Chairman, Fuse and aosphereA&O: 1978-present
Counsel and Head of FuseA&O: 2002-present
On your next visit to the Bishops Square office, you might notice a subtle change.
One corner of the building – sitting on the borders of Shoreditch and the City of London – has been transformed into an exciting and vibrant workspace dedicated to harnessing the power of technology to help us work in smarter, faster and more efficient ways with our clients.
Over the summer, a warren of corridors and small offices at One Bishops Square were remodelled. Walls were knocked down to create a largely open-plan space with private meeting rooms for more confidential conversations. New lighting, furniture and hot desk work stations were installed and windows opened up to give a view out on to the often teeming streets around Spitalfields market.
Welcome to Fuse, A&O’s new tech innovation space.
It’s here that selected tech companies will be working with our own technology experts and lawyers, and with clients too.
The task: to create relevant solutions in the closely inter-related worlds of legaltech (helping in-house lawyers and law firms to operate more efficiently and cost-effectively), regtech (supporting businesses in complying with law and regulation) and dealtech (developing new ways for businesses to negotiate and transact with each other).
Fuse opened its doors on 7 September, welcoming eight hand-picked tech companies covering diverse areas of the legal market and deploying a range of technologies including data analytics, work flow management systems and verification tools, blockchain and Artificial Intelligence (AI).
They will be with us until January 2018, when they make way for a new cohort of companies.
Jonathan Brayne, chairman of Fuse, explains why the project is so important to the firm: “We know that the way we and our clients work is going to be transformed significantly by new technologies and that these technologies will open a wide range of opportunities for us in the years ahead.
“But we realised early on that we really didn’t have a good enough handle on what those technologies and opportunities might be.
“By inviting these carefully selected companies, and the entrepreneurs behind them, to come into the innovation space, we have given ourselves a window on an important world, one that would not have been available to us without a set-up like Fuse.”
It’s a dilemma faced by companies across sectors.
From banks to airlines, carmakers to retailers, many are trying to come to terms with the challenges posed by disruptive technologies that are forcing them to rethink their business models in fundamental ways in order to incorporate the advances made by tech companies with compelling new ideas.
Many have come to the conclusion that the best way to deal with disruption is to embrace it, and, to get a head start, an increasing number are investing in start-ups or launching incubators or accelerator programmes to forge a relationship with companies working with these technologies.
As we devised our own strategy we decided to take a slightly different approach. Shruti Ajitsaria, who heads Fuse and runs it day to day with the help of a full-time assistant and a host of A&O volunteers, explains.
“It struck us that if we were to create solutions that were really relevant to the firm and to our clients, it would make sense to build a space where we could all come together – A&O, our clients and tech companies – to pool our thinking, all learning from one another and collaborating closely,” says Shruti.
“In that sense, Fuse is very much in line with the firm’s approach to the advanced delivery of legal services, with a real focus on working hand in hand with our clients to find smarter, more cost-effective ways of delivering our services.”
The Fuse model was arrived at gradually as different people approached Jonathan with ideas.Fuse opened its doors on 7 September, welcoming eight hand-picked tech companies covering diverse areas of the legal market and deploying a range of technologies including data analytics, work flow management systems and verification tools, blockchain and Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Shruti, a counsel in our International Capital Markets (ICM) practice, had herself put together a proposal for an A&O fintech accelerator while attending a three-month start-up course at Google campus while on maternity leave.
Further impetus for starting work on the project came when senior partner Wim Dejonghe learned from a client how life science companies had set up similar environments to work collaboratively with start-ups to develop drugs, treatments and medical devices.
Wim also invited Richard Susskind, an advisor to A&O who has written extensively on the future of the legal profession, to help develop a proposal. The concepts from these sources were blended together to create the tech innovation space – the product of a true fusion of ideas.
But this is still a brave new world, with many of the start-ups addressing these technologies at the very earliest stages of development, often pre-profit and even pre-revenue, their ideas at the concept or prototype stage.
So where to start the process of identifying which start-ups and technologies had real promise?
The team decided to open an application process for companies interested in joining Fuse but, with relatively little background information, the exercise was something of a stab in the dark, admits Shruti.
“We had no idea what to expect in terms of a response to our search for potential participants,” she says. “But when we opened our application process in May 2017, the response was tremendous, with a total of 84 businesses eventually asking to join the first Fuse cohort.”
In that sense, Fuse had already delivered a significant benefit to the firm, allowing it to draw its own picture of how new technologies might blend with the day-to-day work of A&O lawyers and the fantastic developments being done in-house by our own tech experts.
