In this episode of LawTech Industry Insiders, Pantelis Athanasiou is joined by Martin Davidson, VP Customer at ThoughtRiver, a legal tech company that enables lawyers to review and negotiate contracts more quickly and with less risk. Martin leads ThoughtRiver’s Customer Success team that supports customers in their adoption and configuration of the platform. Before joining ThoughtRiver in 2017, Martin was Head Counsel at Sky and played a leading role in developing legal operations initiatives there, including contract automation. Legal500 recognised Martin as a rising star in their GC PowerList in 2017. Martin is an author on Legal Technology and regularly speaks at global conferences on the subject.
Q. Please introduce yourself and your career journey to date.
My name is Martin Davidson, I'm VP customer. I look after the Customer Success team that supports our customers and use of the platform and software.
I did Science A-levels and then decided to study law. I went to Herbert Smith Freehills as a trainee and as part of my traineeship, I did a secondment out to Sky, the UK broadcaster and quickly jumped ship and joined them in-house the year after qualification. I spent about 12 years at Sky mainly in the consumer marketing team, but also dipped off to Sky Sports for a short while and their B2B business, Sky business and Pubs & Clubs business. Just before I left, I also looked after Now TV, the online TV business.
I had a lot of fun at Sky, but a lot of the work I was doing there was involved in legal operations and making legal teams more efficient. And in that process, I got to know a lot of providers in not just the legal technology space, but in the legal operations space as well. An opportunity came up to join ThoughtRiver and I did that two and a half years ago and I've had a variety of roles within ThoughtRiver including our own in-house lawyer, but also looking after the product and as I am now looking after our customer success team.
Q. Could you introduce ThoughtRiver and how your tool works?
Put simply, it is an AI software, but the software reviews contracts, and we call that process pre-screening as it imitates the first review you might do with a commercial contract. The way it does that is through a series of the questions that we call Lexible and that Lexible question framework is supported by machine learning and the machine learning data that we rely on is contract data. Through that, we provide an output support to a lawyer or someone that is interested in reviewing a contract and give them a view of what's in that contract without having to read it. So many big organizations will have their own “risk playbooks”; they can configure those playbooks into the platform as well, and get a very relevant risk review according to their own positions on their contracts they're looking to review.
Q. What advantages does ThoughtRiver offer to lawyers using it for contract review compared to traditional means?
The obvious one is speed. ThoughtRiver enables you to review a contract quicker and because we have integrated our capability with Word, you can also mark up your contracts significantly quicker as well. That helps lawyers and their efficiency, but more importantly, it speeds up deal velocity and gets deals done quicker, which obviously for all businesses is relevant.
Whilst our typical user is a lawyer, the end beneficiary is often their colleagues in the business, in the sales team or the procurement team. It is supporting businesses often make more money or save money, but also makes legal teams much more efficient, which as a cost center within a business is typically a very important factor for how the in-house team is managed.
Q. The legal technology sector is increasingly becoming a competitive field, what do you think are the characteristics that make a startup successful in this market, particularly in light of Covid-19?
Indeed, the market is changing rapidly. I could see it happening when I joined ThoughtRiver, which was part of the attraction of coming to this side of things.
The reason why some are successful comes down to a few things. For us we put a lot of focus on our customer and I know it sounds trite, but it's so important. What we're trying to do is quite different to anything that's really been done before and you can rely on intuition to a certain extent, indeed you have to, to start with. But once you start getting customers, then getting that feedback loop is crucial. One of the reasons--if not the primary reason--for us integrating with the Word plugin is that feedback, because we know that 95% of lawyers working on contracts still use Word and they love it. And so we put our capability into the environment they like to work in.
There is plenty more that we can do though and what you are starting to see with all of these point solutions is that ability to interoperate with each other. We have got what we called an open API, which allows us to integrate with third-party systems. And I think what you'll see is a maturation of the market as the solutions start to join forces with each other and you've got the big law firms and accountancy perhaps starting to engineer some of that themselves.
That is a really exciting time for us all in the market and whilst it might seem like it is pretty competitive, the market is huge and I think there is plenty for us all to go after. I'm very lucky at ThoughtRiver, we've got a very strong team and capable developers, which is absolutely fundamental to a technology business and we've got a good bunch of lawyers working in products and customers so that puts us in a really strong place to focus on what we need to do.
And you ask the question around Covid and the current coronavirus situation. LegalTech companies are all almost universally offering digital solutions to make things more efficient and that's exactly what lawyers need right now. We've obviously gone through an interesting number of months, what we're already seeing is interest in our capability as we start coming out of coronavirus and into whatever the next phase is. And I think that will probably be the same for many legal tech providers out there who are no doubt also facing similar interests from teams that are stretched and needing to find new ways of working.
Q: What do you think legal tech tools will look like in the future? Do you think there will be an emphasis on a particular aspect or the lawyer's role?
In terms of the lawyer's role, I think it's an interesting one I get asked all the time, typically by students, they are obviously fearful that their legal lives might be disrupted and in the medium term, but I just don't see that being the case. In fact, what I say to all students I speak to is that the opportunities are right for your peer-group coming into the profession to really lead in this field because, without diminishing the more senior lawyers, what is very clear to me is that people who are surrounded by technology and have grown up with it a much better place to engage with these concepts and what it can do and what it's capable of.
