Innovation and technology – Best practices from international law firms : Tech for thought | Inspiration for the new year ?

Flip Petillion, advocaat ingeschreven aan balie van Brussel (NL), fpetillion@petillion.law

On 14 January, we held the webinar on ‘Innovation and technology – Best practices from international law firms’.

Following an introduction by Mr. Bart De Moor (President of the Dutch Language Section of the Brussels Bar), the debate was moderated by Mr. Flip Petillion, former member of the Bar Council and specializing in IP and IT matters and arbitration. Associates of three international firms were given the opportunity to share their experience: Mr. Rémy Bonnaffé (Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer), Mr. Jörg Heirman (Ashurst), Mrs. Evita Bassot (Linklaters), and Mr. Stephane Cloet (Legal Operations Advisor, Linklaters).

This webinar was put in place by Mr. Flip Petillion and Mr. Michel Segers, treasurer of the Incubator and specializing in business law (focus on retail) and IP . It was organized by the Incubator of the Brussels Bar, with the support of the Bar, in consideration of the fact that today, lawyers and law firms are increasingly faced with the growing digitalization of the business environment.

The digital transformation is changing the way legal services are provided. Lawyers are faced with the major challenge of organizing a complete digital conversion in a very short time frame. They are looking for tools to manage and use the digital information effectively.

Firms that want to prepare themselves thoroughly for the market developments are best advised to invest in technology so that they can keep up with further developments. It is said that large international law firms in the United Kingdom or the United States are in an optimal position to lead this development. An argument often used in this regard is that these firms operate on a much larger scale and therefore have more financial resources to make the necessary investments in technology and innovation.

This webinar allowed the speakers to explain how their firms implement technology and innovation in their practice. This was a unique opportunity to see the inner workings of these firms and to possibly gain inspiration on how each lawyer can apply innovation and technology in practice.

Mr. Bassot and Mr. Cloet discussed some specific topics such as teleworking, the need for smart virtual data rooms (as opposed to the collection of bulk information) and filtering useful information from e-mails. They also focused on some specific tools and gave examples of their application in Belgium. They explained the so-called LegalTech and non-LegalTech tools and the specific role of an independent Tech team within their office in Belgium. They gave examples of pilot projects where the emphasis was on efficient and budget-friendly innovation, including the automatic creation of exhibits, the overall follow-up of files, and data sharing.

Mr. Heirman, also a blogger in his spare time (eleventhbillablehour.com), shared his experience as a member of the ‘Transformer Network’, a group of lawyers across Ashurst’s offices who discuss and create innovative technologies for the legal industry. Each member of the network is tasked with creating awareness of available legal technologies as a ‘transformer’ in their local office. Mr. Heirman shared his experience in multidisciplinary mergers and acquisitions, and in transactions in the digital economy and real estate sector. He illustrated this with a model to bring in the right resources (lawyers (inhouse or not), non-lawyers and tools) per project, depending on the nature of the service requested, the budget, etc. The approach is thus diversified per project. It is different for, say, due diligences, contract negotiation or specific advice. He emphasized the use of non-lawyers for other than legal work that used to be handled by lawyers at too high a cost. He gave an insight into various available platforms and software, created by the firm (Advance Reach) or available elsewhere in the market.

Mr. Rémy Bonaffé added a similar experience in the ‘Global Transactions’ team of Freshfields, specializing in mergers and acquisitions, capital markets, particularly in the (bio)tech sector and scale-ups, the big brothers of start-ups. As a member of the ‘Global Associate Innovation Group’, he worked in the London office for 6 months, as a product owner in the innovation team. He advised to innovate gradually (he prefers to speak of digital transformation rather than innovation) and to train all those involved (including colleagues of the firm) in the development and use of tailor-made tools. He illustrated some of the firm’s applications (Mattrs, Timelines), gave the advice to keep expectations realistic and reminded that the lawyer community needs a step-by-step and guided introduction to the use of innovative tools. This can even be achieved much quicker in smaller firms than in larger, sometimes unwieldy structures.

Legal Project Management was a focal point that all speakers highlighted. They listed arguments for choosing between developing own innovative tools (with or without the cooperation of clients) and buying them on the market. They focused on the communication of their innovative approach to colleagues and clients, and the impact on cost, efficiency and the overall added value for the services in their practice.

It is striking how comparable the speakers’ experiences are and how they all emphasize the need for partnerships, within the firm and outside the firm. As a moderator, I submitted the speakers to a series of critical questions about safety, measuring efficiency, and how clients value innovation. This included the question how smaller local firms can benefit from, and even participate in, innovative developments. The advent of innovation is clearly useful for various aspects of the legal profession, not only in mergers and acquisitions, such as in due diligences, the drafting and electronic signing of contracts, and in negotiations, but also in dispute resolution in general and arbitration in particular, more specifically in the collection and sharing of evidence and storing files online quickly, efficiently, transparently but securely. Every transformation requires that old habits be left behind. Change management plays a crucial role in the success of the digital transformation. This can be done by creating an atmosphere of engagement through information, training and awareness.

The webinar was attended by more than 130 participants and numerous questions were asked, showing that the topic is more alive than ever. This webinar focused on innovation on the part of the lawyer as a service provider and the relationship with the client. A subsequent webinar could focus on the relationship among law firms and on their relationship with dispute resolution providers (courts or arbitrators, etc.). This is definitely worth a follow-up webinar. Maybe the different sections of the Bar can work on an ambitious inclusive project for and with all lawyers; especially given the growing competition from non-lawyers.