Legal Innovator Profiles: Ben Allgrove, Baker McKenzie

This week’s Legal Innovator Profile – and the last of this year – is with Ben Allgrove, Partner and Chief Innovation Officer at Baker McKenzie.

– When did you first hear the term ‘legal tech’ and what did you think at the time?

I am not sure when I first heard the term, but it gained general traction in the industry around 2015-16. By that I mean, it was a term our clients and my partners were talking about. Of course legal tech has been around for a lot longer than that, but it tended to be targeted to a more niche audience and often confused with TAR (technology assisted review), which is but a subset of the wider category. To the extent that it is used as a shorthand today for technology products targeted at the legal vertical specifically, it retains some utility, but I do think the more transformational change underway is the wider digital transformation of the legal industry. The technology (and skills) underlying that is more often of more general, horizontal application. In other words, the significance of tech in the law is wider than just legal tech.

– What is your role now?

I split my time between two roles. I am practicing technology lawyer in Baker’s IP, Data and Technology team. And I am also the firm’s Chief Innovation Officer. In that role I am mandated to (a) advise our management on its innovation strategy and how that feeds into the wider firm strategy; (b) be a lead voice for the firm in the market on legal innovation topics, engaging with the client, vendor and peer ecosystem to make sure we are part of the conversation as the industry changes; (c) lead internal engagement my partners and our wider talent on business transformation; and (d) be the executive sponsor and lead for Reinvent, the umbrella which ties together our various innovation initiatives, such as our Global Service Design team, our Baker ML Practice investment and partnership with Sparkbeyond, our Reinvent Fellows programme, and Project Edison, our partnership with MaxVal to build a new IP portfolio management platform.

– Why did you move into this field, (if this is not the only field you’ve worked in)?

BA: I have always had an interest in technology and its interplay with the law. My thesis in grad school (in the early 2000s) was about how one best regulates artificial intelligence technologies, and in particular whether there was a case for granting legal personality to – some – AI actors (I still think there is!). In 2016-17, the firm’s then Chair, Paul Rawlinson, asked me to lead a team which he called our “Machine Learning Taskforce” to put together a ML strategy for the firm. That is where it all started. From there I was appointed to the firm’s first innovation committee, then asked to Chair that committee a few years later, and finally being appointed CInnO in 2022. Why am interested? In addition to the academic interest in the technology itself, my core motivation is a strategic one. The market is changing. Being part of that change is intensely interesting, even if at times it is also frustrating given the different time horizons at play between the BAU imperatives of a large law firm and the medium to longer term market shifts for which we need to prepare.

– What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Easy – talking to clients. The same thing drives both my work in practice and as CInnO. We exist because of our clients. Getting close to them, listening to them, and teaming with them to solve challenges is definitely the most rewarding part of the job.

– If you looked into a crystal ball, how much do you think the everyday practice of law will change in the next five to ten years?

People were asking this question 5 years ago. Most predictions made back then have yet to materialise. The practice of law has not materially changed. Yes, there is more tech in use in-house and at law firms. Yes, the pricing / value conversation in the market continues. And yes, competition, especially for talent, remains intense. But the fundamental business models in operation remain largely untroubled. So I predict the future with some hesitancy, but the most impactful change in that time horizon will be the increasing mainstreaming of data, data science and ML in both the running of law firms and in-house teams and also in the provision of legal services, especially those that require the exercise of predictive judgement, eg litigation, anti-trust, FDIR, etc. There are already lots of players with initiatives in this space and expect to see those continue to gain traction.

– If you had one gripe about legal tech companies what would it be?

Figure out not only the problem you are trying to solve but also where you fit in the distribution channels in which we operate. Too often my vendor conversations are about what the tech can do (usually very impressive) rather than how that fits into the services a firm like ours offers and how we can use it to improve quality, secure higher prices or defend or improve margin.

– If you had one thing you’d really like to applaud legal tech companies for, what would it be?

Sticking with it. The legal tech market is a brutal one. It is hard to get traction. Hard to get access to data. Hard to scale solutions. And hard to get meaningful medium to long-term conversations given the (usual) early financial cycles of a partnership.

– And finally, what advice would you give to anyone wanting to get into this field?

If you are interested in being an innovative lawyer, it is still a prerequisite to be a good lawyer. Often I see truly innovative thinkers, but ones who would be better off deploying those skills in a capacity other than being a lawyer and so who get frustrated because they would prefer to focus on the innovation piece over the lawyer piece. It could still be in the legal industry, still be in a law firm, but in 99 out of 100 cases, you need to make your business case within the job you have now, not the one you would like to have. The more successful you are at that, the more credibility and capital you have to advocate for changing the way things are done. And second, look to the leadership of the organisation you are in or wanting to join. You don’t get true change without leadership that shows foresight and commitment to long-term business transformation.  

Thanks Ben, that’s sound advice!