Kicking off our new series on interesting careers in legaltech, legal ops and innovation we sat down to interview Alex Smith, Global RAVN Product Lead at iManage.
Alex is a vocal proponent of service design and the necessity of good information architecture, i.e. the way data is created, updated, managed and applied.
Today Alex steers global product development of the iManage RAVN search and AI product range, ensuring these products unlock knowledge across enterprise legal data, both for transactional use cases such as due diligence and next generation knowledge management search.
Alex’s career spans 20 years working in the legaltech industry. He has worked vendor side (at Lexis), law firm side (Reed Smith) and vendor side again (iManage RAVN).
Learn how an interest in history drew Alex toward publishing at a time of immense change: successive disruption, from print to CD and very quickly to online media.
This placed Alex at the heart of an information revolution that would define a career spent wrangling increasingly complicated and plentiful legal data in order to build great legal data products.
But as Alex admits, and as you’ll find out, like all careers the story is non-linear.
Alex, how did your career kick-off? How did you end up in the legal world?
I’m an Edinburgh University history graduate. Like a lot of history students, a conversion course and career in law was a popular post-graduate career track.
Unlike a lot of history students, I had a father who was a law professor at the University of East Anglia. So I have some familial nexus to law I suppose.
I did a mini-pupilage at a Barristers Chambers, which I really enjoyed. It was the only legal role that twigged my interest in becoming some form of lawyer. The idea of two plus years of debt also wasn’t compelling when you want to be in London and escape the wilds of Suffolk.
But ultimately you chose another route?
Yes. Like a lot of students I had no idea what to do post University. I love books, always have. And this got me interested in publishing.
Publishing has an interesting payscale: the more exciting the things you publish – i.e. fiction – the less you get paid on average as the blockbuster successes are few and far between, whereas the more boring stuff pays (slightly) better.
And this led me to join Butterworths.
Can you explain Butterworths to those unfamiliar with that name?
Sure. Butterworths was originally a famous Fleet Street (a street famous in London for publishing) legal bookseller. Founded in 1818 it transformed from bookseller into publisher and through successive acquisitions became LexisNexis UK.
I joined Butterworths after a one month internship, and then six months later starting as a junior editor on looseleafs.
[Note to curious readers, see also pocket parts (depending on when you studied or practiced law, you may have encountered these in your law library)].
Looseleafs – what are those?
Haha, looseleafs were cutting edge at the end of the last millennium.
Before online publishing took off, legal books – such as law reports, commentary and textbooks etc – were usually released once a year or every couple of years.
As anyone working in law knows, legislation changes and case law keeps the law in constant flux. Keeping lawyers up to date was very difficult pre-internet.
So the looseleaf was invented.
The looseleaf was essentially a way of producing legal texts in ringbinder like formats that allowed you to swap in or out one or more pages as a crude means of updating texts.
Looseleaf along with pocket parts (essentially a way to slot supplemental mini-books or pamphlets at the end of a standard bound book) were revolutionary for some time.
These innovations – which admittedly sound very twee in 2020 – allowed publishers to update books 3 – 6 times a year vs once a year.
It sounds crazy to us in 2020, but customers loved it (except the actual filing of them). It enabled up to date data, well at least as far as was possible pre-internet!
And publishers loved it. It was an additional product upsold as a subscription based service. It was a real cashcow. It’s quite funny now listening to Silicon Valley chat talk about the holy grail of ‘subscriptions’, legal innovation did subscriptions in the 1980s and before.
But… the idea began to wane as electronic publishing took off.
So what changed?
CDs! CDs disrupted music and software. Publishing was no different.
To get into CD publishing Butterworths acquired a company putting financial services books onto CD-ROMs.
I moved into the role of online editor, managing the process of getting authors and editors – along with their content – on board with CD publishing.
That sounds easier said than done? Change isn’t always welcomed with open arms!
Yup. NetBOS (Net Books on Screen) as they were called took a bit of legwork to get people and things organised.
First off, we needed servers to host the book data that was later burned to CDs. As the internet came knocking a few years later, this experience was invaluable as we again changed format, from CDs to online publishing… and needed more servers.
But in the meantime, getting books onto CDs was tricky. Authors and editors of the print books would send the printing files to our CD business in Woking, who then had 100 editors add mark-up to those files in order to make them CD publishable.
Quality assurance – in the modern sense – wasn’t yet a thing. Inevitably that caused a few issues with customers, but overall customers loved the new format.
It was easier to update (i.e. new CDs). But the groundbreaking innovation was… the humble hyperlink!
