December 20, 2018

Jimmy Vestbirk

Modern Law speaks to Jimmy Vestbirk, Legal Geek, about the punchy event platform that reaches thousands of legal professionals each year; the cultural shift required to implement change and if he thinks legal tech has moved out of it’s ‘hype’ phase.

ML: Bring us up to speed with the Legal Geek events.

JV: The Legal Geek conference alone has grown from 500 to 2000 delegates in the UK, with guests from over 40 countries and start-ups that are now established and raising millions of pounds of funds.

I never expected Legal Geek; I started my own market research on legal start-ups but it was never really my intention to create a legal event business. Yet we’re now aiming to be THE global space for legal tech start-ups. It’s our ambition to allow people to engage and instruct them in a really relevant, meaningful way.

We like the idea that you can achieve a year’s worth of networking and research in one day at a Legal Geek event. We’ve listened to our customers to make it relevant for everyone, from regulators, firms – from big law to in-house – and other pockets that overlap, including legal education. I feel our network has matured. For example, our first start-ups are now serious businesses and are our silver sponsors. It’s cool to be a part of that journey and see that happen in a short space of time.

ML: Have you evolved the programme over the last 12 months?

JV: This is the first year that legal tech has moved out of the hype phase and it’s being adopted quickly in terms of trials and pilots. However, while there are a lot of trials, the tech is definitely being adopted.

Our own network has progressed organically and is referral based. Our audience is predominantly big law focused but we also attract a number of boutiques. While we never had a huge high street presence, law tech does cover a broad spectrum – especially for those involved in big data, wills and conveyancing so should see more interest there. Law tech isn’t just servicing the top 10 big firms; it’s a big movement.

ML: It has to trickle down from the bigger players though surely?

JV: Definitely. The most interesting element for me is the international-ness of it. Around 40 countries plus attend the conference. I’ve been to Russia, Melbourne, Singapore and San Francisco and can see law tech innovations are truly an internationally relevant movement. Professionals around the world share common problems that are being catered for by the same solutions.

Having said that, the boutique firms are very tech led so you don’t have to be a global firm to utilise the tech out there. Models such as Keystone Law – those that are much more open to harnessing tech – are running with our network and let’s not forget that we have a great regulatory platform in England and Wales. We can do more under this platform so it’s an exciting place to be right now.

ML: What are the biggest, consistent barriers to implementing legal tech?

JV: I’m a casual commentator here but the conversations I’ve had around barriers to entry and implementation are on both sides. These largely revolve around the creation of common standards for accessing and using data. Law firms are often bound by certain restraints, made by (for example), banks, existing tech solutions or data security elements – and start ups aren’t always compliant to these. These issues surrounding access to data – either on premise or on the cloud – need to be fixed for wider adoption. I can see the frustration on both sides really and the challenges here but people are getting through them and we’re starting to see solutions come through.

ML: Who, in the main, champions tech implementation in a firm?JV: In terms of our conference delegates, it’s hard to pigeon-hole who’s driving it as we have a broad range of attendance and interest; from senior leaders to younger employees. I’ve also met a lot of students who understand the benefits of tech and not staying the same; they are also driving those conversations.

I do understand that firms face a cultural challenge. It’s also hard for fee earners to justify spending time out of the office to come to our events and see all the amazing things on offer. I think firms need a cultural shift to happen to allow those with the vision to help change things for the future. Additionally, using tech to empower people in a firm is a separate thing to tackle.

However, a speaker at one of our recent events said something about lawyers still counting rows; it made me think, yes, the bar is pretty low to improve efficiency in the legal sector. Sometimes using Excel properly is just as important as securing new tech to enhance the business.

ML: What’s your response to the idea that ‘legal tech will replace jobs’?

JV: I really hate the conversation about tech replacing lawyers; where senior law leaders steer the conversation towards concerns about taking jobs. I don’t have the energy to convert people so we work with those who are on that path already, energising them and hopefully bringing about change. Legal tech absolutely should be about making things better and more efficient for the customer.

ML: How can firms use tech to captivate and retain incoming, younger talent?

JV: We frequently engage with student and trainee audiences. I don’t think people coming through feel that their law course prepares them for the reality of their work. This might not be representative of everyone but the people I meet say they don’t want to work in a law firm 24 hours a day and not have a life. They tell me they’re really excited about the tech element in law and some look to become a legal design engineer rather than a lawyer – or look for other exciting opportunities that are coming out of legal tech.

I think we have to remember that lots of smart young lawyers have smart friends working in enterprises like Google, where they are treated well and rewarded well. Law isn’t the only high paying industry now; there are lots of places that offer exciting rewards for working in these spaces and they’re very attractive – and provide competition. Again, it takes a cultural shift to understand what’s on offer to Millennials, what their ambitions are, how they’re promoted, how they’re rewarded, the workspaces provided, and compete with that. For instance, tech natives – Millennials – are often conducting double-entry time recording, then pull their iPhones out of their pocket at lunch; it’s frustrating and needs to change. Again, the bar is low in legal services so there’s lots of room to be more relevant and improve.

ML: How do you avoid the hype and conduct quality control over the events?

JV: I know a lot of the speakers personally and work closely with them to ensure they are the right fit. They have to deliver a short sharp pitch so that we can cover a lot of topics in a short space of time. Its not a style for everyone but it works well. We have a punchy, current, topic-led event platform and are always working on it. We also have over 10 different countries speaking; it’s great to hear from people outside of your own bubble.

We stay in touch with people in the short term and host a number of smaller, community events – including those hosted in the Barclays LawTech Eagle Lab . We run these events frequently and attract anywhere from 30 to 100 people, depending on the concept. Next year we’re taking our network to North America and Australia – we’re definitely looking to move the conference outside of the UK and Europe, which is really exciting.

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