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From army captain to NewLaw entrepreneur

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Simmons & Simmons’ Peter Lee reflects on his unusual route to partnership and explains how COVID-19 has accelerated change within the legal profession

Simmons & Simmons partner Peter Lee

Long before becoming a partner at Simmons & Simmons, Peter Lee spent seven years in the British Army, serving across the Middle East, the Balkans, North America and Europe.

It was during this time — specifically a tour of Iraq in 2003 — that his curiosity in the law first surfaced. “I realised the importance of the rule of law on society,” reflects Lee, then a captain. “There was often a break down in the rule of law as a result of conflict and that’s what sparked my interest.”

Nearly 20 years later, Lee remains focused on society’s relationship with the law. Having retrained as a solicitor after leaving the army, Lee and Drew Winlaw co-founded Wavelength, the world’s first regulated legal engineering firm, which in 2019 was acquired by international law firm, Simmons & Simmons.

Born out of a start-up incubator in Cambridge, Lee explains how his then fledgling NewLaw business aims to reimagine how legal work is done and won. Ultimately, Wavelength’s aim is for legal engineering to be regarded as a “force for good”, using a mix of tech, data science and legal design to improve how people interact with the law.

Doing so requires up-rooting the inefficient work-habits that litter legal practice, Lee says. One key example is how data is organised. “Most of the documentation and information about the life blood of the organisation is contained in the contracts and other documents that lawyers will be working on. And so, legal departments and law firms sit on very rich sources of data. But over the past 2,000 years or so, it’s contained in a very unstructured format,” he explains.

As a result, lawyers have traditionally had to process unstructured data, make sense of the complex information and form legal arguments all in their heads. It’s a tough task, one made even harder by the ever-increasing complexity of data created and collected in the 21st century workplace, Lee says.

Unstructured data can also overcomplicate what should be a straightforward task of communicating with clients. Looking back at his time working in-house for a cyber-security company, Lee points to the “frustrating experience as the lawyer” attending board meetings that spurred his desire for greater adoption of legal design. “As head of legal, you’d go to board meetings where the head of engineering can show a road map, and the head of sales can show their sales metrics to the board. But it’s quite hard for the lawyers to articulate the risks to a business in a very easy way.”

The application deadline for Simmons & Simmons' Summer Vacation Scheme 2021 (London) is Friday 15 January 2021

Using tech to order and augment chaotically unstructured data is just one of the services the business, now called Simmons Wavelength, offers. Over the past 18 months, since being acquired, Simmons Wavelength’s multidisciplinary “scrum teams” — made up of lawyers, data scientists and creative thinkers — have tackled inefficient practices head-on by providing legal tech consulting and building bespoke tech solutions for teams across the international firm’s 23 offices.

Lee recalls a recent project with the firm’s international banking team in Germany. By applying tech tools and data science, lengthy tasks involving thousands of documents which would usually take several hours now take a matter of minutes. Meanwhile, earlier this month, Lee’s team rolled-out a series of M&A solutions which “supercharges” the due diligence aspects of acquisitions through data science and artificial intelligence.

“We’re not replacing lawyers,” Lee stresses. “We’re allowing them to focus on high value, difficult questions and premium work by making machines take the strain.” In cases where lawyers face large workloads but with short deadlines, this combination can offer real value, he adds.

Looking ahead, Lee believes NewLaw will continue to flourish as the global pandemic forces the legal industry to innovate — with widespread remote working being the obvious example. “What slows down innovation is people unwilling to try something new,” he says. But COVID-19, and the lockdowns which followed, has forced typically risk-averse lawyers to work in a completely new way. For legal engineers, like Lee, it offers the opportunity to stamp out inefficient and outdated practices once and for all. “From a change perspective, that has definitely sped up certain aspects of innovation within the legal space, and people’s mindsets have changed.”

On the flipside, however, the post-COVID economy could mean there’s less funding available for innovative legal start-ups and in-house programmes, Lee warns. “There’s a bit of a tension there. Some things have accelerated — innovation and the use of tech in the legal space — versus some of the economic impacts and the reluctance to invest in new projects.”

To aspiring lawyers entering the market during this period of huge disruption, Lee advises sticking to things you love. “If you try to choose areas of law and business that you are genuinely interested in and enjoy, more opportunities will open for you and you will be much happier in your life,” he says.

Peter Lee will be speaking alongside Simmons & Simmons associate Sophie Sheldon at tomorrow’s ‘Future of law — Has 2020 accelerated the change?’ event. You can apply to attend the event, which is free, now.

The application deadline for Simmons & Simmons' Summer Vacation Scheme 2021 (London) is Friday 15 January 2021

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