Shruti Ajitsaria is Partner and Head of FUSE, A&O’s tech innovation space. In this interview with Asia Law Portal, she outlines how technology is impacting the role of lawyers, how FUSE is serving as a catalyst for legal innovation in Asia, and the unique nature of legal innovation in Singapore.
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You’re a Partner and Head of FUSE, A&O’s tech innovation space. Tell us more about your practice and about FUSE.
Fuse sits within Allen & Overy’s Advanced Delivery & Solutions offering, which has the aim of moving the work A&O does beyond only that of a traditional law firm, and towards a more technology enabled, holistic service that our clients are increasingly demanding. It was the first permanent space of its kind in any City law firm.
In Fuse, we identify and partner with best in class emerging technology companies and facilitate their introduction to our lawyers and our clients. Our mission statement is to fuel a culture of digital innovation in the legal sector by offering new and innovative solutions to our lawyers and clients, while giving each cohort member tailored support to grow and develop their business. Since its founding in 2017, Fuse has empowered A&O to rethink by adopting outside-in innovation, to open up new opportunities and discussions with lawyers and clients to our mutual benefit.
We see the three key pillars of Fuse as the cohort companies, A&O’s lawyers, and our clients. Fuse sits at the centre of these parties, and provides each with a unique value proposition. The introductions we make between cohort members, and our lawyers/clients is at the heart of this value proposition. These introductions open up opportunities for our clients and lawyers to apply cohort company tech to solve their most pressing problems, while the annual cohort cycle ensures that there is a regular stream of new companies and ideas. From the point of view of our cohort members, these introductions provide invaluable opportunities for them to grow their business, while we also provide each cohort member with a partner sponsor to provide them with tailored support.
Originally, our Fuse cohort members comprised purely of LegalTech, RegTech or DealTech companies whose work was directly relevant to our lawyers. After strong engagement from our clients we decided to adapt our approach and also welcome nominations of leading FinTechs. This decision has allowed us to open up yet more conversations with our clients, while also adding to the melting pot of different perspectives and ideas that Fuse is renowned for.
Fuse has had significant impact, including:
- Cohort member Nivaura’s historic issuance of the world’s first automated cryptocurrency bond and completion of their £20million strategic funding round, including investment from the London Stock Exchange.
- Hosting the Financial Conduct Authority and Bank of England to work with A&O client ISDA and Fuse cohort member REGnosys on their Digital Regulatory Reporting (DRR) pilot project. This team spent 9 months in Fuse, exploring how technology can help firms meet their regulatory reporting requirements.
- A&O and cohort member Avvoka entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Loan Market Association (LMA), the leading industry body on the syndicated loan market, to develop a new document automation platform. The platform will contain automated versions of certain LMA documents and will provide other ancillary services.
How is the work of lawyers changing?
Now more than ever, the legal services industry is changing, and technology is at the heart of this change. Clients are demanding increased efficiency at a lower cost which seems like an impossible task for law firms, however leveraging technology provides the perfect solution.
Rather than directly replacing lawyers, technology is augmenting the work that lawyers do, making them more productive in combination than either the lawyer, or the technology could be by themselves. This man-machine combination is a win-win for all parties, time consuming manual tasks traditionally done by a lawyer are increasingly being automated, freeing lawyers to conduct more nuanced, value-adding tasks for their clients. Meanwhile, from the client’s point of view, leveraging technology allows their lawyers to deliver them more for less. This increased adoption of technology means that modern lawyers increasingly need tech skills, and to be open-minded and adaptable to new ways of working more generally.
What is so exciting about this transformation of the work of lawyers, and of law firms, is that we are still very early in the journey. We can expect the pace of change to increase as emerging technologies become more mature. It is a very exciting time to be part of the industry!
Does A&O have a unique view of technology within the legal profession?
