“Law offices should understand their needs before engaging with legaltech providers” — Loio’s interview with Sharan Kaur

Sharan

This interview is part of Loio’s series of interviews with legal enthusiasts about the ins and outs of the legal industry.

The following is the interview with Sharan Kaur, ex-Thomson Reuters, legal technology and innovation consultant. Sharan is an industry expert and thought leader in legal technology with many years of experience in the legal industry as Corporate Counsel and Management Consultant to the top and mid-tier law firms and in-house legal teams. She helps companies drive operational excellence via digital transformation. 

Sharan, I’ve studied your LinkedIn profile and am amazed by your phenomenal career path! You started out as a paralegal before you started studying law at the University of Buckingham. How did you get where you are now?

I realized very early on in my teens that I wanted to be a lawyer. 

As I come from a family of lawyers, it was an almost traditional path. I started paralegaling when I was 16. I am from Brunei and every summer holiday I used to work with one of the largest law firms there. I wanted to major with significant experience under my belt so that when I started practising I would have a headstart. 

I read Law and Forensic Science at the University of Buckingham. I knew from the start that I wanted to be a barrister so I decided to attend bar school. After pupillage, I spent many years as general counsel and then moved to work in a law firm. 

As I was practising, one thing became apparent: law firms of the time were all about focusing on their legal expertise. Running an efficient law firm was not an immediate priority.

Another thing I noticed was that law firms were not sharing information about quarterly revenue targets, managing costs, or measuring the lifetime value of their clients. There wasn’t a thorough handle on the expenses, the working capital, or the cost centres. Expensive lawyers were doing low value or non-billable work which did not make commercial or operational sense. 

It became apparent that focusing on operational efficiencies in a vacuum was not the answer. There needed to be a change of mindset. Business processes and process optimization are not areas of focus for most lawyers. It’s something somebody else in the firm does — like the marketing team, the senior partner, or the leadership team. “It’s not my job, there are other people who are paid to do that,” most lawyers think. Yet, it is very important. 

Law firms should remember that business process reengineering requires an objective assessment of the present process, gap analysis, risk management, and exploration of different solutions to plug the gap. That may be with or without technology. If adopting technology, you cannot insert technology into a business process and expect that it will be adopted immediately. It has to happen alongside change management. 

That’s why I decided to do an MBA focused on the problems of the legal industry. I wanted to achieve two goals: to understand more about the theory and practice of business management and to help law firms and in-house legal teams think about operational excellence and optimization.   

After years of practice and consultancy, I joined Thomson Reuters (a mammoth corporation) and Bryter (a German start-up). While working at Bryter, I realized that the best part of the job was working with clients.  I missed consulting with clients, understanding their challenges, and presenting solutions. Operational excellence and business processes reengineering are my passion. When you re-engineer poor and ineffective processes, the change is instant. 

I’ve branched out my consultancy practice to include working with legaltech startups and scale-ups. I work with founders on their startup journey, provide feedback on product development, advise on investment decks and funding through to sales and marketing strategies. Where relevant, I work alongside other experts and teams to bring a more holistic consultative offering.

Thank you! You’ve touched on the topic of legaltech. What is the main purpose of legaltech?

That’s a great question! Legal tech is a misnomer. At the end of the day, it’s just tech. 

It only has one purpose, in my mind. It is to help us, lawyers, perform our role more efficiently and effectively. It augments what we do as lawyers in our day-to-day. For me, if a piece of technology can help make my life easier, it’s a no-brainer.

In terms of legaltech adoption, what’s the difference between the approaches of small and medium-sized law firms and in-house departments, if there is any? 

Generally, adoption is harder and takes longer in law firms. Lawyers have billing and time recording targets to meet; 2000 hours over the year. That’s why they don’t necessarily have the time to expand on adoption training and learning new things. They prioritise (and are expected to) spending time on billable tasks.

Some firms incentivize their associates by crediting 20% of their billable time to innovation projects. However, this is not common practice. The more forward-thinking and digital-first law firms appreciate the value of innovation. 

On adoption between small, medium, and large law firms, in my experience, full-scale adoption is the hardest to get right in larger law firms. Small and medium law firms are more agile and quicker at deciding which team, department, or practice area to roll out to first and how much time they can allocate to implementation and adoption. However, in larger firms, it’s a whole different world because of bureaucracy to get sign-off, managing the rollout in global offices, and simply having competing priorities. 

