In this episode of LawTech Industry Insiders, Bernie Rivard is joined by Tim Follett, CEO & Founder of StructureFlow. An ex-corporate lawyer, Tim started his career at Slaughter and May where he trained and qualified in 2011 and then joined Farrer & Co in 2014. He set up StructureFlow in 2017 to address the frustrations he felt trying to visually model complex legal structures and transactions using tools that were not up to the task. Originally from Surrey in the UK, Tim now lives in London. He earned a BA in Modern History from Oxford University, a Graduate Diploma in Law from The College of Law and did his Legal Practice Course at BPP Law School.
Q. Please introduce yourself and your career journey to date.
I'm Tim Follett, CEO & Founder of StructureFlow. I was a corporate lawyer, and I left the law about three years ago to set up StructureFlow. I spent around 10 years in practice. A good part of that was at Slaughter and May in the City and I also spent some time at Farrer & Co.
I started getting interested in legal tech around the summer of 2016. In practice as a lawyer, you were typically working with Microsoft Word and a bit of PowerPoint and occasionally some spreadsheets, but that was just broadly it. And the thing for me was I was looking at what new technologies were beginning to come out in the FinTech space and in other industries. And I saw the legal space was a little bit behind. As a lawyer, I was working as a corporate lawyer for a number of early stage FinTech businesses, raising finance, and I saw what they were doing and all sorts of interesting, exciting technologies they were using to solve problems and to make lives easier for people in the financial services space. I started to think to myself there's this amazing opportunity to start building new technologies and solutions for lawyers to use in their practice to make their lives easier.
Q. What does StructureFlow do and what is the problem it is tackling?
StructureFlow is an intelligent visual structuring tool for lawyers and finance professionals. At the heart of every matter or transaction that a major law firm or investment bank is advising on, there is a structure which is fundamentally about things and relationships between things. “What are the entities and assets involved in the transaction?” “What are the relationships here between the entities, what's being bought and sold?” “What funding flows are happening in the transaction?”. And because it's fundamentally about things and relationships between things, visualisation and diagrams are a really powerful way to understand what is going on: shapes and lines between shapes. Being able to look at a diagram allows someone to very quickly understand what those things in relationships are far quicker than just reading word by word or line by line what is going on in text.
The thing that I found when I was in practice is that diagrams were being used to help lawyers understand what is going on to help communicate things with clients, but they were being underused because it was just so painful to create these diagrams in PowerPoint, or maybe the drawing function in Word. I thought to myself after many nights, late, stressed, trying to put diagrams together for due diligence reports or steps plans, surely there has to be a better way of doing this, which is more efficient, which saves time, which allows lawyers to be able to create diagrams more easily and start using them more in their practice to make it easier for everyone to understand what is going on.
Q. What key benefits does StructureFlow offer to law firms and other companies using it in the legal sector?
We think using diagrams and visualisations makes for better lawyering. It allows people to get a better sense of what is going on. It allows people to understand better what the different connections are between different documents and how you can structure a deal in an efficient way. And we think that that leads to a qualitative improvement in lawyering, where you're driving better, faster analysis and decision-making, and you're seeing things potentially that you wouldn't otherwise see. That potentially also leads on to reducing the amount of risk that lawyers are dealing with in a transaction, because you might spot something that actually you wouldn't otherwise have spotted. And so, we think the benefits of StructureFlow are threefold: not just saving time and increasing productivity, but actually improving analysis and decision-making, and also reducing risk.
Q. Is there any part of StructureFlow that's the most exciting area for you in terms of the impact that it's offering?
For us data is really important. We're not trying to build a new bespoke PowerPoint for lawyers. We're trying to do something much more profound: we’re creating a visual database. When you currently create a legal structure diagram in PowerPoint, for example, what tends to happen is you've got someone who's sifted through a lot of complex lengthy documentation. They've pulled out the key pieces of information about the things and the relationships, and they've started to visualise that by drawing on a sheet of paper and then translating that into a PowerPoint project. That is a manual process of data visualisation and it's incredibly inefficient because that data is sitting there and it's being visualised by a human being for a given purpose, but that same underlying data set could be needed to be visualised for another purpose. But yet that whole process of creating the diagram would have to be repeated.
Where we're trying to get to with Structureflow is a functionality where there is an underlying data set about the things, about the relationships between things, what are the companies, what are the assets, etc and then being able to automatically visualise that information in a structure diagram. Then being able to manipulate the visualisation with reference to the data, toggling things on and off for example, for different audiences, building diagrams from data, allowing information to be inputted into the application and rendered visually. And vice versa, exporting data from diagram. So, we see this really interesting, exciting interplay between data and the visualisation of that data.
Q. What would you consider StructureFlow's biggest challenge to overcome in the next one to three years?
There are a number of challenges. We have to get people to use StructureFlow instead of using PowerPoint. We have to persuade people to move away from tried and tested inefficient current practices and workflows and move to something that is new, which promises efficiency, but is yet in their eyes untested. And we have to persuade people to do that in the heat of the deal under a time pressured, really stressful environment. When you've got clients of law firms demanding that deadlines are met, people working late and the instinctive human nature is to just reach for something you know, we need to persuade people to move away from something that they know to something they don't know, and that new thing has to be much, much better than the existing way of doing things, 10 times better.
That's a big challenge for us over the next, I'd say six to 12 months, convincing our customer base as we grow and convincing the individual lawyers, the users within the firms, to reach for StructureFlow in a time-pressured stressful environment rather than PowerPoint or Word.
