GCRC Startups and Innovation – Warren Smith, Access Solicitor

Our latest GCRC Interview in our series about startups in the legal market. The interest in legal tech and innovation is huge at the moment as VCs look to seize the moment amid the shifting legal climate.

This interview is with Warren Smith from Access Solicitor, who is also a former in-house lawyer having worked for Endemol.

To find out more about Access Solicitor, you can have a look at their website:
http://www.accesssolicitor.com/

What were the major issues working in-house in the media in particular?

I don’t think being an in-house counsel at a media company is too different to being in-house counsel in any other industry, though it might be slightly more interesting. The important thing for all in-house lawyers is to be close to the commercial side of the business. But for lawyers working in media particularly, technology makes it a constantly changing landscape and you’ve got to keep on top of that. The law generally lags behind technological changes, and so you have to be pragmatic – sometimes there isn’t always an answer. Otherwise the issues are broadly the same.

When you were at Endemol, how much did the emerging new forms of media influence being an in-house lawyer in a media company?

New technology didn’t have a major impact on how I worked as a lawyer. It is more about how technology was impacting the media business. You need to think ahead, to what new platforms or revenue models there might be, and find a way for agreements to encompass that. You needed to be a bit of a crystal ball gazer. For example, no one would have predicted the impact that Google has had on media companies. Go back 5 or 7 years and Google was at best a marketing platform. Now it wants to be a fully integrated channel and extension of your TV show, and that creates conflicts for broadcasters because they want to control and manage that space too. These are all commercial issues, but unless you understand them, you can’t do your job properly.

Were you prepared for that going into being an in-house lawyer? Are lawyers in general prepared for that?

Typically people go in-house after about three years, but I did it at 6 month qualified, which is unusual. Most people are not in-house that early, unless they train in-house. If you move in-house later, you almost have to unlearn things. A private practice lawyer addresses legal issues in immense detail, whereas in-house you need to be much more pragmatic. You need to make decisions hand-in-hand with the commercial team. Fundamentally, you should operate as part of the commercial team, helping to steer decisions.

The later you go in-house, the more challenging it can be to assimilate, because very good private practice habits might not be suited to in-house; you worry about too many things. The exception is if you have been an equity partner for some time, because at that stage you’re involved in running a business and you’re looking beyond the law. All lawyers will tell you that they are very commercial and look beyond the law, but in many cases they don’t do that to a large enough degree.

If you’re a company hiring a legal team, is there a tension between getting decent legal experience and getting younger, more proactive and less private practice entrenched lawyers?

I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, and it’s as much about character as anything else. As an in-house lawyer you are there to facilitate the business. The only qualification to that you’ve a job to do on the compliance side – to make sure no one gets into trouble – and to check with the commercial team “Could it also be done this other way…”.

Ultimately, in-house lawyers should help the company they work for do business while ensuring the best possible long term deal. Good commercial people are generally driven by the same long term goals, but sometimes short-term sales targets for (particularly junior) sales staff can create misaligned incentives and lawyers then act as a balance to avoid excessive short termism.

You worked in-house for 15 years, what made you want to stop that to start up Access Solicitor?

I’d been working on the concept since 2009, with Access Solicitor’s current incarnation – essentially a comparison website – launching in 2012. But the reason I’m doing it goes back way beyond that. I left private practice in 2000 because I was always more interested in business and felt that the traditional legal market was opaque and that it didn’t function particularly well, for all kinds of reasons.

Working in digital media and e-banking in its infancy, I believed even 10 years ago that technology was going to have a major impact on the legal market. I’ve always known that a real opportunity existed for the application of technology in this slightly dysfunctional profession.

The actual opportunity to launch Access Solicitor full-time came later. I had just left a job working for one of the Hollywood studios, and whilst seeking a more flexible work/life balance I finally dedicate myself to this business I’d been mulling over for all those years.

To your point about flexible work/life balance, how hard is it for in-house lawyers or solicitors to get that work-life balance right?

If you’re GC, it’s invariably a demanding job, same as being a senior lawyer in private practice. You do what you need to do and you’re generally rewarded for the inconvenience, but everybody has to make their choices. Some employers are more flexible than others but there’s no one-size-fits-all; the job is demanding so if you can’t do it, don’t do it.

I don’t think running your own startup is a feasible alternative to that however. I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder than I am now. The difference is that you own it – you’re not working all hours for someone else. I loved the media industry, I still do, but it’s very different to running your own business.

I think employers are becoming more flexible because they realise that to retain the best employees there has to be a bit of give and take. Most of my old bosses had a fairly sensible approach to that: just get the job done, I don’t care how. That’s a good philosophy in my book.

And running your own start-up you can choose your office dress code and be a bit more flexible?

Yes, it’s a nice perk.

There was a recent article about GCs slamming panel reviews for employing external counsel (The Lawyer). How much are different ways of accessing solicitors (i.e. Access Solicitor) going to make law firms have to smarten up in how they attract new business?

Panels are imperfect – but what’s perfect? Very often they are driven by the company’s desire to reduce costs. In theory there is a criteria for quality, but quality is such a difficult thing to measure, it’s an intangible. I don’t think the panel system works with regard to that.

I think generally, when in-house counsel hire, there’s a baseline expectation that the lawyer or firm will have the right experience and are legally capable of doing the job. After that, it’s a question of who is going to give the best customer service, and many lawyers currently base that on who they know because beyond that it is hard for them to know.

