Welcome to Legal Tech Made Simple, hosted by Dom Burch, a podcast designed for aspiring legal tech enthusiasts.
Episode 1 features an insightful interview with Alistair Maiden, the CEO and Founder of SYKE Legal Tech Consultancy. SYKE is an independent legal tech consultancy that helps companies buy and implement legal technology. Discover how SYKE became a niche legal tech consultancy, embracing global talent without an office. Alistair also shares insights on the pandemic’s impact on legal tech and the importance of design in tech projects.
Join the conversation with Dom Burch and Alistair Maiden as they explore the world of legal technology and its exciting possibilities. Stay tuned for more intriguing discussions with industry experts.
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Dom Burch: Welcome to Legal Tech Made Simple, a podcast by me, Dom Burch. I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not a techie, which makes me perfectly qualified to make legal tech simple. Join me in this podcast as I interview expert legal engineers, software developers, law firms, and large corporations who are at the cutting edge of legal technology or just starting their journey.
Dom Burch: Episode 1, wouldn’t be episode 1 if I didn’t have an amazing guest. And of course, this morning I’ve chosen to interview the CEO and founder of SYKE. SYKE is an independent legal tech consultancy that helps companies buy and implement legal technology. So, let’s get cracking with Episode 1. Alistair, welcome to Legal Tech Made Simple.
Alistair Maiden: Hi Dom.
Dom Burch: So, tell us a little bit about, well, let’s start at the start, shall we? Let our listeners know a little bit about you and then how you set up SYKE.
Alistair Maiden: Well, I guess for many years I had a more traditional life as a lawyer. I started in private practice, then went in-house. Found my way to Morrison’s, the supermarket, then got poached by ASDA, ended up heading their contracts team eventually. And, I think like many in-house lawyers, I was always struggling for the time necessary to deal with the many thousands of contracts that we had to deal with, not just me, my team as well.
And we were covering everything from bean to bread – I.T. contracts, logistics and people, consultancy. And it was a real struggle, you know, the volume, the demand for pace. We just couldn’t deal with it in an analogue way, I guess. So, we digitized and created a self-service contracting platform by piecing together a few pieces of technology that hitherto haven’t been connected.
It was really successful. The system was called Delphi. Anyone could go on and any colleague could go on, they’ll serve a contract. They could create it, negotiate it digitally using digital playbooks, get contracts approved, get them signed, and store them digitally. And we had a lot of guidance and help to take people through that process. As I said, it was really successful. One of the best pieces of feedback I received was when I asked one of my procurement colleagues how they found using the system. They said it’s infinitely preferable to dealing with you, Alistair, so that made me think I was along the right lines. But the numbers bore out, actually, because we managed to reduce the contract cycle, which is the amount of time that it took to put a contract in place from when it was instructed to when it was signed, from 17 days to 5 days. And it’s really, yeah.
Dom Burch: I was going to say, at the time, legal engineering wasn’t really a term, was it, that was bandied around too much?
Alistair Maiden: I think Richard Susskind had talked about legal knowledge engineers, but it wasn’t something that was on my radar at all.
Dom Burch: So fast forward, four years then and having left ASDA and set SYKE up on your own three or four years ago, just give our listeners a little sense of the scale of the organization now and the speed that this market has taken on.
Alistair Maiden: Yeah, well, it went from when I left ASDA, you know, having been inspired to try doing this on a full-time basis and really it started quite slowly actually. Legal tech, when I started the business, legal tech wasn’t really a thing, and that’s just three and a half years ago, so it goes to show you how much time has changed since then. The first year, the first six months were very slow, my golf handicap improved. The second six months started to pick up. To give you an idea, at the first Christmas party, there were four of us. At the second Christmas party, there were 10 of us. And now we have around 60 colleagues. So, it really has grown, super-fast. And it’s gone from just digital contracting, which in itself is a big white space, but also, we’re working on law bots, using AI, and doing digital matter management. So, it has just ballooned in the past year or so.
Dom Burch: And what’s different, would you say, about SYKE compared to a traditional consultancy or any firm that has legal tech expertise? What are the things that set SYKE apart?