In-house is yet again a whole different kettle of fish. They have different challenges. Having been a GC myself, I can say that there are not enough hours in the day to do much other than supporting the wider business whether that is answering questions, providing advice, or producing documents and contracts. If you can show us, in a short space of time, that your technology can make our working lives easier and you understand the unique challenges of my industry, we are very open to legaltech adoption.

 Legaltech adoption is easier when you sell the value. 

OK, thank you. How should law firms and in-house departments approach legaltech adoption? What should the measure of success be?

Find out what technology is being used at your peer law firms or in-house departments. In-house legal teams and GCs have a close network and often discuss good tech with each other. They don’t have the same competitiveness that law firm lawyers have and are more willing and open to sharing information and ideas.  

Before you venture out to buy technology, first understand your needs. I’ve seen people go out to legaltech providers, love the product, and then try to find the use cases for the product. That’s the wrong way round and not advisable. You should understand what your needs are. Also — and this is what people don’t do enough, but it works — understand the full capabilities of your current tech stack. For instance, if you wanted to fill in a basic flow or work process, there are tools in Google Workspace or Microsoft 365 that can help.  

Setting and agreeing on the success criteria is important for both the tech vendor and the buyer. Set clear milestones for your expectations. Have a  detailed implementation and adoption timeline and plan. You also need your provider to tell you what the best practices are. Good tech providers experienced in dealing with teams or firms like yours should advise you if you proceed in ways that they have seen don’t work. You would rather know that at the outset. You don’t want to get started only to find out that it isn’t the right approach.” 

So, it’s necessary to understand the milestones, what to expect, what the next level of adoption will be, what the training will look like, and how long it will be. Create milestones to calculate the return on investment (ROI) so you, at least, cover the cost of the investment. 

Thank you! Where’s the role of a legal technology consultant here? 

I think it’s time and cost-effective to engage a legaltech consultant. 

It’s not a new concept but one that continues to evolve as we see more tech platforms, with different functionality, targeted at legal professionals. Legal consultants work well because you have someone who understands the technology ecosystem in law firms and legal teams. A consultant is someone who understands the range of products used, is rounded, and understands how the different types of products knit together. For example, someone who understands the types of legal tech products used by a typical law firm e.g. document generation platforms, document review via AI and ML, CRM, IA, matter management platforms, time recording tools, etc.

The problem is that a lot of lawyers and legal teams don’t know where to start. There is so much choice in legal tech and it is not always easy to differentiate between the products.

Having a legaltech consultant is a good starting point. At a high level, this is what I do with clients: I quiz them to understand what their current process looks like, what their pain points and gaps are, and what an ideal solution looks like. Everyone’s got some far-out must-haves on their list that very quickly become inconsequential when explored further.

Based on that, I put together a project plan focusing on the priority list, propose different solutions, and engage with relevant technology vendors as required. I act as the “vetter in chief” to ensure that the solution is the correct one and will meet the clients’ requirements. If it doesn’t get past that qualification, there’s little point in engaging the lawyers. 

Innovation teams don’t always have the time to dedicate to demos and sales pitches or scour the market for the tech they are looking for. I sit through many demos and sales pitches to keep abreast of the latest technology platforms that are available.

That sort of pain point is common for GCs and they don’t have time to dedicate to legaltech shopping. They look to their law firms to help them with innovation initiatives and offer client-facing solutions. On the flip side, law firms aren’t incentivized to source legaltech solutions because they assume it means reducing the work they perform for clients thereby cannibalizing their worksource. 

Thank you! How can law firms make the most out of demos with legaltech providers? What questions should they ask? 

Sure!

As a client, you should understand your own needs and requirements before you engage with legaltech providers. You may have a technology roadmap that you are working towards. This will help keep the focus when approached by multiple providers. You need to satisfy yourself that the vendor understands your industry, your needs, and your requirements. Do any of your peer firms use their tech? 

For instance, as a GC, I want to know what the client base split between law firms and in-house teams is. If the answer is: “It’s 90% law firms and 10% in-house,” it’s not likely a good fit for my market and I’m not your target audience- maybe it’s a law firm you need to be approaching rather than GCs.

