Interview | Gene Turner (LawHawk)

Milan (TLF)  caught up with Gene Turner,  the former law partner at New Zealand law firm Buddle Findlay who gave it all up to become Managing Partner of LawHawk Limited.  LawHawk provides advanced online automated legal document templates - real smart contracts - to help New Zealand law firms deliver Law@Speed.LawHawk Logo SquareGene, what is something you believe that other people think is insane?I think a lot of what I believe is regarded as crazy by lawyers!  Several years ago I did an MBA with Victoria University, while I was still working.  We learned about all sorts of ideas that were proven to work in industries and professions outside law, and I was keen to try them in law too, but I often struggled to get traction.  One partner told me that I had too many ideas from books (with the implication that they wouldn’t work in practice).  I was certainly banging on for years about document automation and how fast it would enable us to work, without anything much tangible to show for it, which wouldn’t have helped get buy-in.Do you have a quote you live your life by or think of often?Two that I refer to often are “done beats perfect” and “better never stops”.  They go together well, because you are better to get something up and working, and then keep improving it, than to take a long time to build something “perfect” and then find that it isn’t want you needed anyway.What have you changed your mind about in the last few years?  Why?I thought that the scale of larger law firms was a massive advantage, but that’s only true if the large firms use that scale and the extra resources they have to their benefit.  Because the decision making can be very slow in larger firms, I tend to think the advantage now lies with smaller firms.  They can be more focused, and move more quickly, if they want.  With so many services now available via the cloud on low cost subscriptions, small firms can access many of the same technologies larger firms can.Tell us about LawHawk.  How did it come about?I've been obsessed with document automation for many years, since someone at Westpac helped me automate some loan documents and reduce an hour of work to around 3 minutes.  But I could never find a way to do it that worked reliably, and that was cost effective and scalable with complex documents.  When HotDocs brought out a cloud offering, I thought there was an opportunity to make document automation available to all lawyers, not just those in the firm I worked in, without them needing to figure it all out themselves.  Nobody else seemed to be doing anything like it.There are two main limbs to the service.  One is generally available documents that anyone can use on a small pay-per-use basis.  As well as preparing the documents quickly, we try and build in a lot of guidance and compliance to ensure high quality.  If we can get lots of people using these documents and helping us to continue to improve them over time, lawyers can spend more of their time on things that will really add value to their clients, instead of trying to develop and maintain their own precedents.The other limb is custom automation.  In that case, we can work with customers to automate their own documents.  Often this will be a set of related documents (or a whole workflow) and we’ll try and make it as efficient and high quality as possible.  These customers could be an in-house legal, procurement or HR team for example, or they could be a law firm that wants to grow a particular area of their practice by doing that work more efficiently and better than anyone else. By genuinely working differently and using our cloud platform, they should be able to win more work.Why is it important that law firms deliver Law@Speed?Law firms are too expensive for most people.  The clients that can pay typical legal fees (like large corporates) are refusing to (they’re asking for massive discounts, and refusing to pay anything for young lawyers), and ordinary people can’t afford $500/hour.  It’s estimated that 85% of people who have legal problems don’t see a lawyer – almost total market failure.If lawyers can work faster, they could charge less but still be at least as profitable.  Basic economics would suggest that this will result in more work.  I think working more efficiently is the key to solving access to justice issues, as well as the lack of work-life balance and satisfaction for lawyers, and lack of diversity at the top.The blunt reality is that if lawyers don’t start to deliver services that clients want, at a price they are happy to pay, someone else will.What is next for LawHawk?  What is next for you?  I wish I knew!  We only went live in June 2016, so we’re still at a very early stage in our business.  In the first 9 months we’ve confirmed that we can do complex automation to a very high standard.  Our next challenge is growing awareness of the problems we can help with, and to turn interest into action.We’ve been largely focused on New Zealand so far, but are starting to get attention in some international markets, and we’re definitely interested in opportunities to work with people in Australia, the UK, Hong Kong and Singapore where we could easily custom automate existing documents.  Because we are only focused on document automation, and are cloud based, we can easily fit into other systems that manage workflows.  We’re only a hyperlink away!  We have just had our first integration with Lawvu.You were a partner at New Zealand law firm Buddle Findlay – why did you leave it all behind?  