At Access Solicitor, we’re trying to provide a significant amount of information about all the lawyers on our database and keep that constantly up to date. We want people, GCs and consumers alike, to be able to see clearly who is going to be a good fit for the specific job they have and also how well they are likely to do it. The cost will be comparable to a panel – Access Solicitor’s in-built transparency means there’s a natural competitiveness, however we also enable a better match between job and lawyer than just a panel which is relying on a handful of people who have been selected as preferred specialists for a certain category of work over the medium term. Lawyers move between firms and your specialist panel may have all moved in six months time. Access Solicitor just gives a lot more flexibility.

Generally people don’t get criticized for doing things the way they have always been done, however the greatest improvements come about when people do things differently. Lawyers by their nature don’t often take chances, so it’s no real surprise that the old ways continue.

It seems the process has become so entrenched that it’s become a formality rather than lawyers actually looking at who’s going to do this job well for me…

Exactly. You’re picking a panel for X amount of time but you can’t predict exactly what work will materialise during that period.

For some, they will think the 80/20 rule is enough and be willing to compromise on the quality of the 20% to secure the 80% of work in an efficient manner – this is what the panel delivers. But this underestimates the value that the right advisor can add to the business. If you believe that your external legal advisors adds value – and you ought to because otherwise why do you use them? – then you ought to be selecting them in the best way possible 100% of the time.

What kind of data or attributes does Access Solicitor use to discern which solicitors would best fit whichever company?

The site at the moment is pretty simple – essentially it’s a proof of concept – though we’re the only website that differentiates between types of lawyer. We provide names and addresses as well as information on how long each lawyer has been qualified and what specialities they have.

In the coming months we’re going to be adding much more information about the lawyers along with lots of features to help tailor searches even more. One example is “weighted speciality”, through which we give lawyers the power to enhance the match with work opportunities that are most relevant to them.

We’re also working with the University of Westminster to develop an algorithm. Put all that together, and the site will provide a great match between lawyer and job.

There are lots of different features that impact best fits. How much do the approaches that lawyers have towards billing play a part in how companies select lawyers? How does Access Solicitor take these into account?

Costs are always going to be important but they shouldn’t be the overriding principle. Access Solicitor has lots of ways of choosing the right lawyer, and the vast majority of those are based around quality, not price. There are many difficult practical issues to address on pricing too.

One issue is around standardisation and ensuring that we’re comparing like for like – does the price always include disbursements for instance? As an in-house counsel, for a standard bit of work that isn’t especially complicated, you’d want it for a fixed fee; it’s easier to plan and to work with commercially. And a lawyer who’s done that job a hundred times before should be able to do that. For more complicated things, for example litigation, your advisor should still be able to give you an idea of the best-case and worst-case likely outcomes. In litigation, you have to deal with averages and price ranges – for example, a typical case of a certain type lasting this long will cost X. When you’re hiring someone for their expertise, whether you’re a GC or a consumer, the one thing you want is an idea of the end-result. Lawyers will often say they don’t know this, and that’s often true, but if you’re a really good, specialised lawyer, your experience means you should be able to give a decent guess.

Lawyers by their nature – because they work in a world where people sue each other – are naturally averse to giving definitive answers, because they’re worried someone’s going to sue them. Yet 99% of the world doesn’t work like that; they’d be better off giving honest feedback and acknowledging it might not be perfect. The key thing is that there is really good communication. As an in-house counsel you will of course have knowledge of disputes and litigation in your sector, but you lean on external counsel to reaffirm your view or give you more detailed information. That’s what you hire them for.

These are all difficult topics to address perfectly, but with more information on Access Solicitor we will provide clients with a more accurate picture of what they will likely pay than just posting hourly rates.

How much can in-house lawyers play certain external counsel against each other to ensure they get as good a service as possible?

I’m not a fan of playing two people off against one another. I think as a GC you should know what you want, ask the right questions and then decide if that person’s the right fit. You can’t be disingenuous, and people don’t like to be mucked around. My approach is to be honest and hope that people are honest with me in return. If you’re looking to build long-term relationship, then that’s the only way – and all lawyers should be looking to build long-term relationships.

The question of getting the best service though goes back to what we were saying about panels: how do you know you have the right pool of people to start with? Most clients, GC or otherwise, are limited to those lawyers known directly or one personal referral away, and yet there may be many more lawyers who are equally, if not better, qualified to do the work. That’s where I hope Access Solicitor can help expand clients’ options.

With greater technology coming into the legal landscape, through automation etc, how much will lawyers have to become better technologists or is this mere futuristic pish-posh?

The landscape is changing and technology will have a significant impact for sure. It will take away a lot of the laborious things that lawyers do, which is good. Automation will cover the bits that need to be automated; but the important work that requires the human brain will never be replaced.

Lawyers won’t need to become IT managers, but they will need to increasingly think beyond the law. They need to be business owners and general managers, understand marketing and sales and, increasingly, how to do them online. If someone comes into law understanding how to market themselves online, they’ll be able to get their professional profile in front of the clients looking for the legal expertise that they have and they’ll be a more effective lawyer for it.

About William Barns-Graham

William is the content manager and head of communications at GC Research Club. He is a professional journalist, researcher and strategist. He has worked at GC Research Club since February 2013 and has rapidly become a distinguished voice in the in-house legal blogging community, writing on Lexis Nexis and interviewing leading legal thinkers and writers, in house lawyers and CEOs within the legal tech world. He has also coordinated the GCRC Sports Panel series.
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