It’s hard to believe but when you used to demo hyperlinked case commentary and legislation citations lawyers eyes would light up and their jaws hit the floor. They could now navigate seamlessly between related materials at the click of a button rather than flicking back and forth through cumbersome books.
How did your role begin to evolve? This is a lot of industry and format change in a short space of time
Yes, looking back it was a time of immense upheaval in publishing and legal data.
Not long after CDs took off, this new thing – the “internet” – that had been slowly bubbling away for several decades really took off.
This was the early 2000s.
My role pivoted again. In 2003 I became a sort of web editor – officially titled an “Online Manager” – in charge of getting an online site built and managing integrations with publishers, coordinating a new quality assurance function and getting content online!
Was there much overlap between legal data on CDs and online?
It wasn’t an overnight change. For some time we transitioned editors from one format to another whereby they could press a single button and create electronic file formats that we could push to CDs and online simultaneously and essentially kill two birds with one stone.
Did the move from CDs to online change much?
Yes, a lot. The move to online created a new challenge.
The initial issue with NetBOS was that we couldn’t run a search over more than 1 server. Data was balkanised by server, which roughly speaking equated to what had previously been a single CD net book.
Online data very quickly proved itself easier to create and update. Likewise it was easier (with some people power) to build links and relationships between data in ways that were previously impossible or at least impractical.
All of that meant a lot more data, metadata and relationships to organise.
We began having to truly confront online search, moving onto a global Lexis platform that had its DNA in the systems that had served the Lexis red terminals.
This meant we had to pay greater attention to the development of data schemas – i.e. organisation of the data and taxonomies etc – alongside data standards, the ways in which data should be created and updated etc.
It also meant the first interaction with relevancy tuning, linguistic questions in how search works, stemming, synonyms, acronyms, disambiguation and of course the fact legal language is a divergent version of English.
And how easy was that considering the business spanned tax, legal and financial publishing, each category with its own subcategories of publication, e.g. in legal ranging from case law to legislation to commentary and textbooks?
It was very difficult initially. Each publishing property had built up its own domain, nomenclature, taxonomies and other features that made it hard to integrate the data seamlessly.
To begin with it was hard to create a game changing universal search across one or more properties.
This was a great learning opportunity for me and the team. We dived into understanding search.
Of course this was around the time that search engines for internet data were popping up and rapidly innovating search concepts previously used offline.
So by this time my role, and that of my team, had morphed into essentially coordination of all things online; working across the entirety of the product portfolio, including print, CD and online.
At a high level, our job was to design and implement ways to standardise the overall information architecture to make it easier to manage and optimize for search.
Ironically, this has become massively relevant to what I do now: finding innovative and practical ways to handle increasing volumes of unstructured data for iManage RAVN’s client base. It’s also a massive part of modern businesses, e.g. Spotify, Amazon, eBay and son, which from a consumer perspective are all content management and search systems at their core.
Let’s pause there. From a career development perspective, would you recommend taking on sideways roles and projects such as these if and when they crop up?
Absolutely. You’ll double your workload short term . But you will more than double your knowledge and value. The best advice I can give is to stay curious. If you are no longer curious about what you do, it’s probably time to move on and try something else.
And this is when you transition into a more formalised product role?
Yes, once the data reached a stable baseline the overall online focus of the business by the early 2000s created a ton of new opportunities within the business to build new products. Which is exactly what Lexis did.
This is when I began building out product management skills and experiences, albeit under my online coordination role initially.
What did you work on?
I worked on an EU law tracker. At the time it was a real painpoint for customers trying to understand EU directives and how they were implemented into national law by jurisdiction.
Each jurisdiction had their own approaches and different delays between each directive being issued and getting it into national law.
Language was a further barrier given the need to read national law in multiple languages and liaise with government officials (often to work out why they hadn’t implemented directives).
We attempted to build a product that tracked these processes and present the information in an easily intelligible and actionable manner for legal users, i.e. so they knew what applied where and how, or if not, when it might be in force.
As your first foray into product, how did it go?
To be frank, poorly. The team (and I) got the product wrong, the wrong use case and the wrong target persona and were leapfrogged by a different product.
Why was that? How did that happen?
We had what I call first product syndrome. We were too top down, too full of assumptions.
For instance, after we’d planned and built out a lot of the initial product we began talking to customers – legal professionals spanning knowledge management and practising lawyers and law librarians.