Sitting on top of that, longer term thinking about what I was saying earlier around data and how we bring data into the product and make it a core part of the product functionality. There are challenges there around how you bring technology into the application that allows you to do really exciting new things. Rendering diagrams, in StructureFlow, perhaps from a photo of a diagram, taken on a whiteboard that's drawn on a whiteboard or a diagram that's in a PowerPoint document already. So, there are going to be some technological challenges there as well and challenges around scaling and growing the business and growing the team, hiring new people, building out the team, getting all the different cogs in the machine to work together. There's a lot that we've got in front of us, but a lot of potentially very exciting developments as well.
Q. Are there any lessons that you would take from each area of the business? So, for example, in product or managing people and business development, are there any lessons that you've learned and you're taking forward from today onwards?
I think a precision in terms of defining what you want to build, what does it need to do, for what reason, thinking holistically around the connections between different parts of the product and getting that process right, and integrating it with your engineering capability is really important. We are a software company; we're building a software product. We have an assembly line that is not too different to an assembly line in a factory. There is input material that's required that then gets processed and pushed through into engineering, and the output is a software application. We need to ensure the highest standards of security across that assembly line. And we need to be as efficient as we can be. Now all of this demands attention to detail, quality, really good holistic thinking in order to make sure that the output software application is as good as it possibly can be and as robust, secure and functional as it can be.
Q. What technology are you using and how do you collaborate internally in order to maximize the quality of your output?
When I was in practice, we were mostly using the kind of core Microsoft suite installed on premises, very little collaboration functionality, and it was certainly a frustrating and inefficient way of working and that was back in 2016, 2017. I left practice November of 2017. I think things have changed since then and certainly with the recent lockdown and COVID-19 and the need to have remote working, I think a number of the law firms have now moved to video conferencing and collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams. We are mostly using Microsoft Office 365. Within that package, you have a lot of collaboration functionality - it's a cloud-based product. It allows us to work on documents simultaneously in Word or PowerPoint, etc.
We have Microsoft Teams; we use Teams every day. We try and take small exchanges internally off email and do it on Teams. We keep Outlook and email for more complicated exchanges internally, but also external communications. We’ve tended to steer more towards Microsoft and less towards other applications out there, like Slack or Trello or Asana and other applications simply because for our security - our information security considerations - keeping our data within the Microsoft environment in a controlled way is very important. Using lots of different third-party applications that can integrate and talk to each other is good, but you have data being sent over the internet and stored in many different places presents challenges from an information security perspective.
Q. For students who may have ambitions to join the Legal Tech space, or even start their own Legal Tech start-ups, what things must a start-up get right in order to be successful?
The key thing is that you are solving a problem that has a real-world application, and there are people out there pulling their hair out because they are experiencing it. If you are selling a product into market, then those people that you're talking to, to try and sell that product, when you tell them what the product problem is that you're solving it resonates with them, and it resonates in a way that's immediate and it doesn't require you to think too much about how you explain it. I think the best problems that start-ups can look to solve are the problems that can actually be talked to very easily in simple language and with reference to people's everyday activities. Now, there are examples obviously of start-ups that have sold products that solve problems that people didn't even really know they had in the past.
You get new technologies that come along every so often, which are just so radically different from the existing way of doing things that people struggle to understand them and to conceptualise them. The invention of aircraft, for example, or new ways of travel people have said, “Oh, it will never catch on”. If you’ve got people out there right now who are listening to this podcast, who are thinking “is there a start-up that we could set up to solve a particular problem?” being very clear on what that problem is and working around that problem is really important. I'd also say this, that it may be that you need to go into industry and spend a bit of time in industry working in an environment and in a context where you can start to look for areas of inefficiency, areas that are problematic and start to think about ways you can solve those problems. I wouldn't have come up with the idea for StructureFlow if I hadn't spent quite a period of time in practice.
Q. What would be your advice to students who want to learn more about new legal technology and innovation?
I would recommend that people try and spend some time working in an environment where technology is really central to the activities of an organisation. Get some work experience with a start-up. If you're going to be a lawyer see if you can get some experience with a legal technology company or indeed any other type of technology company. There's a lot of cross-pollination that's happening now with people moving around different industries, looking at what one industry does well or not so well, and then looking at another industry and thinking about how lessons learned can be translated across into that other industry. I think reading about technology is also important but on its own its too abstract.
There's so much that can be learned from actually getting involved in the day-to-day operations of a technology business. And for me, this is an ongoing process at the moment. You know, I was a lawyer, I had to pivot myself into the technology and software space. I'm still learning about what does good engineering delivery look like? How do we build out our assembly line? How do we best describe requirements from a product perspective? What are the technologies that are used in our stack? How do they work? How do they interconnect? So I'm still learning. I can't code, I'm intrigued by it. If I had the time, I'd love to give it a go. I think there are some similarities between legal drafting and coding. I think if anyone listening is a lawyer and enjoys drafting contracts, they could potentially, because of the logic-based nature of coding, enjoy coding as well. So, I would encourage people to just get as much exposure to real world technology as possible.
StructureFlow is an intelligent visual structuring tool for lawyers & finance professionals. Its mission is to help its users think, communicate, and collaborate more visually, and therefore more efficiently. StructureFlow is being used by some of the world’s largest and most prestigious professional services firms and in-house teams.
To learn more about StructureFlow please visit https://www.structureflow.co/
We periodically have openings for students and graduates in summer internships and permanent roles. For anyone keen to join us and gain experience in Legal Tech, do please keep an eye on our website and LinkedIn page.