Obviously anxious to get the selection right, Jonathan and Shruti pulled together a panel of external experts and A&O sponsors to help them whittle the number of potential participants down to a more manageable nine. The panel, which included J.P. Morgan’s Oli Harris, Funding Circle’s Robert Kerrigan (himself an A&O Alumnus), Amazon’s Alex Wong and Balderton Capital’s Sam Myers, then gathered for a day in July to hear the shortlisted companies pitch their ideas.
But the strongest voice on the selection panel, says Shruti, came from the A&O sponsors selected to work closely with the individual companies, to help them set and achieve bespoke milestones and make connections within the firm and with clients.
One A&O sponsor, London partner David Campbell, is working with Legatics in the first Fuse cohort.
“I’ve been working with Legatics for a while, but being part of the selection panel and having them on site in Fuse has made a huge difference to the way we work together,” he says.
“It makes it much easier for me to meet them. I’ve been able to introduce them to clients and to other partners, and they can easily get together with other lawyers and A&O’s IT team to help develop their product – and of course all of this helps A&O at the same time.”
Jonathan says it was important to rely on a wide range of advice in making our final selections. “The truth is, it’s very hard in a short period and with limited contact time to really understand the technologies these 84 companies are employing. In that sense, it’s very different to doing a more traditional commercial partnership where you can rely on an intensive process of due diligence and market analysis,” he says.
“Here we had to put our faith in the collective wisdom of the people we put together on our selection panel and to be honest with ourselves and realise that we might get some calls right, others not.
“Although we are primarily investing time and effort rather than money, that’s the secret behind any kind of tech investing. You have to be bold and open to the fact that there are likely to be both successes and failures along the way.”
Before the final decision was made, one other company had already been invited to join Fuse.
Quite separately, Nivaura – a fintech start-up developing a cloud-based service to help small and medium sized companies access the capital markets in an affordable way – had already formed a strong working relationship with A&O.
We’ve helped it refine its system as it carries out ‘sandbox’ testing with the Financial Conduct Authority to gain regulatory approval. We’ve also made a small equity investment in the business and ICM partner Phil Smith has agreed to join the Nivaura board.
It seemed logical to involve Nivaura in Fuse and the team was invited to become Fuse’s ‘entrepreneurs-in-residence’, helping and guiding our other chosen tech companies by sharing advice and business experience while continuing to develop its own platform.
Nivaura, says Jonathan, is a perfect example of the power of collaboration between tech company, law firm and client,” he says.
“Within the realm of dealtech, they’re creating an end-to-end solution using a range of technologies including blockchain, AI, machine learning and smart contracts.
“The platform is potentially highly disruptive yet sits comfortably alongside our approach to working with clients in new and cost-efficient ways.
“Our growing relationship with Nivaura and other tech companies allows us to have a new kind of conversation about technology with clients. It’s a great example of the sort of doors that Fuse can open and the sort of competitive advantage it could create for us.”
Shruti agrees. “The selection process has been really fascinating,” she says, “allowing us to map for ourselves where some of these important technologies are going and where they may take us as a firm. It’s been fantastically exciting to welcome the companies into Fuse and to get the project under way.”
“Although we are primarily investing time and effort rather than money, that’s the secret behind any kind of tech investing. You have to be bold and be open to the fact that there are likely to be both successes and failures along the way.”
THE FIRST FUSE COHORT
The eight companies selected to join Fuse cover a broad sweep of the legal market, deploying a full suite of technologies in useful and potentially highly rewarding ways.
It was inevitable, with the broad scope of the application process we put together, that the 84 companies that applied online to join the first Fuse cohort would be diverse.
In the end we drew interest from companies at very different stages of development, using very different types of technology and with very different target markets in mind. That diversity is evident in the eight companies that made it through to the final selection list, ranging from a company using an innovative contract creation, workflow and data analytics tool, to a provider of regulatory risk intelligence and a social enterprise helping asylum seekers around the world gain access to pro bono legal advice.
Some of the companies already have clients using their systems; others are still at the concept or prototype phase. Many of them are anxious to test their ideas in a real working context; others are looking for marketing and business development support.
All are looking to build important links with A&O lawyers and our clients and all have, in different ways, found the Fuse experience to be positive.
“In the end we drew interest from companies at very different stages of development, using very different types of technology and with very different target markets in mind.”
