An Interview With….Dan Jansen, chief executive of Dentons’ tech investment arm NextLaw Labs

In May this year Dentons announced the launch of NextLaw Labs, a wholly-owned subsidiary that focuses on developing and investing in new technology with the ambition to transform the practice of law. Already, in August, this culminated in a deal with IBM Watson and the signing of Watson-backed digital legal research company ROSS Intelligence.

Legal IT Insider asked NextLaw Labs’ chief executive Dan Jansen to give us a glimpse behind the scenes at where the most exciting innovation and trends in the market are coming from.

What sort of interest are you seeing from startups, entrepreneurs and others in NextLaw Labs?

There’s been an incredible amount, especially for such a young enterprise focused on one specific business vertical. We have nearly 100 ideas and we are in the process of evaluating those. Since NextLaw Labs has one focus—to help reimagine and reinvent the practice of law – our target audience, including innovators and buy-side prospects, is quite specific. That helps us be more strategic in who we need to speak to and what we need to speak about. However, we still compete with other organizations and venture companies that already have long histories of developing and bringing established technology products to market. And if it wasn’t for our partnership with the global law firm Dentons, we would not have the credibility to compete at such an early stage in our own development.

There is a huge amount of energy surrounding innovation and creativity in the legal IT sector, what are some of the more exciting ideas you’re seeing that you can talk about?

We are in a target rich environment where the $600B global legal industry can be re-invented in numerous ways.  The technology can be sophisticated, like the cognitive computing technology we have invested in to perform expert legal research, or quite basic, using off-the-shelf technologies. We cannot discuss specific ideas we are pursuing currently, but we see and can share a series of trends where many of the opportunities lie. The growth of the legal operations departments within corporate legal departments is a basic trend that represents a partner for us in re-inventing how legal services are managed.  We share the goal of faster, better, cheaper legal solutions. Other trends include the automation of compliance and risk management, e-discovery, automated due diligence, e-document review, virtual data rooms, document automation, matter management, expert legal research, staffing services, IP litigation tools, expert decision support, and legal analytics, among others.

Are there any particular areas of law or practice where innovative ideas are more prevalent than others? And, on the contrary, less prevalent than you would expect?

In regulated industries, there’s a lot of repetitive paperwork and technology, big data and the like are required for that to thrive. Technological innovation can make quick inroads there, especially now with the advent of artificial intelligence to sort through a number of easy (for a lawyer), but time consuming processes. Technology is a complement to lawyers — this is about man plus machine, not man versus machine.

When you see an idea you like, what’s next? Can you give us some idea of the process you will go through to bring an idea to fruition?

Currently, we are soliciting ideas from everywhere, and we try to identify opportunities, pain-points and unmet needs in legal services. This could be anything from the process a lawyer uses to produce, or the way a client handles, regulatory compliance or e-discovery for example. Either way, once we identify a market hook, we look for technology companies currently in the process of developing a solution. If so, we seek to invest or partner with them. If not, we try to develop the product or service ourselves. Our preferred route is to partner and co-develop. When we can share cost and collaboration, in my mind, it always provides a more nuanced perspective that ends up building a better product. Here is where our relationship with Dentons puts us way out in front—we get instantaneous feedback during the beta phases. With over 125 locations spanning 50 countries, and thousands of lawyers, we can scale up very quickly and bring the application to market in different countries.

The idea is that technology invested in by NextLaw Labs will then be trialed within Dentons. How will that work in practice?

Many of our ideas are coming from Dentons’ lawyers, and these ideas can range from simple, pragmatic performance-boosters to broad consulting capabilities for clients. By building and investing in the products they need, we are enhancing their practice – it’s the simple ideas that are usually the most elegant (and profitable).

You’ve signed a deal with your first portfolio company, IBM Watson-powered ROSS – is the idea that it will be used within Dentons to give the firm an edge over its competitors or might you license it to other firms?

Our investment in ROSS Intelligence is an important opportunity for us to partner with a leading cognitive computing technology developer. It will grow to be an impressive application, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, as there is a tremendous amount of work to be done. There are a lot of questions about how to grow it, which body of law to focus on, etc., before we truly know how to market it and where to bring it to market. But obviously Dentons will be positioned as an early adopter of any products or services developed by the initiative.

Are you interested in exploring other forms of artificial intelligence and what are you seeing now that has real application in the legal sector?

AI is to the technological age as the steam engine was to the industrial revolution. We’re just beginning to scratch the surface. In the legal sector, we’re seeing everything from very basic mobile applications assisting with compliance reporting to sophisticated decision-making tools. The next five to 10 years will be truly fascinating.

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