As an end-user client, be sure to speak to other firms or in-house teams who have signed up for the provider’s offering.  You should ask whether any clients have realized the benefits that were pitched and if the ROI stacks up. If they’ve been using the solution for a reasonable amount of time, have they seen any benefit? You may have been told during the sales conversations to expect 80% ROI within the first six months. On paper, that looks great..but is it realistic?  Speak to the provider’s clients who have achieved that ROI. 

Here are a couple of other questions I would ask a provider: “Who am I going to be working with?”  Get introduced. “How do you stack up against your competitors?” Some vendors are truthful and are open with “We do these things well, but we don’t do these things.” We’ve all dealt with unscrupulous legaltech providers who say  “We can do everything.” Be wary. 

If your provider claims to do everything and you sign on the dotted line, you’re reliant on them wholesale. If your relationship breaks two years down the line because they want to apply an uplift to your license fee of 50% etc. and you say “No”, what happens if they pull the plug on all your systems? You are 100% reliant on them. 

I’ve always counseled to try as far as you can to get solutions that have APIs, that allow you to plug it into their system. Avoid one-stop-shops, although it is tempting. 

Thank you! What should the role of end-users in legaltech adoption be? What should the role of the law office’s management be? 

The leadership team needs to be on board as champions and sponsors. End-users are more likely to engage if they know that adoption has been mandated. Leadership teams have a significant influence over culture. If you want Generation Z and younger millennials as talent, you should create the right culture and champion innovation. That culture and mindset shift has to come from the management team.

There’s a lot they can do just about how future lawyers or junior lawyers perceive the firms. You might be able to attract the best talent. But the question is: “Can you retain them?” You don’t want it to be a revolving door because the culture does not support experimentation or innovation.

As for end-users, they are probably the most important stakeholders. If end-users don’t find it user-friendly, this will very quickly become shelfware. End-users have to be involved from the very beginning. Invite them to the demo and the sales pitch and PoC.

End-users have a good knowledge of the workflow and can ask probing questions about how the technology can solve their pain points. If embarking on a POC (proof-of-concept) or pilot, include a good cross-section of end-users not just lawyers, have paralegals and associates trial the product too. 

If you want end users to buy into it, they need to feel part of the process. If you’re buying tech, get your stakeholders involved and invested because they will champion the cause.  

OK, thank you! Would you refer to legaltech as a competitive edge? 

I certainly would. Legaltech gives you a competitive edge but you need to know how to use it properly. 

That competitive edge goes beyond just having legaltech. You need to tell your clients about it in the right way and explain how it benefits them i.e. whether it be improved case turnaround time, efficiency, lower fees, or being able to concentrate on the work that matters to them. 

Innovation is here to stay. You can’t stick your head in the sand and hope it’s going to go away. What you will find is firms that use legaltech will be the ones that win the tenders, attract and retain new talent. 

You’ve mentioned the benefits of using legaltech in terms of hiring. Could you elaborate on that?

The level of tech that we use every day is sophisticated. We all use smartphones and tablets, and understand apps and the tech around us and that gives rise to certain expectations. We have become accustomed to a high level of tech sophistication and we expect the same in our workplaces. 

Gone are the days where competitive advantage was a machine learning platform or discovery platform, which means you don’t need to review a contract yourself. When I was practicing as a junior, it was acceptable to review 400 documents manually to prepare a report. You can’t expect young lawyers to do this today. They are aware of the technology that exists and expect to use it in their practice.

We will see this happening more often particularly as legaltech providers are inserting themselves into academic institutions. Future graduates enter the workplace knowing what technology is available. Just imagine: you have a summer intern who attends a university where he or she has been introduced to or actively used legaltech. If they start an internship or a training contract at a firm that does not advocate the use of technology, they’re unlikely to come back for a full-time job. One of the questions they will ask when looking for a job will be “What technology products do you use?” If you are tech-backed and have an innovation culture, you will be far more appealing as a potential employer.

One of my LinkedIn posts talks about innovation being different for different people. Some people see Zoom as innovation whereas others think of innovation as the latest AI platform and productised legal services. Ultimately, to attract and retain talent, you will need to have a sufficient tech stack, innovation culture, and an innovation mindset. 

Thank you! Let’s talk about the future a little bit. How do you envision the law firm of the 21st century? Does legaltech have a place in this scenario?