The eight companies finally selected are:
An end-to-end digital platform, operating under the tagline ‘Contracts made simple’, allowing legal and commercial teams to create, live negotiate and analyse B2B contracts.
Co-founded in 2015 by former City of London lawyers Eliot Benzecrit and David Howorth, who first met on an A&O vacation scheme, the platform makes use of a contract creation, workflow and data analytics tool. The company monitors negotiation patterns, clause variations and commercial terms across contract portfolios to speed and inform decision making.
“We’re delighted to be part of Fuse,” says Eliot. “It’s a great opportunity to help guide the product with tech-forward lawyers in a collaborative space that takes legal advancement seriously.”
A regulatory risk intelligence business set up in 2013, providing clients with detailed risk information and data using forensic analysis and a system to forecast fines and sentencing patterns globally.
Corlytics Solutions helps global banks, regulators and other financial services players identify, manage and mitigate financial risk.
“A&O has proven itself to be at the forefront of the legal and regtech revolution,” says Mike O’Keeffe, general manager of Corlytics Solutions. “We think we have a unique opportunity to create combined offerings for our respective clients and we are very excited to be part of Fuse.
“Two weeks into the programme, we had already benefited from being involved with Fuse. The A&O team put an excellent induction in place and we had already had a series of excellent meetings, opening doors and creating contacts and new business opportunities for us.”
A fintech start-up using a full suite of technologies, including blockchain, smart contracts, machine learning and AI, to create an integrated platform for small and medium sized enterprises to access the capital markets in an affordable way.
Led by CEO Avtar Sehra and COO Vic Arulchandran, the company is in the second phase of testing its technology within the Financial Conduct Authority’s regulatory ‘sandbox’ and says the relationship with A&O is proving very fruitful.
“Innovating through vertical integration is challenging in any industry, but even more so in the capital markets, where there are significant financial, technical, regulatory and legal complexities,” says Avtar.
“Working with A&O has made managing this easier, not only due to the A&O team’s understanding of each part of the system but also how the different elements interact. Being part of the Fuse programme enables us to work very closely with experts from every area of A&O to push the boundaries of our product.”
Previously known as RAVN, iManage is now an independent software company, developing natural language processing and machine learning technology to organise, discover and summarise complex documents.
The cognitive computing solutions it offers aim to transform the way organisations exploit their knowledge and information.
Robert Florendine of iManage says: “For us, Fuse is an opportunity to work even more closely with A&O and instantly explore new uses and ideas for our platform.
“There’s also a great opportunity to build new and hopefully long-lasting relationships with our fellow Fusers and to learn from each other. The space that A&O has created has all the elements needed to make these things possible.”
A creator of content aggregation, automation and intelligence software, CEO Matthew Dickinson founded the firm in 2004 after devising a newsletter solution for law firms. He went on to develop this initial offering into a broad and sophisticated platform for managing all kinds of legal information and library resources.
Matthew says Fuse offers a fantastic chance to work with A&O’s information specialists, technologists and lawyers as well as with key clients.
“It gives us an opportunity to create a solution which we believe is going to be a game changer,” he says. “The community aspect of Fuse is also very attractive – being in the same space as other tech companies looking to make a big difference.”
The latest innovation founded by entrepreneur Graham Smith-Bernal, who previously developed the groundbreaking LiveNote software subsequently acquired by Thomson Reuters.
Originally a developer of litigation and transcript management software, the company is now developing a tool to support lawyers tasked with verifying prospectuses.
Opus 2’s Josh Kirk says: “We joined Fuse to develop our tool for the verification process and we’re hoping to get valuable feedback from A&O’s lawyers and clients to help us shape this tool and bring it to market.
“It’s been a fantastic experience so far and what we’re learning is helping to inform our development process. We’re excited to see what the next few months bring.”
Launched at a time when the world is experiencing the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, Ithaca is a charitable, social enterprise that aims to develop an online platform, accessible by mobile phone, to help asylum seekers around the world track down pro bono legal representation and advice.
Ithaca’s Joe May describes the first days of being involved with Fuse as “incredible”, and has been delighted to find that Ithaca’s values closely match up with those of the A&O pro bono team and the firm as a whole.
“All of the team from A&O have being incredibly supportive and are full of fantastic creative ideas on how to move Ithaca forward,” he says. “Our primary aim while we are here is to lift Ithaca off the ground and we hope to achieve a working product that can be used to support numerous individuals in desperate need of legal support.”