The big, and avoidable, surprise was this: most legal users didn’t care about how or why a directive was implemented but simply when it entered into force in X or Y EU Member State.
We’d built a product around the wrong persona, i.e. someone interested in the what, how and why of the directive’s implementation. This wasn’t a real customer, or at least not a significant customer persona.
We thought we were targeting multiple practice areas across multiple features. Instead the bigger market was actually a smaller one: competition lawyers and knowledge managers.
Ouch. What next?
We thrashed several pivots (I think this is the trendy word now) of the product for 3 further years. It improved significantly and did OK but it never quite hit the right notes with customers. We tried everything to make it better, including tailoring and rebuilding around alternative personas.
Did it die or survive?
It died. PLC launched around the same time and released a really good EU module.
It was roughly news focused in terms of updates regarding EU law changes. It killed off our product, which we had called EU Tracker.
That must have been tough, but formative?
Yes, that’s the right way to look at it. Careers are full of ups and downs.
You have to reflect, examine root causes of either outcome and try and maximise the things that work and minimize the things that don’t.
The key thing for me was this: understand your customers early and often. The more you can do to get inside the minds and needs of customers in order to identify those with problems worth solving, that you can actually solve, the greater your likelihood of success.
A misconception of product companies like Apple is that they know what customers want before they do. It’s not that they have a crystal ball. They do a ton of research. Without that research it’s easy to confuse wants with needs, overlook priorities and hidden value.
Great product companies are great people companies. They get people. And they get what they need and why that is.
This has stuck with me throughout my career.
It sounds obvious, but easily overlooked. It’s why I am a big proponent of service design, which is about listening and understanding early and often to ensure you solve the right problems for the right people at the right time and in the right place.
How would you say this experience would have differed at say a start-up building an independent product?
Having a product miss in a large corporate such as Lexis is definitely more recoverable so long as it doesn’t become a theme.
One of the benefits of working in product for larger companies is the flexibility and resources to get up and crack on with the next opportunity and put learning into practice.
In most start-ups you aren’t afforded such luxuries, and even with finance you will be under pretty tight expectations and deadlines which are less easily recoverable if unmet.
Do you think careers at larger corporates get overlooked?
I think they do.
It’s not that surprising I suppose. We’ve lived through 30 years or more of spectacular start-up successes driven by computing, software and now the internet and apps.
Of course, the reality is you only hear about a high profile minority. There is a very overcrowded start-up graveyard, but no one likes to visit.
Corporate careers can be very rewarding. You are able to work with very talented and experienced people – as is possible but not always the case with start-ups, especially in terms of experience.
But you are also given some safety net to take risks without failure necessarily being terminal to your career or the wider business.
The flipside is that some corporates are more or less risk averse and bounded in terms of what can and can’t be done and how quickly, but the assumption that only start-ups can be nimble enough to be exciting and envelope pushing is not always correct. You can often end up in a well resourced and fast paced environment at the right large corporate.
So what came next after an initial bumpy baptism into product management?
I saw two pathways emerging for my career. I had to choose between two routes.
Stick with my career path to date, focusing on online coordination and content. Or I could convert into a product management track.
I chose the latter and haven’t really looked back since.
How did you develop into a product manager at Lexis?
I was lucky to work with the director of product management, Karen Waldron, who was also one of my mentors. She built a fantastic team and did (and still does) some really exciting work at Lexis.
I took on more product management tasks at Lexis and learned from the more experienced product folk as we went.
What was it you liked about product? Was the legal dimension to Lexis a driver or simply ancillary?
I really enjoyed product from the start. I loved getting into customer personas and pain points and the creativity that comes with both finding the right questions to ask to elicit good insights.
Product was also a way to unlock choice.
Like a lot of people, I wanted to build choice into my career. This is something I always advise people. Look for opportunities that extend your choices rather than limit them.
In terms of the legal dimension, I wasn’t driven by law but more the general purpose problem of content and data management via product. Law has this problem in spades.
What sort of things did you work on? Did you notice any interesting differences between them?
I worked on core products, including sustaining innovations that improved existing stuff as well as creating disruptive products.
Both were challenging, but for totally different reasons.
Compare products with existing users vs. new products with no users.
The latter is exciting and exploratory. But it is more advocacy driven.
The former is tough because you have an existing user base externally and an existing set of teams and histories internally. Change is harder when it’s something established.
As a result, new products tend to be a little more creative on the advocacy side of things, and existing products require a particular set of persuasion and to some extent political skills to gain traction. In either case, being able to sell an idea is key.
What was the biggest product you worked on?
