‘From tiny acorns, mighty oak trees grow’ so the saying goes, and it’s fair to say that US-based LX Studio, the new innovation project of global firm Norton Rose Fulbright (NRF), is very much still an acorn – but it has plenty of potential.
Artificial Lawyer spoke to Jeff Cody, Managing Partner for the US side of 3,700-lawyer NRF, which was formed by the merger of the UK’s Norton Rose and America’s Fulbright & Jaworski in 2013, to find out some more.
But first, some context. NRF has been doing plenty on innovation for some years, primarily through what they call NRF Transform, which includes legal ops consulting, managed legal services (i.e. project managed process work), and a range of tech-focused capabilities that span from deploying NLP tools for particular projects (e.g. IBOR/LIBOR), to working directly with clients to help with their legal tech strategies.
It’s fair to say this has often had a strong UK and European flavour, with the firm creating a specialised office some years ago in Newcastle in northern England to help expand this offering. Although there is also a ‘cost-effective’ eDiscovery team based in Houston, Texas, it should be added.
Now back to Cody, who is also based in Texas. So, what is LX Studio going to add?
‘LX Studio is part of NRF Transform, but in the US we needed a [separate] brand from an innovation perspective,’ he explained and added that they will work very much in a co-ordinated way with the team in the UK.
‘We were not as organised as we wanted to be in US [in relation to innovation and legal tech],’ Cody noted.
So LX Studio, with a specific allocation of staff, will address that need and provide clients, especially in America, with something more formalised around tech and innovation.
But what will this new group do? Cody said that the foundation stone will be tech products. This includes privacy compliance tool NT Analyzer, which they have had on offer for about four years already, plus in June they formed an agreement with Chicago-based software developer, NMBL Technologies, to offer its legal workflow management platform, Proxy, through the LX Studio. Although, given that Proxy is a tool that will be applied inhouse by clients it won’t necessarily help to drive work back to NRF, although clients that work with LX Studio to implement the software may become ‘more sticky’ perhaps as a result.
LX Studio will therefore ‘put more muscle behind NT Analyser and Proxy’, Cody explained.
But, is providing software to clients the extent of things?
Cody stressed that it was early days, hence this site’s allusion to acorns. He added that they are also potentially interested in consulting work. They will certainly be working closely with consultants within NRF Transform such as Stephanie Hamon, who helps with clients’ legal ops needs, but they are also considering how they could perhaps build their own team in America.
‘We are thinking about building our own consulting team in the US, but it has not landed yet,’ Cody said.
‘We could develop consulting for risk management,’ he noted by way of example. However, Cody said that one challenge they have ‘is Bar restrictions in the US’, which could make it tricky to have top-level consultants.
Consulting to large corporations tends to demand top level people, and they will expect to be remunerated well, e.g. like a partner. While the UK is a very open regulatory environment and bringing on consultants at partner level with or without a legal background is not too much of a barrier, in the US it’s harder.
‘We are looking at structures for how we can dip into that,’ Cody explained, but added that it may not happen for some time, perhaps not for several years.
What else? How about providing managed services like they offer in the UK?
‘We are looking at this globally and it could be in the US as well, but we have no firm plans yet,’ Cody said.
And investing in legal tech companies, as a growing number of US law firms are doing now? Cody noted the goal of NRF in America is very much to focus on software that helps their business directly, i.e. software that drives legal work, and hence helps to generate revenue for the partners.
‘We’re not looking at making pure investments [in legal tech] for our partners,’ he added, ‘we would be more interested in investing to help our business.’
So, will there be more tech developed internally? That seems very likely.
‘We could develop new software and build some more of our own, and we may also partner with another third-party company.
‘Everything is about client service and processes to help deliver more efficiently,’ Cody concluded, and added that they already have an innovation committee at the firm that helps to collect and evaluate ideas that originate inside the business, such as happened with NT Analyzer.
So there may very well be more to come like this.
Now, if you are a glass half-empty kind of person you may look at this and say it’s not a huge deal. After all, this is in effect – for now – all about two tech products and one of those has been at the firm for several years already.
Building a consulting team will be tricky it seems, and managed legal services in the US is also not 100% in the plan – yet. Investing in tech companies is also not a priority, although the door seems partly open to products that will directly help generate additional work for the firm.
But, with a more optimistic outlook one might say that this is a beginning; and that although the US is home to many pioneering legal tech companies and ALSPs, the reality is that few law firms in the US have dedicated innovation groups which mirror the full range of what NRF has in the UK, for example.
Disrupting your business model with technology, offering managed services, or adding additional non-legal services in the US is still not a strategic priority for most, whereas in the UK many top commercial law firms have had to grapple with such needs because of a very different environment (e.g. very liberal regulation, a much smaller and more concentrated legal market, the rise of the Big Four legal services arms, and more). That said, Reed Smith has done plenty of great work in the US via Gravity Stack, which is also building out a consulting group, and Cleary Gottlieb has just launched Cleary X, but such projects are not the norm – yet.
Overall, this site really welcomes what NRF is doing in the US because you have got to start somewhere. Moreover, partners at law firms need to feel comfortable with change. Going in too hard, too fast, could just scare them. If LX Studio prospers in its early format, then more developments will no doubt follow and perhaps this acorn will eventually grow to be a notable part of the firm one day. We shall see. Good luck to them.
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