Alistair Maiden: Well, I think there are probably a couple of things. First of all, we’re only really interested in legal tech. We are specialists and we are niche. And tempting though it is to open a digital law firm or get into broader management consultancy, we haven’t done that. And I think being narrow has served us really well. We are tech-agnostic, which is quite unusual. We’re not taking a product and being the exclusive implementation partner for a particular product. We work across products, and that means that we have a lot of experience in implementing and competing products. I think that’s quite unusual. The other thing as well that is unusual but convenient in the context of recent events is that we’re totally digital. We don’t have an office. We’ve been built digitally using Office 365. It has enabled us to scale really quickly, and it’s quite interesting. There are some pockets of colleagues in London and West Yorkshire, but we’ve actually got colleagues all over the globe. That’s one of the real reasons I think we’ve been able to expand quickly. It’s because geography is not a barrier to talent within the organization. So, if someone’s good, it doesn’t matter where they’re located, I’ll hire them.
Dom Burch: And you work with both large law firms and large corporates. What does a typical deployment look like? And maybe that’s an unfair question because I guess every deployment has its own hallmark, doesn’t it?
Alistair Maiden: Yeah, and the types of work we see, law firms are about 10% of our turnover. Typically, with a law firm, they’ll have a piece of tech that they want us to help them either use better, or it will be something more discreet, like they’ll ask us to automate a set of real estate precedents, or a corporate SBA, or banking and finance documents. With corporate legal teams and big corporates, it’s a longer and more involved process. They typically come to us and say, look, we want to digitize, but we don’t know how. We help them get started, build a set of requirements, and pick the technology that’s most suited to those requirements. We help them buy it well, and by that we mean making sure that they’re buying the right number of licenses to achieve their objectives and buying the right type of licenses. Once that procurement process is over, we help them implement the product. That’s really the engine room of the business, helping with those big implementations. It involves a design element first, where we try to design a technical solution to meet the customer’s problems, and then there’s an automation element that will be either automating the documents, training the AI, doing the testing, and all of the change management stuff that sits alongside that, which is another key challenge. So, you can build a beautiful solution, but if you haven’t got the internal customers on board with that solution, then it will fail.
Dom Burch: You blogged recently, didn’t you? About the pitfalls that people can fall into when they’re buying legal tech. One of them is actually just buying the wrong software for the job. Companies that buy something off the shelf, thinking it will fix all their woes. It’s a bit like buying a kitchen from B&Q, you get it delivered flat pack, but you still have to put the thing in.
Alistair Maiden: Yeah. I think there are two main categories of issue in this respect. The first is quite simply buying the wrong piece of kit for the job. That is alarmingly frequent. It’s a more recent trend where we’re asked to go in and evaluate what a customer is already doing. It’s very common that the snake oil salesman has flogged them a panacea for all their ills, and the reality is it’s not fit for purpose. That’s quite disappointing. I would suggest to everyone listening that if you’re thinking about buying legal tech, take some advice. On the face of it, all the products do the same things, but it’s subtle differences that are critical.
Dom Burch: And often nowadays there are cases and they almost that bring out with what you’ve dealt. Let’s have a look at what you’ve got already. If you have Office 365, or you might already have a piece of tech in the business that is sitting there dormant, or perhaps has been configured a few years ago, or maybe even the expert who put it in has been poached by somebody like SYKE and no longer resides in the organization. That sort of discovery exercise, that moment in time where you put your foot on the ball and get somebody to come in and just go, what is it we’ve got? What do we need? And what are the problems we’re actually trying to solve here before just jumping headfirst into buying a load of licenses.
Alistair Maiden: Yeah, look, it’s an inexpensive way to make sure that you’re heading in the right direction. I think starting with such an exercise is the way forward and it seems to be quite a popular way for us to start to work with clients. They’re satisfied with the output. I think it’s a really straightforward way to sit down and flesh out your objectives. But also, I think, a really important point to bring out is not everything we work on is successful all the time. I would suggest that we’ve learned more from our failures than we have from our successes, in a way. So, if something does fail, we iterate again and make it work. It is very easy to go wrong in what is still quite a new area in terms of the tech.
