Cathrine Bamford

Catherine Bamford in Portrait

"If you slightly disagree with the group, that is a good thing, because you are adding to the way the whole group thinks."

Catherine Bamford, Founder and CEO of BamLegal, shares how she makes sure her company stays at the cutting edge, why she is an advocate for greater diversity in law, and the advantages of being a woman in legal tech.

Dear Catherine, since 2014 you have been the CEO and Founder of BamLegal; a legal technology consultancy company based in London. How did you transition from being a solicitor to working in legal tech?

 

During the last financial crisis, while I was working at Pinsent Masons, they chose one associate from each department to look at how they could make their own department more efficient and deliver more for less. I was chosen for this task for my department, which was real estate.

I started to look at document automation tools, and started learning how to automate legal contracts and fell in love with it. My inner geek came fully out of the closet!

 

However, at the start, it was only meant to be for three months. At the end of those three months, I approached my bosses and said: “I think there's so much more we could do with technology to improve the way our lawyers work. Can I do this full-time for the law firm?” First, they thought that I could not seriously want to do this full-time instead of going back to being a lawyer. However, I was sure that this was where I saw a future: technology and helping our lawyers to use this technology. Since, at that time, we did not have roles in law firms called legal technologists or heads of innovation, I had to convince my superiors that there was a job role.

It went very well and suddenly I was in such demand that we had to hire more people. We grew a team and we had to decide what to call that team; that’s when we made up the job title “legal engineer”. It is lovely to see that there are now people all over the world that call themselves a legal engineer.

After some time, I got asked to speak about what we were doing with automation at a conference in London. When I came off-stage, I had the heads of knowledge-management from about four “Magic Circle” law firms come up to me and say that they had that technology, but they had not done anything close to what we were doing. They were very interested to know how we did it. Over the next few weeks, I started to get job offers. Eventually, there were so many law firms getting in touch with me that I thought “there is a business here”.

When I decided to study law, all I wanted to do was become a lawyer and later a partner. That was going to be my trajectory. But I very quickly realised that I did not find what being a lawyer involved satisfying, and I knew that it would not fulfil me for the rest of my life. At that point, I was close to completely quitting and leaving the legal industry when I discovered legal tech.

You have worked as the Director of Legal Engineering at Deloitte Legal and have brought your expertise to several law firms. What are, in your experience, the biggest differences on how law firms and consulting companies approach legal tech?

The consulting companies already use technology in the more established parts of their business. They, therefore, have a lot of technology that can be leveraged within the new law firm parts of their business. Furthermore, they have a lot of amazing resources. To illustrate: the biggest global law firm in the world, for example, has two data scientists, whereas Deloitte has over 7000.

 

The people leaving traditional law firms to join one of the “Big Four”, definitely have the mindset that they want to do something differently. However, if all their previous experience has just been within a traditional law firm, I would question how they are going to learn to think differently. That is where it's going to be important that they bring in non-legal professionals very quickly to help them run those legal departments if they want to be disruptive and innovative.

Before starting your own business, you worked for seven years in a law firm based in London. What was the decisive factor that made you take the leap into entrepreneurship and self-employment?

It was the fear of wondering “what if”. The risk of it failing was less frightening to me than the risk of looking back and thinking, “what if I tried?”.

How do you keep the energy and enthusiasm for your work when there are setbacks?

At the moment, we get approached to do a lot of new projects. We apply what we call the “seven out of ten” principle.

 

We only accept projects that give us more than seven out of ten on the excitement scale. We could make a lot of money and scale by taking a lot of projects that are maybe quite basic, that we know how to do, and we could do very well. However, our ambition is not to grow as big as possible. Our ambition is to always be doing the next thing and focus on pushing that – staying at the cutting edge. That is the reason why we only focus on projects that are exciting and we are very lucky that we are able do that. To arrive at this point has only been possible based on years of learning.

 

When I first started, I said yes to everything and got my reputation out there. Then, I scaled because everyone has told me I should. People wanted to buy BamLegal or merge. However, that did not fulfil me either. So, I had to go back to the drawing board and ask myself why I left law firms in the first place. It is all about that purpose, that passion, and fulfilment. I do not want to be an automation factory. There are other consultancies out there that will do that for you. We like to be more the strategic advisors of the scale that is going to help you come up with the next thing. The thing that no one else is doing.

What do you think will be the next big thing or area in legal technology?

We are now at the point where there is technology that can help with all parts of legal transactions. From the creation of a document to due diligence using Artificial Intelligence, to completion, storage, and obligations management. But the one bit in the middle that no one has truly managed to improve yet is negotiations. The part in the middle where, as lawyers, we are still e-mailing back and forth red-line versions of documents with hidden comments. This is the space that I am excited about. I’m excited to see what is going to happen in the next few years. That is why I have most recently become an advisor of a company in that space, as that is a way to get to the point where we can tell a client: “Did you know that your most heavily negotiated clause was clause seven? If we improve the wording of clause seven to where it is always from where we are currently starting, we can get all of your deals done two weeks faster.”

Some legal professionals are still scared that with document automation and other legal tech instruments, they will not have any work left in the future or an important source of income will be reduced. How do you convince them that legal tech will do the opposite?

Lots and lots of just showing them real examples. Once people see things, in practice, it becomes a lot less frightening. Also just showing them and reiterating to them that most of the legal technology out there is to help them. It takes away all the boring bits of their work that they did not go to law school for. It is not taking away the parts that they need to apply their brains to.

 

It is speeding up all of the administrative work and all of the tasks that they are too intelligent to be having to do currently. For example, with document automation of the sale purchase agreement if you have two sellers rather than one seller, a lawyer did not go to law school to spend two hours working through a precedent contract to add the letter “s” and change the grammar from “has” to “have”.

