Ben Winslade is a lawyer in New Zealand who recently established HONE, a platform for interactive online commercial/legal document training. He’s also chair of LegalTech NZ. In this interview with Asia Law Portal, Winslade explains the inspiration for the founding of HONE, his background as a lawyer in both private practice and, more recently, in-house, what new developments are occurring in legal innovation and technology in New Zealand, and what inspired him to get involved in legal innovation.
What is HONE and why did you establish it?
Learning valuable legal skills is slow and expensive. Almost all the value I provide to my clients is due to skills acquired through many years of having my work patiently corrected by experienced lawyers. Yet most legal training does nothing to speed up this process. It still focuses on conceptual knowledge – more statutes, principles and case law, just like law school.
Hone uses technology to teach practical legal skills faster. Our interactive online legal training lets you complete actual tasks and receive immediate feedback on your work. Like drafting a real document for a simulated client scenario.
It’s not just a lecture turned into a webinar. Instead it’s built from the ground up to be engaging and interesting experience in a remote, online format. More computer game than seminar. And of course you can complete it any time that’s convenient for you, from anywhere you like (including from home).
What is the focus of your law practice?
My background is working on commercial technology transactions and giving specialist privacy advice. But I have also worked in house for the last 6-7 years, which requires you to become involved in a wider range of general legal issues that affect a technology company, whether that’s managing litigation, regulatory investigations or M&A.
This year I began providing in-house style legal services to technology businesses directly as an independent lawyer. This is particularly useful for companies not quite large enough to employ a full time lawyer. They can get many of the benefits of in-house adviser who knows their business well, but for one or two days a week. Which is a more efficient way of handling their BAU commercial legal needs than a leveraged law firm billing hourly rates.
You’re Chair of LegalTech NZ. What new developments are occurring in the legal tech space in New Zealand?
Legal tech in New Zealand may not be as frothy with incubators or funding (from VCs or law firms) as other markets. That’s not really our strength or style.
But we do have some cool companies here, quietly doing the hard work of building great businesses. The sector is still small, but the companies that have emerged are are well placed to succeed and expand globally. So far we’ve seen successful companies emerge in in-house practice management (e.g. LawVu) AI contract review and analysis (e.g. McCarthy Finch) and regulatory compliance (e.g. First AML). But I have no doubt we’ll soon see others join them.
NZ has a long history of pragmatic legal innovation and I have no doubt that this will continue.
What inspired you to become focused on legal tech and where do you see it changing law practice in the future?
I have spent most of my career working with technology businesses looking to disrupt other markets. That means getting to witness up close how powerful that process can be, and how quickly small companies can go from unimportant to dominant. There’s no reason to believe that the legal sector is immune to this process.
But I also got to see that it’s not as simple for these technology businesses as people imagine from the outside. Even if you ultimately are successful, there’s a huge amount of blood, sweat, and tears needed to get there. I’ve thought a lot about finding a way to combine both those areas of experience. That is, what technology companies actually need to do at the coalface to be successful and the market for legal services. I find the opportunity to create something new, instead of coldly advising on procedural legal issues, incredibly motivating.
I do see the way we practice law changing a lot more over the next 15 years than the previous 15. The fact that many of the tools we use have been so static over the last 15 years (most lawyers are still using word and outlook in mostly the same way they did when I qualified in 2004) has made a lot of lawyers complacent. They think it means things are never going to change.
But that has never been true. The tools lawyers use have always changed, from hand writing, to typewriters, to dictaphones, to computers. At times that change has been quite significant and rapid. For example, 20 years ago when computers were first introduced to the office. The slow change for the last 15 years is particularly unusual when compared with the rest of the economy. It doesn’t feel sustainable, particularly as we see more and more smart technology and money flow into the sector. Something is going to give.