It was nothing specific about Buddle Findlay, and more about me. I had some great colleagues and clients, and was in a very fortunate position, but I was struggling with the commitment required to perform at the level I wanted to, and didn’t think I could sustain it without some major changes and to some extent starting again with the type of practice I wanted for a longer term.  I also get restless quite easily and am always wanting to try different things, and learn new skills. I wanted to try something else, stand on my own feet, spend more time with my wife and kids, and see if the grass really is greener.  You could summarise it as a mid-life crisis!What does legal innovation actually mean? That’s a very hard question. We just had an interesting College of Law Centre for Legal Innovation roundtable on that topic, and there were different views amongst the attendees.  For me, it has to be practical and so doesn’t need to be blindingly novel or disruptive.  Small – but real – improvements can be powerful innovation.  In our case, we’re focussing on some pretty low hanging fruit with document automation, but even then some lawyers have questioned whether we are two steps ahead of what the legal market is ready for.  Timing is everything! Things like machine learning and blockchain are definitely of interest to us, but to my mind they’re too far ahead of what people can usefully use right now.We understand that, beyond LawHawk, there are other examples of New Zealanders advancing legal practice through tech and innovation – can you tell us more? Yes, there’s a lot happening within New Zealand.  Check out companies like Lawvu, Autom.io, Simmonds Stewart, Catalex, PageMap, Order of Precedents, Justly, OneLaw, PageZero, ActionStep, CODR, ConnectWorks, Contract Check.How can we harness legal innovation to enhance access to justice for everyday people?  I think that technology is key to this.  One very small example is a free will that we just released.  We have been looking for ways to introduce the power of our HotDocs automation to people, and one of the best ways to do that is let people try it themselves by creating a document on our website.  We could have put a “pretend” document up, but in talking about it with Matt Hay from Succeed Legal we thought that if we made it a real will, we could also enable anyone in NZ who doesn’t have a will to get one.  From our perspective, it’s the same cost, and those people were unlikely to be LawHawk or law firm customers anyway.  But maybe having a positive experience in making a will could help them think about getting help for other legal issues too.Lawyers can also use our will.  If they can get the drafting done really quickly, they should be able to charge a lower amount and spend more time talking with their clients and giving them better service, while making at least as much profit.  Really, everyone should win.We also believe in collaboration and sharing.  Many of our commercial documents are based off the New Zealand Government Model Contracts and RFx procurement documents.  The New Zealand Government uses these a lot as part of their $39bn annual procurement spend.  New Zealanders have already paid for the development of these documents through their taxes, and they’re pretty good.  If they’re good enough for the New Zealand Government, I think they’re good enough for many SME businesses that would otherwise have to pay thousands of dollars to get their own agreement drafted.  Our automated version costs less than $50 and takes only a few minutes to prepare.The New Zealand Government is also doing a lot more to make it easier to comply with law.  They are publishing a lot more information, but also building tools like their free online employment agreement builder, and privacy terms generators.Do you have any advice for law graduates who want to pursue a career in lawtech entrepreneurship? If you can, get a good grounding in law first and find out for yourselves what are the problems that need solving.While there is a lot about the way lawyers have worked during my time as a lawyer that I didn’t enjoy, I hope that is changing.  I hope that working as a lawyer will be more interesting and satisfying for today’s law graduates than it has been for many of my generation and those that have followed.  I think law and lawtech are going to be inseparable, and so you don’t necessarily need to pursue a separate career in lawtech to work with technology.  See a firm like View Legal for example.For those that do want to focus more directly on a career in lawtech entpreneurship, I think having experience of working in law is essential.  Law firms and lawyers don’t work like ordinary people.  Anyone can have an idea, but its getting it to work that counts.  Our core piece of software, HotDocs, has been around for 20 years without getting the traction I think it should have.It’s not the technology that will make LawHawk (or any other legal tech) succeed – its being able to apply it in a way that creates good outcomes to real problems. Without all of our legal experience, we would just be coders pushing a technology solution, rather than a service with good legal outcomes. If you would like to be interviewed or offer your thoughts on a recent event, book or article, please contact our Editor In Chief, Michael Bidwell, at mbidwell@mccullough.com.au

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