It's a mindset thing more than anything else and that's one advantage that students coming into the profession have, and I genuinely mean it when I say they can lead in these organizations because, you've probably seen yourself many law firms now offering legal tech traineeships, and I think that's an interesting development and really cool. I think what they're looking for within that is for people to come in and help them guide how they take their own strategies forward. In terms of products themselves, I think they'll just keep getting better and better because we really are just at the start. A lot of these companies that started now two, three, four years ago are really started to come to a point of maturation now, but there is still plenty more to do.
What I would imagine you'll see is that these technologies will start to integrate more but these capabilities will actually be hidden from the lawyer. So they won't even know they're using it at times, which I think is a pretty cool concept.
Q: Law firms and companies expect students to know, to have an understanding of legal tech, what would be your advice to these students who want to learn more and what can they do other than just reading about the subject?
Reading is obviously an important thing; there's a lot of information out there. As I mentioned, the law firms themselves are looking for guidance on what's going on in the market sometimes and a student that's well versed on what is happening and what the providers are doing and how they differentiate from each other is really pretty golden to a law firm to acquire. So certainly don't dismiss reading up on the subject matter, cause it is rapidly evolving and staying on top of it is a job in itself.
I would also recommend networking on LinkedIn. It's an obvious, but you know, connecting with thought leaders in the legal tech space. Many of these legal tech companies (and we include ourselves) is that we're still relatively small. So we consider ourselves to be relatively approachable and it is not that difficult to navigate the industry because there aren't really that many different companies in each of the different component sectors.
Once you've understood where your interests really lie, you can really start to hone a very intimate network of contacts. within that space. As I mentioned, there's some really great conferences, Legal Geek is very popular, but many other conferences are learning about how Legal Geek have done it and they're starting to evolve how they work themselves. Many of them offer discounted places for students but many law firms as well are offering webinars particularly the last few months.
We ourselves partnered with F-LEX--the paralegal outfit-- to do a number of webinars to teach students about our Lexible framework. In fact, we've got a digital tool that allows anyone to access that and about how we go about things. That's a neat way and hopefully a fun way of students learning some skills and being able to represent that knowledge to law firms, so I would encourage anyone to engage with our Lexible learning center and take a look at that online and take a course if you're interested, but many other legal tech companies like us are doing similar so I suspect you'll find a lot of knowledge, even on their websites.
What I would certainly recommend is being able to showcase that enthusiasm and back it up with knowledge because it's very easy to say you're interested in legal tech, but it's very easy to uncover if someone doesn't really know much about it. It really doesn't take an awful lot of work to really build a very in depth knowledge of the space and who is in it and what they do so that's something that I would recommend very strongly anyone interested in improving their skills.
Q: What do you think are the key skills of a student or lawyer that wants to innovate in this sector?
First off, you need a behavioral competency of having an open mindset and you need to be curious about it. That means going and having a look and having a play if you can, with the tools and capability. If you can demonstrate that you've got that, then that will put you ahead of many of the other candidates that are out there in what is certainly a very competitive market right now, certainly at the junior end of the spectrum.
Certainly for legal tech, it helps if you've got a logical brain. What you're seeing with our technology, having a brain that kind of operates in a kind of logical construct is helpful. But it doesn't mean you need to code. They're all roles available in legal technology companies for those lawyers that have got some coding skills and we've got legal engineers at ThoughtRiver that have a blend of those skills. So I'm not saying don't code, I'm just saying you don't need to. I think if you like coding and you have an interested in it, then certainly explore it. I don't code and I've gotten okay within legal tech.
However, I think having an empathy with what the developers are doing is really important because you're dealing with a technology product so, even if you can demonstrate some empathy or understanding of how developers operate, then that can be really useful since you're having to communicate with them on a day to day basis. But all legal tech tools should be designed for users that are lawyers so that's why I come back to just being open-minded, cause if you're happy to engage with the tools and there are lawyers at the firm that are not, then, you're about five steps ahead of the next person, which is what you're trying to do.
ThoughtRiver’s automated contract review technology addresses a fundamental problem for lawyers (in-house and private practice): you simply don’t know which part of a contract to focus on without reading it all. In doing so we also address a key problem for CEOs: "how do I increase deal velocity?" Our automated contract review technology speeds up the contracting process by pre-screening the contract, answering key legal questions, and then serving up detailed advice and then guiding users through remediation within Microsoft Word. The end result is an increase in deal velocity allowing companies to sign more deals and pull revenue forward. We call this process intelligent contract pre-screening
Careers at ThoughtRiver
Be part of something exciting. Work with amazing people. Challenge yourself. We are committed to improving the lives of legal professionals, liberating them from repetitive routines. But that is not all that we care about. We are also devoted to looking after our people so they can live their best lives, and do their best work, within a collaborative culture and dynamic work environment. And when it comes to environmental impact, we don’t just talk. Our firm is taking a range of meaningful actions to combat climate change. So if you see yourself working with awesome people, transforming the legal sector and helping to change the world, you are our kind of person. https://www.thoughtriver.com/careers
Lexible Learning Centre
The Lexible Learning Centre is ThoughtRiver's education platform and user community. Lexible is the universal contract knowledge tree that underpins ThoughtRiver's pre-screening technology. Sign up to the Learning Centre to learn more about Lexible, gain accreditation for your skills and connect with others interested in this cutting edge legal technology. https://www.thoughtriver.com/lexible-learning-centre