Leading African law firm and Linklaters alliance partner Webber Wentzel has expanded and rebranded its alternative legal services capability as Webber Wentzel Fusion, with the ambition to provide an even greater integrated strategic tech + legal services offering to clients.
The division is headed by Aalia Manie, a former Webbers IP and technology partner who left the firm in 2019 to work as chief operating officer for technology client Snapt, before returning in November 2022. Speaking to Legal IT Insider about the background to her re-joining Webbers, Manie said: “They said, we’ve incubated this captive ALSP for some time. We really want to expand its scope and its impact. We want to double down on our legal technology investment and be structured about it, but also be creative and inventive, so come back. Grow a team and expand from what we’ve got.” Manie had a mandate to significantly expand the team.
Fusion’s delivery lead is Lucia Quy, who joined last year from SYKE in South Africa, having previously been a manager for disputes in Herbert Smith Freehills’ Alternative Legal Services arm in Johannesburg. Quy is a former attorney who in 2015 left black letter legal work at Baker McKenzie for a legal project management role at Cognia Law, before joining HSF in March 2020.
Quy told Legal IT Insider: “A lot of the players that I have worked with are global and it was nice to land with Webbers because they are South African and I have a huge heart for the legal technology and legal ops spaces in South Africa specifically, and more broadly in Africa. It’s nice to have the opportunity to take what I’ve learned from global entities and try to grow that in a South African firm with South African clients.”
Manie says: “With the launch of Fusion we have an opportunity to do things in a way that is relevant to our region. We are the first of our kind here and that’s what makes it exciting. We have a mandate to bring on new service and product lines, including products that we have developed internally.”
Fusion will be providing AI, legal technology and legal operations consultancy work as well as advising the firm internally on its technology and AI strategy. Manie says: “We are trying to knit it together, and to have empathy and entrepreneurship at the centre of everything we do. Empathy in the sense that we want to have a team that is really happy and really engaged, and we want to understand our internal stakeholders and what their real pain points are. We want to know what really matters to them and our clients, and of course from a client-centricity perspective, our clients are at different levels of maturity and have different business and operational needs, and different stakeholders. We will work backwards from the problem, but the problem takes into account individuals within their business, and also the specific context of those businesses and operations.”
That thoughtfulness extends to growing the Fusion team and Manie adds: “We’ve been slowly building the team. We’re looking for a cultural fit and to build for long term sustainability.”
Fusion isn’t Webbers first rodeo and its background stems from 2017, when the Johannesburg-headquartered firm started a legal services center (LSC), mostly focusing on legal process outsourcing work, with a heavy emphasis on using legal technology. It was the first South African law firm to announce the deployment of Luminance. The centre focused on legal project management, eDiscovery and document review, which will continue within Fusion.
It was Covid that encouraged the firm to expand the work it is doing in this area, and Manie said: “Even though our African counterparts are not doing this yet and not investing in this space we are going to double down and grow the team, and our technology mandate is a lot wider.”
The work that Manie, Quy and the management team have been doing goes beyond just growing the LSC. They have been analysing which service lines make sense and how they align with the strategy of the firm. Manie says: “We have recategorised where we are going to invest.” She adds: “With this whole AI craze we’re getting a lot of requests from clients to do AI advisory, legal technology training and help them to reframe their operations. We are saying that AI is not a silver bullet, and helping to look at the whole department, the whole business.”
There has been a revamp of the team and Quy says: “We’ve done a lot of work towards what the team needs to look like. We’ve been thinking about how the legal technology team needs to develop, with specialists and product managers and legal engineers. We’re creating something that hasn’t really been developed that well in South Africa today.”
The strategy is to provide clients with a truly integrated service and Manie says: “Say we end up looking at a client’s AI policy. We might have people coming in from our TMT team, then we have our data security and privacy perspective. Then we might be looking at the data governance aspects. We might be saying, ‘You know there are particular third-party technology vendors that can help you support you in certain aspects of this process?’ Then we might be mapping their processes end to end, and saying, ‘We need to rethink how you onboard your clients, and need to rethink how you store that data.’ We are working at integrating with the wider firm to give our clients an integrated solution so that they don’t feel that they need to go to four to five different advisors; they have a team of people that brings everything together.”
Fusion will continue to rely on preferred third party vendors and Manie says: “Of course we’re not planning to build every single technology solution ourselves.” She adds: “The real hope is to knit everything together in a very cohesive way and hold our clients’ hand through the process.” Tools that the team uses include Thomson Reuters HighQ, Luminance, Reveal and Relativity.
Thanks to its currency exchange rate, South African firms have traditionally been faced with prohibitively high costs when it comes to investing in these sorts of technologies, with one British pound currently worth 24 ZAR. Manie says: “We obviously try and look at local solutions and support local where we can to help with the exchange rate problem but the reality is that our market isn’t yet as mature as others, and so the other technologies still make more sense and it’s about the business case for it.
“It’s important to think of it in terms of the per month per user cost instead of the Rand price tag. When clients understand what it means in terms of opportunity cost, it makes sense. You can do a technology assisted review or alternatively spend a month doing that manually and use 40 people for that. Using technology you can win more work because you can offer a better price.”