A company turning paper and email legal processes into simple and innovative software, helping law firms make efficiency gains by rethinking everyday legal work patterns. Its processes are now built into a single integrated deal platform, called Legatics River.
Daniel Porus, head of business development at Legatics, says Fuse offers the company the chance to work closely with A&O lawyers and clients to refine its software. “The environment here at Fuse is perfectly suited for the collaborative meetings we have had with A&O clients and industry experts,” he says. “We’ve also benefited greatly from sharing experiences with the other participants.”
GETTING DOWN TO WORK
The success of Fuse will depend on our ability to bring together our own experts and lawyers, the tech companies and, crucially, our clients in a true and productive spirit of collaboration.
All the months of careful preparation meant that Fuse was, appropriately enough, ready to begin with a bang when the doors opened on Thursday 7 September.
After a one-day induction session giving the companies a chance to meet each other, the A&O team and many people from across the firm, the first full week began with the cohort being thrown into two days of mentoring.
This involved both A&O volunteers and 19 external experts covering a range of specialisms from tech innovation through to venture capital financing, stakeholder engagement, organisational design and change management.
“What’s so great about Fuse is that it can really inspire A&O people to think in new and creative ways about technology. The space is here, the door is open and the companies are only too willing to make contact and talk through ideas.”
Among those external experts were J.P. Morgan’s Daniel Drummer, Yinan Zhu of Gingko Tree Investment, digital strategy and financing experts from the consultancy firms PwC, EY and Deloitte, representatives of Barclays and RBS, and venture investor Margaret Perchik, who flew over from Amsterdam to join the programme, having heard Shruti pitch a tech innovation space proposal during her time at the Google Campus.
All the companies had 20 minutes with each of the mentors and contacts with them will be maintained and built upon during the five months the companies are working within Fuse – and beyond.
As the first cohort will end their time in Fuse in January 2018, there is a strong incentive to make the most of the opportunity quickly.
That has happened. Even in the very early days, important contacts with clients were being made – the sort of invaluable connections the companies will need as they refine their ideas and try to put them to the test in working environments.
One financial institution, for instance, in the first week had had several meetings with one of our chosen companies about launching a joint pilot project, and there have been many clients getting in touch to find out how the Fuse project is progressing or to express a specific interest in working with our companies on particular solutions.
Shruti has been delighted by the phenomenal level of engagement from people within A&O, with many lawyers and staff popping down to the Fuse space to meet and talk through ideas with the companies – just the sort of vibrant collaboration she and Jonathan had always hoped to create.
She gives a great example. Jonathan Jackson, executive advisor to Wim Dejonghe, dropped in to ask if it would be possible to develop a system for identifying key partners with expertise in certain technologies. It was an idea he had first raised through A&O’s i2 platform, which gives people across the firm a forum to suggest new ways of using technology in our everyday work.
Jonathan was introduced to the iManage team and within minutes they were able to demonstrate how such a system might work.
“That’s what a typical day in Fuse will be like, I think,” says Shruti. “It will be full of moments just like that, with people from within A&O and from our clients dropping in and tapping these companies on the shoulder and making important connections.
“What’s so great about Fuse is that it can really inspire A&O people to think in new and creative ways about technology. The space is here, the door is open and the companies are only too willing to make contact and talk through ideas,” she says.
“Ultimately it’s our lawyers who will know better than anyone how some of these technologies might transform their work and what kind of solutions our clients are looking for. They are just the sort of contacts these companies need and it goes both ways.”
Of course, Fuse is not a static programme, nor is it a one-off. The process of preparing for the cohorts to follow is ongoing.
And that’s giving the team the chance to think about how this spirit of collaboration between A&O, the tech start-ups and clients can be deepened and made even more productive. And, as Jonathan explains, the ways of doing that are varied.
At times A&O will hope to match a technology and a provider directly to a challenge being faced by an individual client, he says. In later cohorts, the approach may be to target issues common to a number of clients in the same sector and then to invite tech companies to join the programme that can propose a solution – or even part of a solution – to that challenge.
“Between those two ends of the spectrum, there are, conceivably, all sorts of ways our clients might get involved,” he says.
“But the crucial point is that Fuse has really put us in the flow of these new technologies and is giving us a real understanding of how they are likely to change the way we work.
“The knowledge we are gaining through Fuse should spread throughout A&O – there are signs already that this is beginning to happen. And when it does, it means we will be equipped to engage with clients much better in situations where technology can be part of the solution to the challenges they face. That’s a truly exciting prospect.”
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