Most law firms are now embracing technology, but each in its own way. For us, Fuse enables us to go beyond partnering with well-established companies and instead, allows us also to collaborate with and learn from innovative trailblazing firms using new technology to potentially solve untapped use cases. Working with these firms helps keep us ahead of the technology curve in the legal sector.
We don’t just act as a radar for new technology, we’re also very involved in shaping some of the tech solutions that come in to Fuse. If a particular solution isn’t quite right for lawyers, the cohort members are able to get direct feedback from them and adapt their product as necessary. The conversations between the companies in Fuse and A&O lawyers means that the end product is designed with lawyers’ needs in mind.
Perhaps most importantly, we don’t want to just bring in technology and companies for the sake of it. We want to make sure that the product is solving a problem that either the firm or our clients are struggling with. By staying true to that philosophy, I feel like we have made a real contribution to the legaltech market and in the process, helped a lot of companies on their way to success.
This diversity of our cohort gives us a birds eye view of the entire technology ecosystem within the legal profession. Whereas most law firms can only see the technology available to solve the issues of today and yesterday, Fuse allows A&O to do this, but also to look into the future and explore the technology on the horizon.
FUSE and Asia Week organized a “week of innovation and inspiration” in Singapore in 2018. Tell us more about this.
Fuse AsiaWeek was a hugely successful week-long event that was born out of our Asian client’s eagerness to exploit new technologies such as machine-learning and blockchain. The event brought together a selection of our 2018 LegalTech Fuse cohort, early stage Singapore based start-ups, government representatives, and clients, all with the aim of exploring ways to advance their tech and innovation agendas. This was the first event of its kind in Asia and benefitted all parties by building relationships while also facilitating collaboration and idea exchange. Fuse AsiaWeek perfectly highlights the global focus, and commitment of all parties to being at the very forefront of technology and innovation in the legal sector and we hope to be able to repeat this experience.
What’s unique about technology and innovation in the legal services sector in Singapore?
Similar to London, Singapore is undoubtedly an epicentre for digital innovation and technology. Unique to Singapore is the degree to which the country’s legal institutions, from law firms, to the Ministry of Law, are united in quickening the pace of LegalTech innovation. The best example of this is likely the 2020 Technology and Innovation Roadmap launched by the Ministry of Law after close collaboration with the legal industry. There seems to be little doubt in Singapore that technology and innovation are a force for good in the legal services sector, this attitude has helped make Singapore willing to experiment and adopt innovative new technology while most others are willing to take a back seat.
Singapore’s diverse population and reputation for producing outstanding STEM, and legal talent also creates the perfect melting pot for tech innovation, with different perspectives and a willingness to challenge established ways of working becoming the norm, rather than the exception. In many ways this is something the entire LegalTech ecosystem could learn from!
What’s the future for FUSE?
Over the course of the previous five cohorts we’ve evolved from what was a fairly concentrated focus on legal tech and on companies that were created by ex-lawyers. As a starting point, it was definitely the right way to go. But as we’ve moved through new cohorts, we’ve broadened out what we’ve been looking for, Organically, we built better relationships with clients and in particular, banks. We’ve managed to gain a much better understanding of their objectives in regards to fintech which is why we now have a FinTech stream for our cohort. Looking to the coming years, I think we can still expect to see new and exciting companies joining Fuse.
As new problems emerge, so we’ll look to tackle those in the best way we know how: by ensuring that we’re at the forefront of providing technology that lawyers and clients can engage with to solve those problems. A really good example of this is the new ESG focused world we find ourselves in. Our work with cohort member Greenomy, who help lawyers to simplify the process for complying with ESG and sustainability regulatory disclosure requirements, has meant that we’re not looking to solve our clients ESG problems through the same lens as others. By bringing lawyers and Greenomy together, we can differentiate ourselves from competitors in an increasingly crowded and competitive space.
We have a reputation for being innovative and forward thinking at A&O and I think Fuse has an important role to play in keeping that going, not just now, but well into the future too.