I worked on the next generation LexisNexis platform. We interviewed 1000+ customers to dive into customer personas and their needs and wants.
It was mind-blowing.
The insights we derived were invaluable, always surprising and sometimes incredibly revealing.
We’d originally thought, and been told by anyone and everyone, “you’ll never get lawyers to sit down and chat with you for more than 5 minutes – they’re too busy”.
We proved them and ourselves wrong.
Often we’d sit down with a senior lawyer and they’d totally open up. The thing that stuck with me was the number and variety of lawyers who said something like:
“No one ever asks me. No one cares what I do or why.”
We’d often sit down for a 5-15 minute interview, on the basis that was all the time the individual had available, and quickly find ourselves 2+ hours into a sort of therapy session.
It’s hard to believe, but interviewees would often cancel their meetings as they got into it.
We learned so much about the profession and their needs.
It was also a bit depressing.
The number of legal professionals who admitted they had no idea what they were doing, or didn’t understand what they did or why and how they’d fallen into the jobs to be done that defined their day to day was quite revealing.
This all fed into early concepting and iteration of product and features. The overall project was, unlike my first, a success. And I put that down to the time and depth of engagement we did upfront and throughout.
That’s probably a good point to switch to Reed Smith, your next stop after Lexis in 2016. What prompted the change?
I loved Lexis and cut my teeth there. But I’d been there a long while. Things were changing internally and it was getting harder to align product goals (and my career goals) with revenue drivers as the business grew and grew.
One day I was researching (for a presentation) new roles in the law and saw a Linkedin advert for a newly created role at international US law firm, Reed Smith.
It was an Innovation Manager role.
What attracted you to Reed Smith and the role?
Reed Smith was lining up a lot of exciting ideas. Lucy Dillon – Reed Smith’s Chief Knowledge Officer – and others had some really ambitious and radical ideas to shake-up the firm’s innovation and operations. They were getting started in how to engage the London office and it was a great opportunity to get on the ground early doors and help them on their mission.
The role excited me because I thought it was a nice sidestep into an adjacent focus. It leveraged my existing product experience, and got me into the heart of a wide variety of use cases and personas spanning the firm itself and many of its key clients as it turned out.
What was fascinating was learning how the challenges and opportunities overlapped or diverged between banks, corportes of different industries and lawyers.
The variety and depth of client interviews and workshops I did in that role were second to none.
Did you face any blockers going into a new role for you and for them as a firm?
Mindset was a challenge. Ideas commonplace outside of law such as service design were at the time, and to some extent still are, rather alien to legal professionals and their direct clients, i.e. in-house lawyers who are usually former private practice lawyers who have come through the same legal training and education hoops beforehand as their law firms.
Simple ideas like proactively asking clients what they want, how, when, where, by whom and why were scary to a lot of people.
The fear, often unwarranted, is that legal customers simply want things cheaper.
They usually don’t. And even if they do, price is often a symptom rather than a root cause.
The causes are typically aligned around who is delivering the service, how they are engaging with the client, what is being produced when, and how it is being produced and where it is provided.
In other words, the service design, not the pricetag.
Because this way of working was unusual, the skills required were undervalued or misunderstood initially.
It’s hard to facilitate workshops constructively and elicit valuable insights. Knowing to ask questions of clients is one thing. Knowing who to ask, what to ask, how to ask and why and how to make use of the information is another skillset.
Without that, it was difficult for lawyers and clients to understand each other. Clients struggled to articulate what was missing or desired.
I noticed some lawyers also found it uncomfortable asking questions without knowing the answer.
It makes sense: lawyers are paid to be asked and answer questions about expertise in the main and much less ask clients a ton of questions than are open ended. Litigation is perhaps a little different in that regard.
And to be frank, it’s uncomfortable making yourself vulnerable. Admitting you don’t know the answers and have none at the beginning and that you’re here to probe, listen and learn. It’s a mindset shift
But the best thing was this: once people tried it, they saw the value.
Clients absolutely loved it. Much for the same reason the lawyer interviewees I mentioned loved being interviewed for Lexis products – it was a chance to be listened to and understood.
It was also a differentiator.
Clients weren’t used to this type of thing and saw it as a huge value add, demonstrating a commitment to client listening above and beyond the usual rather staid conversations about billing cadences, formats and staffing, or even hyped AI services, etc.
Sounds like there were a lot of win-win collaborations inside and outside Reed Smith as a result?
100%. BD and innovation became best friends from day one.
