Fairhope lawyer develops Cognito software to help keep attorneys organized

Clay Rankin says his software works by the task, not the project.

Clay Rankin of Cognito on Wednesday, July 7, 2021, in Fairhope, Ala. (Mike Kittrell)

Clay Rankin would be the first to admit he’s not your typical “startup guy.”

Born and raised in Montgomery and armed with a University of Alabama law degree, he’s practiced law in Mobile — at a big firm and, for the past seven years, as a sole practitioner — for more than 50 years.

Now, at 77, he’s an entrepreneur working out of Hatch, an incubator in Fairhope, with people about a third of his age.

But with age comes experience, and Rankin has poured all of his into creating Cognito, a newly launched web-based platform that he is convinced will help attorneys everywhere use their time more efficiently.

“Pundits say we lose about a half a day in a five-day workweek looking for things we already have,” Rankin says, adding that Cognito can change that.

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“Most people want to help lawyers organize work around each project, keeping files in folders and subfolders relating to that project,” he says. “I realized early on that that’s not really the way information flows in my mind or on my desk. What really happens is that I work by the task. I have to keep a task list, and each task needs its own separate set of its own information. That’s key to the way Cognito works.”

Using Cognito, a lawyer creates tasks and can attach any text-based information — links, emails, documents, notes and so forth — to that task, easily recalling it later. 

“You don’t have to go outside of the application and jump back and forth like a toad frog from one of these programs to the other,” Rankin says. “I built the necessary tools where I can do everything I need to do on that to-do list.”

Early Adopter

Rankin was an early adopter even before most people knew what an early adopter was.

“For some reason, I had a keen interest in technology, and in ’79, Apple came out with the Apple II Plus, which was the first widely available personal computer,” says

Rankin, who was working with Hand Arendall in Mobile at the time. “I took it to the office and had it on my desk from then on.”

Along the way, Rankin worked with database programs, email and other programs, moving into the computing and digital world as most of his peers kept digging through bankers boxes for documents they needed for a case.

“My goal was to make law practice easier using this machine that came out,” he says.

In 1981, the year Rankin started using IBM’s first-available PC, he was involved in a multi-million-dollar case with lawyers in New Orleans and New York, and he started using this burgeoning technology to help him manage his cases. He even wrote an early computer program, but it wasn’t a Windows program, so it disappeared quickly.

When Rankin left the big firm for solo practice in 2014, his creative juices started flowing again.

“I was by myself,” he says. “I started looking around for the best program I could find that would do the things I feel like lawyers need to do using the computer. You could cobble together a collection of apps, but that’s not what I was looking for. It just wasn’t there. In 2015, I decided I would just put it together myself.”

Rankin’s initial goal was a relatively modest one — he just wanted something he could use himself in his office.

“I never did have the goal of building a commercially viable, big-time app,” he says. “I crafted together a single-user version of what I had in mind. It took me about four years, working on the weekends, at night, lunch hour. There was no real consistency, but I threw a lot of hours into it.”

‘Let’s Build This Right’

In 2019, Rankin found Hatch, the technology incubator in Fairhope. With advice from Hatch Director Rick Miller, Rankin was able to attract investors and change the trajectory of Cognito.

“The investors said, ‘Let’s build this right. Let’s use the legacy app as our roadmap, but let’s build it with the most robust tools we can find,’” Rankin says.

Rankin worked for about 16 months with a small team at Hatch, and in March of this year, Cognito was released, introduced via the American Bar Association technology show.

“Since then, we have reached out to law firms and other organizations that need the kinds of things our app does that they can’t find anywhere else.”

That list of Beta users includes Rankin’s church, a regional conference center that uses it to organize events, several law firms in Baldwin County and a legal technology class at Birmingham’s Cumberland School of Law.

Tut Wynne has been using Cognito at Wilkins, Bankester, Biles & Wynne in Fairhope.

“I still consider myself a newbie, but there’s a lot of potential in the program,” he says. “What’s nice is that it can be on my phone, my iPad, my desktop, my laptop at home. I can access it from all of those devices.”

The program keeps documents related to tasks nearby, as advertised, Wynne says.

“It’s right there with all of the material I’ve accumulated,” he says. “It’s really quite interesting.”

Making Cognito Better 

Rankin and his team continue to add to Cognito’s bells and whistles, which include the ability to create an outline that tasks can be attached to and to create a final memo or other product, an in-app word processor.

The retail cost is $69 a month per person, with the ability to add or subtract numbers of users needed each month. Right now, the price is discounted 20% to $54 a month. Those interested can set up a demonstration by contacting Steele Partridge, chief operating officer, at [email protected]. More information is available at cognitosoftware.com.

Rankin’s ultimate goal is simple.

“We want to improve productivity and efficiency so that people stop wasting time when they’re doing a piece of work by having to jump from app to app to app to build something out of the info that’s necessary to do that task,” he says. “We’re also helping people collaborate in real time and quickly accessing work they’ve already done to reuse things. … It’s frustrating and anxiety-producing when you don’t necessarily know everything you need to do in a day or where to look for it. I want to reduce that anxiety level and make work look easy instead of hard.”

Rankin doesn’t foresee retiring.

“I’m the oldest person I know that’s actually working on software,” he says. “I encounter a lot of people who are younger than I am and not many my age. But my mind is still good. I’m still in a creative time in my life, and I’m using it to my fullest.”

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