helps them run better businesses and remain a part of these communities.

We brought Smokeball to the United States to help these small law firms better help the communities they serve

You already mentioned the stress that your dad, and other small law firms, experience. Are there other problems that you see lawyers face that you think Smokeball is especially equipped to address?

Small law firms and the areas of law they practice are often very deadline-heavy. So if a firm has, say, 150 clients, they’re dealing with a lot of outbound communication (in emails, letters, and calls) as well as giving their clients updates. This not only takes up a lot of time, it’s also very stressful; I can imagine it leaves many lawyers with a lot of sleepless nights. It’s one reason why many lawyers burn out and jump out of the profession.

What features in Smokeball address this problem for you?

There are many features of Smokeball that come together to dramatically reduce the stress that comes with operating and working in a small law firm. One that comes to mind is the Next Step feature. Smokeball allows you to ensure every matter has a next activity / task recorded so that before you move on from the current task you have a plan for the next one. This important step then lands in your inbox first thing in the morning so you know what is due to be complete today, in the form of your personalized daily digest. It also is front and center every time you interact with Smokeball either on your computer or on the road with our mobile app. The goal, then, is to never allow lawyers to drop the ball.

Obviously you have a personal history with the legal profession. How do you imbue that sense of experience in a company of over 100 employees?

Part of it is just telling our story and listening to lawyer’s stories. But part of it is also in hiring. Over 50% of the staff who work at Smokeball in some way have either worked in or been involved in small law firms. We make sure we spend lots of time with our clients, lots of time with them online and on the phone, and lots of time in their offices.

Over 50% of the staff who work at Smokeball in some way have either worked in or been involved in small law firms

Would it be safe to say, then, that Smokeball clients drive a lot of the features in the product and the future of the software itself?

One of our most important core values at Smokeball is “We innovate for the client, not the press release.” We are very proud of the fact that we are in front of small law firms listening to feedback literally hundreds of times a day, and it is this feedback that allows us to build Smokeball through the eyes of those using it, not just through the eyes of the technology itself.

As Smokeball continues to mature and expand, what are your hopes for its impact on the individual small law firms it’s addressed to help?

In all honesty, we have only just started! That’s what makes us all so excited. If I were to pick one area we are looking at for big advancements over the next 12 months it is around the exciting convergence of smart legal workflow and secure messaging and communication. Our mission is to help law firms improve customer service (and increase referrals!) by keeping their clients up to date on the important activity on their matters as the case progresses in Smokeball without the need to always remember to manually update the client with another email or phone call.

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