Marie Bernard, CEO of Nextlaw Labs talks ‘innovation as a service’

This article first appeared in the June Orange Rag
In December 2017, Marie Bernard was named as the new CEO of Nextlaw Labs, to coincide with a change of focus and strategy for Dentons accelerator of early stage technology. Bernard took over from Dan Jansen, who as CEO of Nextlaw Ventures is focusing on further startup investment, as Bernard steers Nextlaw Labs 2.0 towards its goal of designing, developing and delivering innovation in all its many guises to Dentons and its clients.
“We’re now focussing on innovation as a service and making sure it happens at Dentons and its clients,” Bernard tells Legal IT Insider. “The reason why I’m here is that we are trying to learn from the past three years: how to tackle pilots; how the market tackles pilots and moving into a more structured pilot approach to test new technology and ideas.
“The initial assumption is that it’s easier for the lawyer if you start from a product that’s fully developed. And start-ups have products that are developed and you can put in front of lawyers. That’s what we started out with, with Dan investing in startups and Nextlaw Labs acting as an accelerator.
“We still do that but realised that we need to be more diverse, agile and flexible in order to adjust to more technology. There are only so many start-ups you can accelerate and mentor. They can’t be in every market and we are in every market.
“That means we need innovation partnerships working maybe with technology partners or competitors to mitigate the risks and to go faster. We are looking 360 degrees at every single opportunity and where we are the missing the dots, and treating that as an opportunity.”
In one recent example of working in tandem with a technology partner, competitors and clients, Paris-based legal analytics company Predictice wanted to test their assumptions around how different practice groups would react to a dashboard presenting the outcome of court decisions. They tested small groups within a number of different practices across several law firms as well as corporate counsel teams.
At Dentons, two practices said they liked the product but wouldn’t include it in their day to day practice but the employment group saw huge potential to having a product like Predictice in the toolkit to give them an advantage in advising clients.
Bernard says: “This is not just a pilot to fill the marketing books but because there are things happening that are transforming how you work.” She adds: “It was very interesting to have GCs reflect on the technology at the same time as our lawyers.”
Each user was given KPIs and the in-house teams had, Bernard says, “10 times more logs and assumptions tested,” which is perhaps easier when you are not wedded to the billable hour.
Much like every law firm CIO in the world right now, the challenge for Bernard is to escape from the superficial buzz around AI and make sure that the pilots that Nextlaw Labs and Dentons are engaging in have real value. She says: “There is a buzz around AI and everyone wants their version of it but my mission is to make sure it actually transforms the business.”
She adds: “Clients are tired of having law firms approaching them with a pilot but no real innovation.”
That doesn’t mean that Nextlaw Labs and Dentons aren’t listening to their people’s ideas. On 14 June, Dentons rolled out a global ideation platform underpinned by innovation management platform IdeaScale. Dentons has had ideation platforms in Australia and Europe before now but this will “join the dots” across the firm, Bernard says, and enable global teams to collaborate more effectively.
Bernard says: “Once you open Pandora’s Box we already see new opportunities for crowdsourcing development. When checking our user feedback there were people, for example, in Africa who can’t play in the same playground because they are not as tech ready. So, let’s schedule a campaign to see what we can make happen in practice to effect change with a more modest budget.”
Frugal innovation – innovating even when there are limitations on resources – is being practiced across the globe by brands including Bentley. Bernard says: “It’s amazing when you unlock people’s creativity and give them a challenge. I’m one of the drivers of change and my mission is to deliver innovation globally. If people feel they are not empowered because they don’t have the technology to play in the same playground we can use frugal innovation and we can innovate with clients.”
Innovating with clients is one thing but it’s worth revisiting in more detail Bernard’s point about collaborating with competitors, which looks set to become a regular occurrence. “I’m on the board of ELTA [the European Legal Technology Assocation] with three of our largest competitors and we all agree that if we want to get to the next level, we need to explore those technologies that will get the industry to the next level. There are risk and costs involved so that’s not going to happen if we act alone. Also, if Dentons comes up with a solution and we’re the only ones using it, that’s a narrower entry point, but if we work together, that’s much more powerful.”
Bernard is part of a tech-forward part of the sector that see each other regularly at client briefings and she says: “When I talk with clients who are asking law firms to come to a panel and we all know each other and sit in the lobby for hours saying, ‘what are you talking about today?’ ‘Oh they’ve asked me to do a briefing on blockchain.’ ‘Oh me too.’ That’s the most fantastic brain power. We could make so much better progress if the client said: ‘This is the project, please find a way to work together to make that happen for me.”
Much of the work Nextlaw Labs does independently with startups revolves around helping them to make sure their platforms and pilots are compliant with regulation. Its focus is also discovery and making sure that pilots are not reinventing a wheel that has already been invented. It helps that Bernard is heavily integrated in the startup world through a partnership with Legal Geek, which just got back from a round the world tour to extend the startup community that Legal Geek founder Jimmy Vestbirk is so successfully building.
Bernard says: “We operate in an environment backed by the largest law firm in the world but out there are sole practitioners or startups and we need to support all of the community and one of the great skills of Jimmy is doing that in a non-commercial way.”
There is no doubt that Nextlaw Labs’ ultimate goal is to achieve a competitive edge for Dentons rather than the greater good of the industry. But if it teaches us anything, it’s that real progress and disruption cannot be achieved in isolation.