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Is software eating the law? The world according to Simmonds Stewart

05 July 2019 - By Jamie Dobson

The technology industry is fond of the idiom “software is eating the world”. It paints a picture of technology crashing into every industry, requiring incumbent players to adopt cutting edge technologies or risk getting cast aside by smaller, tech-enabled alternatives.

Simmonds Stewart partners Victoria Stewart and Andrew Simmonds have been using technology to eat into the New Zealand legal market, and more recently they’ve been using these techniques to build a client base in south-east Asia. They spoke to LawTalk about how they see the state of legal tech and innovation in New Zealand, and how New Zealand’s efforts compare to legal tech innovation overseas.

Lessons from the tech sector

Simmonds Stewart say they run themselves like a tech startup. The law firm has hundreds of clients in the tech industry, many of whom are fast-growing startups who aim to disrupt their chosen industry by deploying innovative software and business models.

“Our tech company clients generally focus on two things: building a product or service that changes the way that their target customers do things, and then connecting with those customers as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Mr Simmonds says.

“We’ve taken this mindset on board – providing solutions that save clients time and money, and applying tech company growth strategies to find new clients.”

Embracing disruption with open source templates and resources

Simmonds Stewart embraced disruption by publishing a library of free resources on their website. Fifty templates and 25 document generators covering the basis legal documentation businesses need in their early stages are now available online. Comprehensive user notes help non-lawyers navigate each item, which include privacy policies, website T&Cs, shareholder resolutions and SaaS agreements.

“The templates empower businesses to look after their own routine legal paperwork without needing to involve a lawyer,” Mr Simmonds says.

Andrew Simmons
Andrew Simmonds 

The decision to make the templates free to download was inspired by the tech industry’s ‘open-source’ business model. The pair estimate the templates have been used by thousands of New Zealand businesses as well as hundreds of lawyers.

“It’s a bit counterintuitive. A lot of lawyers will say ‘why would you do that?’ but a lot of this work is very routine and you don’t need a law degree to do it,” Ms Stewart says. “Our value doesn’t come in filling in a form – it comes when we can help clients with the hard stuff.”

“It also shows our clients that we recognise a finite budget exists for legal services, and we’re on their side – we won’t waste their money on routine paperwork,” adds Andrew Simmonds.

The templates have also had benefits internally as an effective training tool. “Our staff are smart,” Victoria Stewart says. “It’s important we provide them with interesting and challenging work.”

The templates allow newcomers to the firm to get up to speed with the routine work in the tech industry. “Juniors, graduates and young staff get the basics under their belt quickly and move on to more challenging work.”

Simmonds Stewart have also taken concepts like automation further with the release of free document generators. “Document automation is great for navigating more complex documents,” says Mr Simmonds. “Answering a set of questions to create a document is the logical next step from a static template – it allows for greater flexibility in terms and can be easier to use.”

One lesson has been that a well-designed user experience (UX) is critical for online resources. “We tinkered for a long time with the way we presented the templates. When we got it right, we saw a massive jump in the per-day visitors to the website. The UX for our document makers still need work, and this is next on our work programme.”

Coffee doesn’t scale – winning clients on the internet

Simmonds Stewart has invested heavily in scalable sales and marketing techniques. “We know that most firms traditionally get their business through relationships and referrals,” Andrew Simmonds says. “But as a new, small firm, the traditional approach was too slow and hard. We needed a much quicker way to connect with potential new clients. Copying tech company digital marketing techniques seemed to offer the best opportunity, particularly as no other New Zealand firms were doing this at the time.”

The firm focused its efforts on content marketing (via its online templates, blogs, guides and webinars) and search engine optimisation (SEO) to create a funnel of new client leads. These leads are automatically shared with all of the lawyers in the firm via tech industry tools like Slack and Pipedrive, and wins are celebrated with automated messaging.

A full-time marketing manager, ex-Simpson Grierson lawyer Liz Fox, is now helping to bring the website and user experience up to speed with the latest trends in the online world.

Observations on the legal tech scene

Mr Simmonds notes that until fairly recently, New Zealand’s legal tech scene was dominated by companies focused on the legal back office. The focus was largely on practice management solutions, or tools to improve the efficiency and quality of research, document review, or discovery. Much of this technology operated on server-based software, rather than software as a service (SaaS) platforms like Xero.

Victoria Stewart
Victoria Stewart 

Some of the newer back office technologies have been SaaS offerings, such as Sortify.tm’s AI-powered trademark goods and services tool for patent attorneys, and LawVu’s SaaS legal operations platform. Andrew Simmonds thinks this ‘trend to the cloud’ will continue.

“Where New Zealand has been lagging other common law jurisdictions is the emergence of new technology platforms or business models that threaten the status quo in a legal market by delivering legal services to end users differently. For instance, alt law providers like Legal Zoom and Clerky in the United States, Zegal in Hong Kong, or Law Path and Lawlab in Australia,” he says.

Victoria Stewart speculates that “this may be because the New Zealand legal market is small and relatively sleepy in comparison to those larger markets, but possibly also because New Zealand firms are unable to raise equity from outside investors which was a game changer for Legal Zoom and Law Path, and also Legal Vision in Australia.”

Mr Simmonds adds that, over the last year or so, there has been some early signs of more disruptive technologies and business models emerging, such as Chapman Tripp’s document automation offering Zegal, McCarthy Finch and Automio, not to mention Simmonds Stewart’s free document makers, but there hasn’t been much visible impact on the market yet.

“That’s where the action will be in the future, but software has just been taking little nibbles out of the New Zealand legal market so far rather than eating it whole.”

Bridging the gap between the legal industry and the tech industry

Simmonds Stewart has also watched how tech companies use internships to nurture young talent and have produced their own take with the techlaw programme. In 2018, Simmonds Stewart piloted the programme, pairing six University of Auckland students in their penultimate year of law school with tech companies. The students gained 100 hours paid work and practical legal experience which exposed them to the realities of tech business and practising law.

In 2019 they expanded to eight internships. “Starting off, the companies participated to do us a favour,” Ms Stewart says. “But they all saw value from the interns. This year we had an over-subscription of both companies and students.”

“We’d love to make it available to more students, but it’s really important to us that the students are well-supported,” she adds. A buddy system ensures support is in place.

A common sentiment exists that academic study alone does not equip law students to become practising lawyers. An internship programme helps bridge this gap, whilst also presenting entrepreneurial opportunities that exist in tech.

“You get the creativity crushed out of you at law school,” says Mr Simmonds. “Entrepreneurship is exciting. With the rise of the gig economy, more and more people need to be entrepreneurial in how they create work and financial opportunities. Hustling for customers, capital, making payroll, nothing’s more entrepreneurial than that. Sparking the creative spirit of new lawyers is one benefit we see from the internship.”

With the emergence of new technology, the design of legal services – how they’re provided – is being challenged, as much is the case in other service industries.

It is likely technology will not digest the legal job market with automation, as was the fear more generally with previous industrial revolutions. So long as entrepreneurial nous remains to encourage creativity, expect tech to come far more embedded in day-to-day solutions for legal services.

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Last updated on the 5th July 2019