CLIC meets FT’s Legal Innovator of the Year

CLIC meets Jonathan Brayne, Partner at Allen & Overy and FT Legal Innovator of the Year 2018

Fuse – Allen & Overy’s tech innovation space overlooking Spitalfields Market – buzzes like a wasp in a jar. Tech entrepreneurs pop in, testing new products and absorbing feedback. A&O clients visit for cappuccinos and meetings, chatting about their latest ideas. And A&O lawyers soak it all up, getting to see new technologies before their competitors, finding products they can apply to client work, and networking. It’s a win-win-win for all three groups and – a win-win-win-win if you include the legal tech sector as a whole.

Little wonder then that Fuse chairman and A&O partner Jonathan Brayne was named Financial Times’ Legal Innovator of the Year 2018. No surprise either that A&O has topped the same newspaper’s ‘Innovative Lawyers’ report six times out of the last 12. But Fuse did not just appear from nowhere, and A&O’s enviable reputation for innovation was not simply installed like an app. They’ve been a long time in the making. Question is: how did they happen? Also: what can we learn from A&O’s success in this area?

Jonathan recalls a decision taken in the late 1990s. “Around 20 years ago, I was asked to take responsibility for A&O’s response to the internet,” he says. “Quite why they chose me I have no idea. I had little tech knowledge but maybe they thought that meant I was open-minded. The first thing I did was buy a book that explained the web. I learned what a service provider is, a server, a search engine – embarrassingly, I knew none of that at the time.”

Jonathan, who’s been with A&O since 1978, was given the time and space to come up with a considered response to the online revolution. “One of the first things we did was hire a Swiss computer engineer, Marc-Henri Chamay, who is still with A&O today,” he says. “Together we had a brilliant time trying to work out what A&O should be doing – not as legal advisors to clients exploiting the internet, but as a business trying to work out how to take advantage of the internet for itself.”

This entrepreneurial mindset of A&O has been crucial in turning the firm into a legal tech pioneer.

First it led to aosphere LLP, an online subscription service launched by Marc-Henri Chamay as CEO in 2001, to offer cross-border legal information. “What the aosphere team has achieved is one of the things I’m most proud of,” says Jonathan. “It’s wholly owned by A&O and has a completely different business model from a law firm because it generates recurring income through generic content. It has almost 15,000 individual users and more than 400 corporate subscribers.”

aosphere’s success meant other innovation projects came Jonathan’s way. One of the most significant was the creation of A&Os Innovation Panel in 2010. Jonathan explains: “I felt we needed an innovation budget because it would allow us to respond to good ideas straight away. It’s no good acting on a brilliant tech idea in 12 months’ time. The board agreed. We then had to decide who’d manage this budget, so the Board created the Innovation Panel, which I was asked to chair.”

Much like Jonathan in his earlier role, the Innovation Panel was given a free remit. “There were five of us on the panel, three partners and two external members, and we’d meet once a month to shoot the breeze,” he says. “We’d talk about things we felt A&O should be thinking about, worrying about and doing. We also set ourselves a rather grandiose target: to create a culture of innovation. We’d have quite rambling discussions and then we’d sift through all that ouput to find anything we could shape into concrete propositions.”

Among the many topics discussed, one thing that kept popping up was branding. “We felt A&O’s brand wasn’t as crisp and defined as it should be,” says Jonathan. “So we proposed to management that they engage in a branding refresh. Cut a long story short, after lots of research it emerged that the market and our people saw A&O as a firm that clients went to if they wanted to do something innovative. We wanted to pursue this idea in our branding, and we set ourselves an ambitious goal: to be the world’s most advanced law firm. You won’t see those words in our literature – it’s not for A&O to make that claim for itself. But we were clear we wanted the market to be saying that about us.” The board bought into it and Jonathan says the target has “had a quietly transformative effect on A&O, working its way into the fabric of the firm”.

Fuse, A&O’s tech innovation space, was an idea that the firm’s senior partner, Wim Dejonghe, came up with.  Jonathan says: “Around three years ago we felt we didn’t have enough sense of the legal technologies out there and what impact they could have on us and our clients. We needed better insight. In response Shruti Ajitsaria, who had a similar idea, and I set up Fuse. We call Fuse our ‘collaborative tech innovation space’ and it’s modelled more along the lines of Google Campus than a traditional law firm office.”

The concept of Fuse is to bring three groups together: “interesting” tech companies, A&O’s own legal tech team of over 40 technologists, and A&O’s clients. This collaboration leads to a whole range of benefits. A big one is that A&O can say to clients: “Tell us your problem; we’ll try to find a tech solution.” This provides the firm with a competitive advantage. “The aspiration is to listen to what clients say about their challenges in an open way,” says Jonathan. “Do that well and all sorts of opportunities crop up. Fuse and our legal tech team are enablers for people to come in, think about and talk about the challenges they face, and find whether there’s a way to solve them through technology.  That extends to the lawyers in A&O too.  The lawyers in our Markets Innovation Group, for example, are prolific creators of good, tech-enabled products for clients and often use our legal tech team for the technology input. ”

To any smaller laws firm thinking technology is only something the big boys need worry about, Jonathan has a sobering message. “Whichever market segment you are in, it only takes one company to offer a new tech-enabled proposition for the competitive heat to rise,” he says. “I’m sympathetic to smaller firms. A great benefit of being at a larger organisation like A&O is being able to invest in experimental work around tech. As a small firm that’s harder. But tech needs to be high on your agenda – whether you are big or small.”

So, what does the future hold for the legal sector? “It’s a nuanced picture,” says Jonathan. “In the short to medium term, we won’t see tech replace lawyers. Rather, tech will augment lawyers and allow us to do things more efficiently, for less cost, and to a higher quality across borders. Technology is an enabler, really. And if you’re planning for the future, it isn’t all about tech and AI. Actually, it’s about finding the right tech and finding the right human skillsets to go with it. Recruiting lawyers from the best universities and law schools is not the full answer. You need a range of people, some coming from the best universities, some not needing to be quite so well qualified, some law graduates, some technical people, some project managers. Future success for law firms will depend on how effectively you combine different technologies with different resourcing options.”

Having heard Jonathan’s story and thoughts, we have a good understanding of how A&O’s reputation for innovation has come about. The other question we posed earlier is: what can we learn from A&O’s success in this area? First, it pays to strategise, thinking well beyond billable hours and short-term profit. A&O’s decision in the late 1990s to give Jonathan time and space to come up with a good response to the internet was an extra cost to the business. So was the creation of the Innovation Panel and the launch of Fuse. Not only do these sorts of initiative cost money, they also require the firm to invest thousands of billable hours. And yet they have proved to be excellent decisions. Imagine how much revenue they have brought in indirectly; how much they have boosted A&O’s reputation; how many relationships they have formed; how many ideas they have set in motion. Fuse is a lesson that you should not obsess over billable hours. Yes, the numbers must add up, but sometimes you need to invest in ideas that feel right, which differentiate you and provide new opportunities.

Second, branding is important, and the best branding comes from having a strong, clear, distinct sense of mission. When A&O set the ambitious target of becoming the world’s most advanced law firm, “It had a transformative effect and the results of that effect are clear to see.”

So, by thinking long term and focussing on branding, A&O have been able to embrace technology and use it to push their business forward. Which begs the question: how clear is your mission? Do you have a strong aim that, if pursued long enough and hard enough, will electrify your brand? If not, isn’t it time to find your own firm’s Fuse. Then light it.