This article was originally featured on Forbes. 

Just about three years ago, I wrote The Future of Legal Tech: It’s Not as Scary as Lawyers Think and I believe that the technology adoption rate within legal has experienced a slight uptick. Companies are bundling offerings and several large acquisitions have taken place. Also, several US law firms have created consulting groups, such as Davis Wright Tremaine’s DWT DeNovo and other firms have hired programmers to develop in-house solutions like at Bryan Cave. I do believe that, as indicated below, Pandora’s box of innovation is open for the legal industry and that is a good thing for clients, attorneys, and entrepreneurs.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Nick West, who is the Chief Technology Officer at Mishcon de Reya in London and also Director of MDR LAB, a program for tech start-ups in the legal space. Nick has spent the majority of his career working at the forefront of innovation in the legal industry. Formerly Managing Director of Axiom in the UK and Director of LexisNexis’s UK Legal Business, Nick’s expertise lies in the field of technology, knowledge and new business models in the legal sector. Nick began his career as a competition lawyer at Linklaters and then as a strategy consultant at McKinsey & Co. Nick is currently a Visiting Professor at the University of Law, where he lectures on Law, Business, and Technology and is also an Advisor to BPP Law School on LegalTech Innovation.

Mary: Tell us a bit more about your firm and the innovation program.

Nick: Mishcon de Reya is a leading UK law firm with a focus on complex dispute resolution. A couple of years ago, we set out our 10-year vision and one of our central themes is to be technologically transformed. In other words, to be much more tech-enabled in how we run our business and deliver legal services. Technology is clearly changing the world around us faster than ever before and our clients’ expectations are changing with it. To be relevant as an advisor of choice in the 2020s, we decided we needed to be much more proactive about technology. One element of our approach is MDR LAB, our Legal Tech incubator. It’s a true incubator, in the sense that start-ups based themselves in our office for 12 weeks, and work with our lawyers and business teams to develop new products and features. Our inaugural cohort was 2017 and we’ve just opened applications for our 2018 cohort.

Mary: What was your ah-ha moment?

Nick: It was a conversation with my boss, Kevin Gold – our Managing Partner. We were talking about the various initiatives that we had underway and he pushed me to be more creative and ambitious. I explained that a typical business devoted an appropriate percentage of revenue to R&D – more in say pharma than services – but that in law, R&D just wasn’t a thing. I wanted us to lead the way on legal R&D and he gave me the green light to do that. To my mind, there’s a couple of relevant time horizons. There’s the near term – the 18 months ahead of where we are at any point in time – where we need to be getting familiar with the technologies that are emerging and which we could use within that time frame – either to replace or augment our core stack. And that’s where MDR LAB fits in – we do a lot of market scanning to understand what’s out there and what’s relevant. And then there’s a longer term, more of the “R”, than the “D”, where we aim to understand more deeply the technologies that are shaping the world around us – whether machine learning, blockchain, whatever. And we’re doing that under a program called MDR R+D working with various universities.

Mary: How do you address the access to justice issue?

Nick: We do not explicitly work on access to justice yet. We decided that in 2018, we’d build on the success of MDR LAB 2017 by pretty much consolidating what we did in 2017. However, under our MDR R+D banner, we are just applying for a research grant alongside a UK university for a 3-year project in the area of online dispute resolution and that is very much focused on improving access to justice.

Mary: What are a few tips that you can give to lawyers who are reluctant to embrace technology?

Nick: Be open minded – don’t say “I’m not good with tech”. You don’t need to understand the tech, you need to really look at how you work and whether you’re serving clients effectively. If you think there’s room to improve, then there are probably a range of things out there that could help. So, play with some – trial them, experiment a little. Work with (not against) a technology provider to try it out. With a little bit of patience, you might surprise yourself.

The reality is that the world has changed. For sure, clients still want and are willing to pay top dollar for fantastic advice and commercial problem solving. But, they expect the service delivery model to be a little different. Our own personal experiences with technology have changed everything – I expect to be notified when an online shopping order has been processed, so why not a legal document? I expect to be able to see weather data or train times on demand, so why not the work-in-progress (WIP) on a matter? I expect to be able to speak to customer services via email, phone, live chat 24/7 and them have access to all of my account info, so why not a lawyer having access to all of my info when she is outside the office? Pandora’s box is open…

Mary: How do people get involved with the MDR Lab?