To successfully compete, you’ll need to have the right tools and the right innovative mindset. Technology has a tremendous part to play. 

Law offices may not immediately understand the full potential of tech platforms and there may be some hesitancy. When there is a need for it, they will find a way to be able to deliver it e.g. DocuSign.

What I’m seeing more and more of, and it’ll continue to happen, is the rise of law firms offering digital legal service delivery. As well as having a brick-and-mortar office, they have added a digital arm with their expertise packaged as products and monetised. Law firms are quickly realising that productising their legal expertise into digital assets is a new revenue stream that is proving very lucrative and deserves equal attention.

Let me paint you a picture. Let’s say I’m a law firm working for a big supermarket. This supermarket has lots of different things to handle: employment contracts, safety policies, and procurement and supplier agreements, etc. Some of this work is very mundane, low value, and easily self-served using technology. It makes sense to invest in a legaltech platform that allows clients and business users access digital legal products as first-line legal support.

Many in-house lawyers, GCs, and corporates use digital contract playbooks. They don’t want to manually read through hundred-page contracts to find two clauses that are not the “house position”. If you have a standardised and automated contract playbook, legal technology can help you cut down the time and boost efficiency down to a fraction of the time and cost of the manual process. 

So, legaltech has a place there. There’s no shadow of a doubt. 

As far as I understand, every law firm or in-house legal department should have its unique contract playbook. How can legaltech help here? 

You’ve got different ways of doing this. For instance, you could have several templates for lots of contracts. 

My advice would be to have a master agreement and then automate it to pull things in and push out as you need and red flag clauses that do are not accepted. 

Thank you! You serve as an advisor to The Legal Technologist publication. Why do you think it’s important?

There are two reasons why I am on the board. 

One: I work to open up the conversation globally. That’s what The Legal Technologist does. It’s viewed in hundreds of countries. More than that, it accepts publications from people outside what we think of as “legaltech mature”. The publication includes articles from Central America, South America, India, the U.S., Singapore, Indonesia, and Hong Kong, etc.

This global reach, coupled with my own agenda of spreading legaltech knowledge and getting the conversation going, is what attracted me to join the board at The Legal Technologist. 

I’d also like to thank Marc May, who really has dedicated a load of his time to build this platform, along with his team.

Thank you! I’m proud to say that Loio has been featured in The Legal Technologist 🙂

I know. Congratulations!

You have built quite a following on LinkedIn — your audience is extremely engaged. Why LinkedIn? What are your tips to those who are just starting out?

I think LinkedIn as a whole is an underused platform. 

I started posting on LinkedIn because there was a lot of hype around legaltech. I felt that there was a gap in people’s understanding of legaltech. How do you buy legaltech? How do you narrow down your vendors? How do you have a proof of concept? How do you adopt legaltech? How do you implement it? Where does customer success come in? So I started posting on LinkedIn to help to fill this expertise gap. 

For me, the content is less important than the conversation. I want people to have the conversation. I put my thoughts and experience out there and ask my followers about their thoughts. I like it when followers and readers engage with each other. What I like most about posting on LinkedIn is seeing people commenting on each other’s posts which leads to an introduction to new like-minded individuals. 

Recently, I posted about venture capital and bootstrapping. I had startup founders, in the comment section, sharing their journey. I have followers in my network who are starting on that journey and seeing them engaging with those who have trodden the same path was a delight.

My content is just a trigger to the conversation. It’s not the end goal, it’s a start, to “let’s start thinking about this”. 

Loio’s team learns a lot from your LinkedIn posts about legaltech. We have a channel on Slack which is called “legaltech” where we share your posts.

That’s great! Actually, you’re not the first person who said this. I have several other tech companies who have told me that at their team meetings, they go through my posts to see where they can apply my advice.

That’s the whole point of writing: to be able to share knowledge. 

Yes, I’d like to thank you on behalf of Loio’s whole team.

You are very welcome!

If you could have lunch with any prominent legal industry figure, who would that be and why? 

I’m not sure if there is anyone in particular because I’ve met so many wonderful people. I’d love to meet up with some of my LinkedIn followers who faithfully support my posts every day.  

Thank you, Sharan!

As told to Jane Kuhuk, PR Manager at Loio.

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