Wavelength + Simmons & Simmons Combination: News Analysis

As readers of Artificial Lawyer found out yesterday afternoon, Wavelength, the world’s first regulated legal engineering firm, has joined Simmons & Simmons, a leading international law firm based in London.

Wavelength Law, to use the full name, quickly became something of a rockstar business in the world of legal tech and innovation. Started by Peter Lee and Drew Winlaw in Cambridge, back not long before Artificial Lawyer started, they were inspired to call themselves ‘legal engineers’ – a phrase popularised by Richard Susskind.

The business was in effect ‘a law firm’, but this was never going to be just a group of lawyers giving legal advice. Very quickly they began to work with other law firms helping them with everything from understanding how to better use the tech they already had, to helping them to implement new tech, to building new tech applications, especially around legal data flows.

And, they were busy. They launched just at the right time, when the ‘New Wave’ of legal technology was first sweeping the world. It is still very much sweeping the world – but back then in the ancient history of 2016, Wavelength really stood out as one of the few advisory groups helping law firms with innovation beyond what more traditional ‘IT’ groups were offering.

Lee had started off as an officer in the British Army, then worked in various legal roles, often with a tech-related focus. His last employer was a medium-size UK firm, Taylor Vinters, which also has a strong focus on tech.

Winlaw started out in life in Australia, but also previously worked at Taylor Vinters. Interestingly, one of his first jobs back in Oz was at the national Dairy Farmers Milk Co-operative, where he helped to identify the ‘root cause of a wastage problem using Taguchi’s Design of Experiments methodology’.

So, even back then in 1993, Winlaw was working with data and process, and taking a scientific approach.

Given that Artificial Lawyer launched soon after Wavelength, this site got to know the team well, as it rapidly grew and grew. One early hire was Ben Gardner, who became the firm’s Chief Scientific Officer, and who had come from Linklaters and before that had a career in the Pharma sector. By chance Gardner left the firm in May this year, not long before the talks with Simmons began.

Wavelength kept growing, and has been based in Cambridge in one of the first Barclays Tech Labs – which was a converted upper floor of a bank branch. In recent months they made two other big hires, Sophia Adams-Bhatti, who had been head of regulatory policy at the Law Society and also Erika Concetta Pagano who moved over from the US in April, where she had been a director at LawWithoutWalls.

Joining a major City law firm is going to feel a bit different to being part of a 30-person growth business.

Becoming Part of The City

By the start of this summer it looked like Wavelength was going to keep growing and growing. There was clearly massive demand out there for its services. Every month they hired someone new. In fact the top team must have spent a lot of time just hiring new people and then trying to manage the growing business.

Running an un-funded SME is very hard work. You have to make money to keep going and pay the equally growing number of bills, but you also have to be COO, CTO, accountant, HR manager, head of BD and marketing, speak at conferences, lead the business, and more……and you actually have to try and do some fee-earning work and serve the clients all at the same time.

Lee and Winlaw have clearly worked incredibly hard and done very well.

So, the news did come as a surprise. The one question on Artificial Lawyer’s mind was: why? And why now?

Below is an interview with Lee and also Jeremy Hoyland, managing partner of Simmons.

Peter Lee, co-founder and CEO of Wavelength, told Artificial Lawyer in an interview: ‘[Why do the deal now?] We knew we would have to scale eventually and we have worked with Simmons & Simmons before. We share a similar vision focused on solving problems that involve large data sets.’

‘We could see that the addressable market [for our services] would be large. With Simmons there is a perfect fit and they have an international footprint,’ he added.

And that makes sense. If you want to service a global market, a small law firm in Cambridge can be something of a challenge in terms of providing sufficient support.

Jeremy Hoyland, Managing Partner at Simmons & Simmons, also told Artificial Lawyer: ‘We approached Wavelength because we wanted to provide a better offering for our clients. All the big firms have been struggling with this area [of legal technology].’

‘Wavelength has a lot of people who can help with this, and it would have been hard to grow such a capability organically,’ he added.

He also noted that this was only the second ever M&A deal the firm had done with another law firm, the last one had been in 2001 during what was a period of rapid globalisation. The fact that Lee and Winlaw will become partners was mentioned, while the rest of the 30 staff will become employees. The group will operate as a business unit, called Simmons Wavelength.

Could they have joined another firm? Perhaps not. Some of the larger firms, such as Clifford Chance and Allen & Overy, already have large tech and innovation teams. They may have hired some of the top team, but maybe would not want 30 new staff in that area.

Smaller firms would also not have been able to absorb 30 people focused on legal innovation and product development. Maybe one or two hires, but not the whole firm.

So, Simmons was in some ways in a Goldilocks position – just right in size to take them all on. It also arguably needed a boost in this area if it wanted to compete versus some of the other City firms with large innovation teams. And so, that was the end of Wavelength as an independent business.

But, it was an incredible ride.

Conclusion

Could Wavelength have carried on as it was? Yes, but it was always going to be hard to build a platform that could support such global ambitions. They could have carried on for several more years and perhaps taken external investment as an ABS, or hired in staff around the world to build multiple new offices. But, then the operational challenges would have just grown and grown.

This way they can go global via Simmons’ 23 offices and worldwide contacts, and not have to worry quite as much about operational issues, which their new adoptive firm will be able to handle.

Artificial Lawyer is reminded a bit of the RAVN deal with iManage. Could RAVN have stayed independent? Yes. But, in a similar way its founders had been working incredibly hard and trying to grow the business while serving clients at the same time. They also had global ambitions and in the end it made more sense to go in with a far larger platform.

As to the future of legal engineering? It’s a tricky one. Wavelength was the biggest name in the market, now, it won’t probably be serving other law firms – but will be helping inhouse legal teams.

Some of the other already established names in legal engineering in the UK are: Syke, which also started in 2016; and Catherine Bamford’s BamLegal, which has a strong focus on document automation. Interestingly, Bamford has also been a non-exec director of Wavelength.

In the US we also have legal engineering companies such as Nicole Bradick’s Theory & Principle.

And although there are several more traditional ‘IT’ consultancies in the market covering a wide range of needs (and consultancies that focus on the wider strategic and tech market analysis picture), there really isn’t anything quite like Wavelength and its fast-growing team in the market.

Will others race to fill the gap? Hard to say. There is clearly a huge demand out there. But, at the same time, law firms are trying to hire the same people who could build such companies. So, maybe much of the talent that could build such new advisory teams will become part of, or remain with, large law firms. But, if anyone is reading this and has the ambition to build something….well, there is, as of today, a big gap in the market. 

Hopefully we will see new Wavelength-style businesses entering the market. After all, legal engineering is just getting going and there is a growing need out there, especially as the #MoreThanLaw trend gathers pace.

Whatever happens, congratulations to the Wavelength team who in such a short time have made such a massive impact. It’s the end of an era, but also the beginning of an exciting new chapter!

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