Nick:  We are open to applications from any Legal Tech company that would be relevant to Mishcon, our clients and the environment in which we operate. They provide some basic facts, a one-minute elevator pitch to camera and then, if available, a product video and pitch deck. We then whittle down applicants and invite the best, most relevant ones to attend a Pitch Day in London (or via skype). And then from there we select our cohort.

It’s a pretty demanding process – both the applications and the LAB itself. First, through the application process, we need to be clear that the start-up has something that’s relevant to the work we do AND that we could help them in some way over the 12-week program. To give you an idea of numbers, last year we had just over 100 applicants, invited 19 to Pitch Day and 6 companies joined the program.

Also, if we like the tech, but it’s fully formed and we just need to pilot it, then we wouldn’t accept them on to MDR LAB – we’d set up a pilot or proof-of-concept instead. Last year, for example, we bought one new application simply as a result of the marketing screening and application process – they applied, we realized we had an unmet need, we piloted and bought. So, right from the outset, we’re looking for companies who say things like “we’ve got a core product and are thinking about a new feature X and that’s what we want to focus on in the LAB” or “we have an idea, a concept which needs fleshing out”.

Mary: The big question, do you have to move to London?

Nick: Any offer that we make to join the LAB comes with 2 pre-requisites. First, that the company is in London for the duration of the program. That doesn’t mean 100% of days in our office, but it does mean north of 80%. Last year, we had 6 LAB companies of which 2 were from the US West Coast, one from India, one from Germany and 2 from the UK and all of them were in London for the full term – that means we have a real cohort who work together. The second pre-requisite is that they agree a mutually acceptable equity option agreement, exercisable by us within a short timeframe after the end of the LAB. We are looking to invest in companies that we think have the ability to change the way lawyers practice. From last year’s cohort, we have invested in 2 companies (PING and Everchron) and we are currently helping a third raise some angel investment.   

Mary: What do you see as a differentiator from other incubators?

Nick: Whilst demanding, we think it’s a pretty unique experience for start-ups: working alongside our lawyers and business operations teams to learn how we work and having the chance to do rapid product development and feedback via a user centered design kind of approach. The time also includes:

  • Collaborating with our IT team to understand how to integrate with our stack, which is pretty representative of the industry.
  • Working with our senior business leaders to understand how decisions get taken to purchase technology and what the hot buttons are.
  • Working with our marketing team on how to communicate effectively to the target audience inside our firm and to the market at large.

It’s all part of the package and we think it really accelerates the cohort’s development.

Mary: Finally, do you believe that regulation should change to allow non-lawyers to deliver some legal services, like medical profession? (a bit of a leading question!)

Nick: Yes, for sure. But that’s easy for me to say as I work in the UK, where we have already made that change! Mishcon de Reya is an ABS (Alternative Business Structure) which is one of the regulated structures available to a law firm that allow the firm to invest in other businesses, accept outside capital, have non-practicing business leaders as partners etc. We currently have 2 wholly owned subsidiary businesses – Mishcon Discover (an e-discovery business) and Mayfair Private (a family office advisory business) and we will spin out two more in the next year. Prior to Mishcon, I ran Axiom in the UK and whilst Axiom isn’t a regulated legal services business, it clearly delivers a range of services to in-house lawyers that help them get their work done. It’s a two-thousand-person business with enough revenue to place on the AmLaw 100. All the unauthorized practice of law cases directed at the US players make me smile – it’s classic behavior from the “Christensen” disruption model playbook (read more here).

Mary: Thank you Nick! Again, interested companies can apply now to MDR Lab program here. It’s encouraging to learn of this great progress in the UK. This is clearly a model that can be replicated here in the US as far as innovation. And let’s hope we can see some movement on running firms as businesses and the ABS question in the US. Of course, innovation is not limited to within law firms, but also in-house. #onwards.

Recent Posts

Leave a Comment