Dom Burch: Tell us a little bit about the importance of design because I think that kind of architecture role in any legal tech deployment, any project is absolutely key, isn’t it? Putting the design in place that’s culturally appropriate for the organization, cognizant of how information flows around that organization, how decisions are made. I remember you telling me a story of our ASDA days and bringing together three or four departments that were all intrinsically connected but had never actually sat down and planned their processes together. So, not surprisingly, things didn’t work seamlessly, to say the least.
Alistair Maiden: Yeah. And there’s quite a lot in that question, actually. I mean, just getting back to the example you gave, that was legal, finance, and procurement, obviously, all critical parts of the contracting process. But when we sat down to try and draw out that process and link it together, we found there was a lot of overlap. There were a lot of things that didn’t really make sense when you considered them. There was a lot of inefficiency in the process. So that’s a good starting point to get everyone together, understand how it works presently, redesign how it should work to make it more efficient, and then try to apply the legal technology to that design. The challenge is, and the reason a lot of these projects actually fail, is the astonishing level of politics within large organizations, which can really thwart trying to walk through that kind of exercise. I was lucky to have some open-minded people in the finance and the procurement team who would work with me towards the same objective. You do often find particularly where we’re working for legal teams, if they go to the finance team or the procurement team or the sales team or any other team and say, we want to digitize our process, they’re actually met with some pretty stern resistance, and it still surprises me.
Dom Burch: Let’s bring it right up to the present day then. We’re right in the middle of the coronavirus, and we’re one week into a global lockdown, obviously here in the UK, but also around the globe. I think there’s 1.5 billion citizens across the world currently restricted to stay in their homes. What impact is that having on organizations, and what are the phone calls, team requests, emails, and texts that you’re getting from colleagues and peers across the industry who are suddenly faced with a challenge that no crisis management team would have really played out? What are those challenges, and how can we as an organization help people overcome this immediate transition that people are going through?
Alistair Maiden: Yeah, well, I think the immediate impact is really, we’re seeing a bit of a slowdown in the number of instructions on the kind of bigger projects that require investment, which is totally understandable. That said, the gap is being filled by requests to help look at contracts to understand the potential impact of COVID on those contracts. They’re looking at force majeure clauses, rights of termination, suspension, etc. We think that work will really macerate in the next couple of months. It’s interesting how people have bought AI without a use case, and yet COVID presents the perfect use case for AI, and it’s interesting with some of the customers that we’re working for; they’ve got dormant AI technology which they haven’t really found anything to use it on yet. Yet, it’s proving really helpful to do some of the heavy lifting in that process.
I think the other thing that we’re hearing is that corporate legal teams are always busy. They are super busy at the moment. In times of crisis, the legal team is the shield that protects the business, and the calls on their time have never been greater. We’re trying to help those teams. The nature of our business, the fact that we’re remote and digital, we can stand up our people and teams very quickly to help with specific tasks that those legal teams will have to perform. Whether it’s producing documents en masse, the AI example I gave earlier, or potentially doing some work for the government to implement e-signature technology so that citizens can prove that they’re allowed to be outside of their household. There’s lots of stuff to get into, and obviously as I said earlier in the podcast, we’re a digital organisation. We have never had an office and we’re really well equipped for this crisis. I think law or the practice of law is never going to be the same because within a couple of months we’ll approve the concept across the industry that you can work digitally. And I can’t see people ever re congregating in large offices at the same volume as they did before. I think obviously, the situation is desperately sad, but I think it will be of great benefit to the practice of law in the long term.
Dom Burch: Well, Alistair, first of all, thank you for taking the time this morning. I appreciate it. I’m conscious that there’s a brisket in the oven, and in 20 minutes, it needs to be turned down, and we’re at 19 and a half minutes. So, on that note, I’m going to say thank you for joining us on Legal Tech Made Simple. This was episode one. You’ve been listening to Dom Burch and Alistair Maiden, who’s the CEO and founder of SYKE. Stay tuned to this podcast. We’ll be doing regular updates and talking to legal engineers, software companies, law firms, and large corporates about legal technology.