Welcome to the latest interview in our Women in Law – Female Founders series by Dana Denis-Smith, CEO of Obelisk Support. This time Dana speaks with Estonia-based Mariana Hagström, founder and CEO of contract automation platform Avokaado.
In this interview Mariana shares her experiences on addressing key business issues as a female founder in the legal sector and what it’s been like to build a startup.
Hi Mariana, first things first. What is your business story?
I started my career in the usual way – graduating law school and joining a law firm and building my career step by step, from associate to, eventually, managing partner at the firm.
Throughout my career, I saw lawyers struggle because they have an outdated toolkit and no structured, shared database of knowledge to leverage. Getting a draft from 0 to 1 took too much effort.
Often lawyers did not even know that a colleague had already worked on a similar case or document. In addition – and most experienced lawyers will relate to this – clients are never happy and see lawyers’ work as ineffective.
In 2016, I launched the Avokaado DIY platform. At the time, it was my side-project. Avokaado had a truly innovative approach and we succeeded in our mission – designing a product that non-lawyers could use to effectively solve problems themselves. We cut contract drafting time from days (with a lawyer) down to 5-10 minutes (with contract automation).
“I saw lawyers struggle because they have an outdated toolkit”
At first, Avokaado got a lot of disbelief from fellow lawyers. Then, one of the largest law firms in the Baltics got interested in our technology and they wanted to use it to automate document work. In 2018, we opened up the Avokaado automation platform for law firms and launched this product with our first client, the law firm Sorainen. They rolled out the technology for their team across four countries.
How would you describe your company’s growth in just three key figures?
Since launching the law firm product in 2018:
- 10: number of law firms using Avokaado in the Baltics, Nordics and Poland.
- 1 year: how long it took us to expand outside Estonia to 8 countries.
- 30%: monthly growth rate.
What are your thoughts on the state of the legal industry?
From a client perspective, the most challenging areas are the cost, transparency, communication and efficiency.
Law firms should start capturing and leveraging information they have internally to make smart decisions about technology that will serve the firms’ lawyers and clients well.
All firms are chasing talent, but it is possible to find lower-cost lawyers, and freelancing lawyers, and put legal project management processes in place to achieve better outcomes. Forget timesheets. Focus on delivering value to your client.
The legal tech market is maturing. Providers should also narrow their focus and build products based on client segments rather than one-size-fits-all.
When clients can differentiate between providers and understand what they are really doing – that is when they can achieve results. Right now there is a lot of fear and uncertainty in terms of what strategy to take regarding emerging tech: whether to buy or build, and in which direction to turn.
How are you addressing some of the challenges facing the legal industry as a whole?
Avokaado helps firms to digitise and create legal solutions and make better delivery processes. Client collaboration and productivity are our domains. I really liked how Aku Sorainen, founding partner of Sorainen law firm, put this a couple of days ago when we were speaking about their team’s experience with Avokaado.
He said: ‘So far I don’t see machine learning as a low hanging fruit for us. I believe much more in discipline and tech automation. Automating technical aspects of contracting helps us deliver a consistent quality.’
I am enthusiastic about the change and this goes only towards a better, more structured future. The biggest and utmost questions law firms need to address is how to serve clients better and then use tech that supports the strategy.
What are your role and responsibilities in the business?
I am the founder and CEO of Avokaado. Our team includes 10 people now and we are growing. I have been involved in most processes for now – financing, customers, go-to-market and product sprints.
How has your previous experience aided your current job?
The lawyers’ job makes you tough. I am used to working hard and have learned how to cope with stress.
A startup is even more stressful and this is a true rollercoaster ride with highs and lows testing brutally the weaknesses and strengths you have as a person. It also tests your ability to lead the team during low periods.
I like to think that I was well prepared. It is a huge benefit that I understand lawyers’ pains and jobs, and that I have a clear vision to solve their problems. We have met hundreds of firms and based on my experience, the problems and business models are the same everywhere.
What has been the most challenging and the most rewarding aspect of your job?
At every stage of being a founder, you face different challenges. It was an amazing moment when we launched Avokaado at a legal technology conference in 2016. It felt like a huge thing to put all this together. It was so different from my everyday job at the time. From being a lawyer I became a product manager, legal engineer, project lead for developers and more. I didn’t have any experience in doing these things. I had to learn a lot and fast.
I have grown as a person, learned a lot, learned to be patient and the deep meaning of keeping focus as a leader. I feel overwhelmed when I see that something we have created really helps people and that my idea of the digital workspace is so welcomed by firms and lawyers whose clients benefit from our work. These are the moments when I feel humbled and totally in love with my job.
“From being a lawyer I became a product manager, legal engineer, project lead for developers and more.”
Most challenging is to stay focused and stick with your goals. As a startup, there is so much pressure to achieve traction and be fast. It can be tempting to jump into more client segments, to say yes to companies that are not really our target customer. Learning to say no is tough, but you have to do it.
What’s in store in for the rest of 2019?
There are just four months left for this year and in the coming months our focus is to hit our targets for 2019. It is going to be a very busy Q4 for us.
Our mission with Avokaado in five years is to have transformed 1,000 law firms to digital workspaces, where lawyers can also work remotely and customers can get their problems solved efficiently without scheduling, set up a meeting and receive timesheets at the end of the month.
What is your favourite way to relax?
I am a beach person, coffee and chocolate lover, and relax best after exercising – tennis, yoga, biking, long walks. Also, I am very much a creative person, I love the arts, design, movies, theatre – I just do not have much time for that right now.
Mariana Hagström is lawyer who focuses on M&A, commercial & corporate matters, competition law and IP. She has a long experience advising clients on issues related to private equity and investments. She is co-author of the first book ever written on competition law in the Estonian language. She is the author of a number of publications and articles on corporate law and competition law. She founded Avokaado in 2016 as a SaaS platform created by Estonian lawyers and software developers to help the user to draft, share, comment and sign legal documents quickly and easily.
Dana Denis-Smith, is an entrepreneur, ex-lawyer and journalist. She founded Obelisk to keep City lawyers, especially mothers, working flexibly, around their family or other personal commitments and to provide clients with an affordable and quality legal support solution onshore.
In 2014 she founded a unique history project – first100years – charting the journey of women in law through a video social history, @first100years.