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Turning lawyers into innovators

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By Alex Wade on

Dentons’ pioneering Nextlaw Labs venture is having a radical effect — and creating opportunities for future lawyers

“There’s nothing to fear,” says Laura Mackett, an associate in Dentons‘ Energy, Transport and Infrastructure department. “If you’re an old school lawyer who doesn’t want to embrace change, then technology can be terrifying. But for today’s lawyers, people who are dynamic and forward-thinking, it’s not the enemy. New technology is going to improve the lives of lawyers and make them more effective for their clients.”

Mackett, who graduated with an LLB from University College London in 2009, joined Dentons as a trainee in March 2011. By then she’d completed vacation placements at the London offices of two major firms, and bagged a distinction in her LPC, taken at the College of Law. Fluent in French, Mackett also obtained a ‘mention bien’ in a Diplôme de Droit Français, taken between 2007 and 2008 from Université Paul Cézanne Aix-Marseille III.

Impressive credentials, to be sure — but Mackett, a specialist in environmental and health and safety law, says that good academics aren’t the be-all and end-all for aspiring lawyers. “Yes, you have to be academically sharp,” says Mackett, who will soon complete five years’ PQE, “but to succeed there are other skills that are just as important. You need to have good commercial awareness, and be able to engage with clients. In the modern world, that means being tech-savvy. It’s absolutely essential to embrace new solutions, and understand how tech is influencing legal practice. If you don’t, how can you speak the same language as the client?”

Laura Mackett, an associate in Dentons‘ Energy, Transport and Infrastructure department

Fortunately for Mackett and her colleagues at Dentons, the firm is a trailblazer in new tech. Marie Bernard, Europe Director of Innovation, explains why:

“We’ve long had a reputation for working at the cutting edge of new technology, and took this a step further in 2015 when we invested in Nextlaw Labs, whose aim is to develop, deploy and invest in new technologies to transform the profession. Nextlaw Labs is a wholly owned subsidiary of Dentons, and, in effect, it’s a testing ground for new products and services — an innovation ecosystem, with physical and virtual locations in technology centres around the world.”

In its short life Nextlaw Labs has already sourced more than 350 innovative ideas from Dentons’ lawyers and clients, as well as legal tech companies. Concepts have turned to reality in many ways, not least with investment in ten early-stage startups. The first was in ROSS, an IBM Watson-powered platform that enables users to use natural language to search a billion documents per second and return highly relevant research. In March 2016, Nextlaw Labs invested in Apperio, with its powerful smart-analytics dashboard that enables real-time transparency on legal fees and streamlines matter management and client communication. Eight additional startups joined the Nextlaw Labs in short order thereafter.

Find out more about vac schemes and training contracts at Dentons

“Apperio has been very well received,” says Mackett. “It’s an analytics dashboard that provides a real-time view of legal spend, so that there’s complete transparency between client and law firm.”

If Apperio’s appeal to clients is obvious, so too is that of a product designed by Libryo, another business supported by Nextlaw Labs. “Libryo is the most exciting start-up I’ve been involved with,” says Mackett. “It’s just secured $1 million seed round financing to expand further globally, and I’ve been working with the business for almost two years now. It’s been really rewarding seeing the business grow and bouncing ideas around with the Libryo team.” And Libryo, for a lawyer like Mackett, not to mention any number of businesses, delivers something very useful: founded in 2016 in London, Libryo’s platform updates and alerts users to changes in legal obligations in any jurisdiction, surfacing geo-localized risk that can keep clients up at night.

Marie Bernard, Dentons’ Europe Director of Innovation

Dentons’ global CEO Elliott Portnoy has said of Nextlaw Labs: “Our aim is to revolutionize the practice of law — continuing to generate faster, cheaper, better legal solutions that will benefit lawyers and our clients.” It sounds radical — but Mackett insists that this kind of application of new tech to law is going to make the legal profession not just more efficient, but more enjoyable, too. “Lawyers will have more time to concentrate on their clients as well as the more complex and strategic legal issues at play,” she says. “Because there’s more time, law will become more human. Who wouldn’t be excited by this?”

Mackett’s enthusiasm for Nextlaw Labs is doubtless a consequence of her close involvement in many of its ventures, but she has good news not just for would-be trainees at the firm but even those who obtain a place on its vacation schemes. “We like to give everyone a taste of what Nextlaw Labs is doing, and the kinds of legal and practical issues its businesses are solving,” she says. “It’s a great way for young lawyers to learn how to think creatively. There’s nothing like being exposed to a start-up as it forges ahead to develop your commercial awareness, too.”

Or, as Bernard puts it:

“Dentons is the only firm that owns its own tech accelerator. I think we’re unique in another way, too. Our approach, which puts a premium on idea generation, is transforming not just legal practice but the legal profession, too. We’re turning lawyers into innovators.”

Find out more about vac schemes and training contracts at Dentons

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