Norton Rose Fulbright wins 2022 FT Innovative Lawyers Awards for digital legal services – Here’s why

Norton Rose Fulbright has won the 2022 FT Innovative Lawyers Award Europe for digital legal services for a new offering in Germany that cuts the cost of certain capital requirement legal opinions by up to three quarters. 

The new platform, which is the brainchild of Frankfurt-based banking partner Bernhard Fiedler, standardises and digitises opinions that are required by financial institutions in order to comply with their export credit capital requirement regulations. Until now, opinions have largely been given to clients in an ad hoc, reactive way on a case-by-case basis. However, NRF has created a subscription-based bank of opinions already used by 10 of Europe’s largest investment banks. 

Speaking to Legal IT Insider, Fiedler said: “When an organisation needs a legal opinion, they will traditionally call their lawyer and the opinion is provided, and the in-house counsel make comments on it. The whole process can take time and when the bank reaches out, they often don’t know what they will get until they receive the first draft.  

“The service we have created is around export credit guarantees, where if there is a guarantee based on the documentation, you can get a generic opinion almost instantly. You don’t have to have a transaction-specific opinion. We thought, ‘why don’t we turn it upside down and provide the opinions first?’” 

The move has required some degree of standardisation of opinions and Fiedler said: “When we set out on the project, we said we wanted to achieve a certain level of standardisation. We can’t get to 100% because clients will understandably want certain statements included and there will be some variation, but we can go for the 80-20 approach.” 

The client repository is being continuously updated according to Fiedler, who says: “What clients need to know is that if the law changes the opinion is still up to date.”   

The subscription-based pricing structure saves clients around three quarters of what they would have paid. Asked if this represents a cannibalisation of NRF’s revenues, Fiedler said: “The rationale for us is that if I sit at my desk and wait until the client comes to me it’s a very passive approach. If I turn that around and I have a product that I can push to clients and I’m no longer waiting for the phone to ring, but I’m ringing the client and explaining what we have, we are being more proactive and making more out of that approach.” 

He adds: “On the client side, not only does the service provide the necessary opinions in a timely way but, given it is a subscription-based pricing model, it also offers security around costs and budgets.” 

Fiedler first conceived of the idea in 2014 when he was on secondment at Deutsche Bank. It was a few years before he took the reins and began talking to banking clients about his idea, taking on the first pilot client in 2019. “In 2020 we started approaching other banks, and in 2021 we began to work with most of the German banks. We now advise the vast majority of the banks this service is relevant to and are speaking to the others,” he said. 

This was a good year at the FT Innovative Lawyers Award for NRF, which was shortlisted for seven of the eight that it was allowed to submit for and was commended in three categories.

Comment: This is an interesting win for NRF because it very obviously benefits the clients’ bottom line. When law firms talk about innovation, it’s worth keeping an eye on who the innovation benefits, which is never a simple question, but innovation often seems to be internally focussed and aimed at protecting margins. Hats off to NRF for taking the long view.