 

In addition, it is also displaying empathy and recognising that lawyers work hard and are intelligent people. I get very annoyed with all these legal tech futurists. The people that act as if lawyers are stupid, that they will not change and will not apply legal tech, do not help themselves.

The issue is that the lawyers do not necessarily have the time to implement it. Their leaders are not encouraging them to take time to improve the way they do things themselves. They do not give them time to focus on it. Most lawyers, when you show them something like this, respond: “yes, please, when can we have it?”. It is actually down to the leadership that is causing the delay to buy the relevant tools and implement them.

You regularly teach students. Do law students in today’s world have to be more interdisciplinary than older generations?

We are lucky that nowadays there are lots of resources available talking about legal tech. My advice is to start subscribing and following all the magazines and follow all the thought leaders on Twitter. Attend free events and join a legal hacker’s chapter; there are chapters all over the world in every city. Try and network in the legal tech community. the community is extremely friendly. Reach out to people and invite people for coffees. Every time you look at the law, or you think about legal services, think how technology is used in other areas in other industries that could be applied to the legal industry. For example, everyone probably takes Ubers and knows that, at the end of the ride, we are asked, whether it was a four-star or five-star rating. How could that be applied to legal? Why do lawyers never ask for feedback? How do we improve the service of the legal industry using technology that is already out there and used in other industries?

What advice would you give young legal professionals who want to work in legal tech?

At the beginning, budgets were frozen and no one was buying anything new. People immediately then started looking at how they could do more with tools they already had. For example, rather than buying a new collaboration platform, they started to use Microsoft Teams. I think that is one of the more interesting areas at the moment in the advancements of legal tech. Many people are now trying to do more with the tools they already have, rather than buying the next shiny new thing.

What were, and are, the impacts of COVID on the advancement of legal tech in the legal industry?

At the beginning, budgets were frozen and no one was buying anything new. People immediately then started looking at how they could do more with tools they already had. For example, rather than buying a new collaboration platform, they started to use Microsoft Teams. I think that is one of the more interesting areas at the moment in the advancements of legal tech. Many people are now trying to do more with the tools they already have, rather than buying the next shiny new thing.

 

What advantage does being a woman working in the legal tech have, even though most of the time you are one of only a handful of women at legal tech conferences or the only woman at the table where the shots are called?

You have a different point of view and a different voice to bring to that table. You help improve the cognitive diversity of the group. It is an advantage to be memorable. You have to be confident in knowing that if you slightly disagree with the group, that is a good thing, because you are adding to the way the whole group thinks. I am a big believer in cognitive diversity, and I probably read “Rebel Ideas” by Matthew Syed three times.

 

In order to learn how to speak up and disagree in meetings, I have tried to improve the number of times that I self-limit my speech. I try not to make a statement and finish it with, “do you know what I mean?” or start it with “I am sorry to trouble you” or “I am sure you have already thought of this”. I try and practice these techniques in order to sound more confident, come across more authoritative and to remove that imposter syndrome.

 

However, I am also very conscious that I am in the business of change management. So, empathy, relationships and not being too adversarial is important. You want to bring people on the journey with you. You do not want to clash with them from the beginning and get people's backs up in a way that they do not want to change and work with you.

Many say that the main skills you bring to the table are not just your knowledge of legal tech, but your ability to inspire change. Change amongst the lawyers and law firm leaders to ensure the technology and transformation projects are embraced, successful, and make real impact. How important are these kind of skills in today’s world?

Although I work in legal technology and I understand the technology, I do think 99% of my job is inspiring change for others who want to help improve the delivery of legal services and to promote innovation within the legal market. The ability to lead change and bring others with you on the journey in a way that seems fun is essential. Lawyers are very busy, risk-averse professionals. If you try and force them to do something that they do not believe in, or that they do not want to give their very valuable time to try and help bring in, then you are going to have a very difficult job. It is going to take years and you are going to face a lot of resistance.

The gender investing gap (i.e., the discrepancy between the amount of money the average woman gets back on her investments, versus the return the average man gets back over the course of their lifetime) is closing, but still present. As an investor yourself, what advice would you give young women in regard to investing?

It is not just about finding the product market fit. For me, it is very much the founder product market fit. I am very interested in the founder’s potential. I will invest in the people, rather than the product. The product can be improved after. When I meet people and think that they are going to be a success, I have to like the product. That is how it was with my first investment, Wavelength. It was one of the first legal engineering law firms that we sold to Simmons & Simmons two years ago. Again, it was that excitement level of the founder that convinced me that he knew what he was talking about. He was so excited about showing it and proving it, that I knew they would be a success.

 

You are an advocate for greater diversity in law. Why do you think the legal profession is behind other industries in reflecting the diversity of today’s society?

I think it is because it was traditionally built by rich white men for rich white men. And although it is improving, the subconscious bias of the leadership is still present.

Have you ever experienced discrimination working in the legal industry?

Whilst it is difficult to prove, I do believe that I was unsuccessful in attaining one position earlier in my career because I was a young female.

Which female lawyer would you nominate as a role model for breaking.through and why?

Nicole Bradick, CEO of Theory and Principle which is a company that helps law firms, governments and charities to build really good legal technology products in a properly design-led product-managed way. I deeply admire Nicole’s ability to get things done, and not just talk about them. They have commercial clients, however, some of the tools they build are really to help people and provide access to justice. One example is the tool “Read the F*ing Directions” built ahead of the 2020 Presidential Election in the United States to make sure that ballots did not get thrown out due to an error in following ballot instructions.

Thank you so much for this interview!

 
London / Morges, 9th of July 2021. This interview was conducted by Audrey F. Canova.

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