Creating a channel with clients to discuss service design made business development efforts differentiated vs. competitors and helped us understand clients and improve service delivery for them and the lawyers within Reed Smith providing those services.
But it’s not easy. This role was change management heavy. Law firms, like large corporates, are notoriously change resistant, and like any large organisation, change management is a full time effort. There’s no shortcuts.
That isn’t to say it couldn’t be entrepreneurial. I was working within small teams trying to leverage a small number of finite and closely guarded resources. That meant we could move pretty quickly when needed.
How did that element of the role compare to getting stuff done within a large corporate like Lexis? The orthodox view of law firms is that the partnership model means they function like an archipelago of small business owners with sometimes competing or overlapping interests and this slows things down?
Now this is a controversial opinion.
I’d disagree that all firms are like archipelagos.
Yes, there are a lot of interests that overlap and sometimes compete, but it’s actually surprisingly easy to get buy in by working with a smaller number of key individuals and focusing on building their business and making them successful, than it is trying to prove high returns to shareholder value as large as it is in large corporates. You’re often free from bureaucracy at a law firm, just so long as you understand some basics of legal service and of course security (especially data security).
Overall, would you recommend an innovation role in a law firm or similar?
I would. These roles are either more or less well defined these days, but they remain very fluid and somewhat suit themselves to self-starters with a bit of entrepreneurial zest, but also toughness and experience.
I’m not going to pretend they are easy. A lot of time and energy is spent finding and delivering creative ways to influence and persuade people to get on board with change.
As I said earlier, this is invaluable. Most jobs, and let’s face it life generally, requires this ability to get shit done with other people.
I’d say the main benefits of this type of role – provided it has a client facing element – is that it exposes you to many high calibre individuals across a variety of industries and roles, i.e. law firm clients.
A bit like the difference between working on a new product vs. an existing one, with an innovation role you are essentially working with an existing product – the law firm’s business – with a captive audience of current customers, i.e. its clients.
That means you spend less energy building bridges, and more time crossing them and getting to know a variety of personas and use cases and how to solve them.
How did you find yourself vendor side again, this time at iManage RAVN? What was the draw?
I knew iManage well. They had not long acquired RAVN in 2017 and were finding ways to meld the two businesses and their products together. I’d always been impressed with both teams, and the ability to work in a product role; combining my earlier data and content experience was a huge draw.
The RAVN business was a captive start-up initially but now making the jump to scale and become a core engine for the company. And today’s iManage business is a sort of scale-up – iManage completed a management buy-out from its former parent company HP in 2015. Since its return to its own independent roots it has grown from strength to strength. We say recently had our 25th anniversary but also our fifth year back as a fast moving “big start-up”.
So all in all it was a really exciting chance to join a start-up within a scale-up that benefits from a massive and diverse customer base.
The result is a great mix of folks who’ve worked at all levels and in several different businesses yet now work alongside each other.
I was given the opportunity to shape RAVN into a product first company and build a culture of mature product management.
What does your current role entail? What does a typical day in the life look like?
My job today involves managing the product roadmap for the RAVN offerings within the wider iManage experience. To do so I spend a lot of time working with our product team, developing their skills, meeting clients, running service design workshops internally and externally and collaborating with our executives, developers and UX folk.
To date this has been about designing better ways to capture, curate and surface knowledge, insights, and analytics for lawyers and other professionals using a search, big data, data extraction, information design and visualisation platform.
This has coincided with building out a framework and culture focused on dynamic agile development that is client centric. Embedding service design principles among the team has been another responsibility to ensure the team is equipped with the skills, frameworks and techniques to build great products more effectively.
What is the best thing about your job?
Working with a diverse range of people every day and getting to know customers and their pain points and thinking creatively and collaboratively about how to solve them! It’s pretty fantastic seeing the hard yards of customer discovery translate through to a winning product that customers love.
What is the most challenging thing about your job?
It depends. As I say, existing products have challenges due to change management on the customer and internal side. New products are exciting and creative, but require a lot more advocacy and evidencing.
What has surprised you about your career to date?
The amount that has changed, but also the amount that hasn’t. Ideas that were genuinely new and novel nearly 20 years ago when I began my career – particularly around good information architecture to enable search and data curation – have gotten a little lost in the hype of AI, which often uses many similar technologies or at least requires and builds upon good information architecture. Ironically now the AI hype has died down again, these ideas are having a revival.
How has the Legaltech sector changed (or not) since you began your career?
Paper to CDs and similar and then to fully digital online products and services. Digitisation is the constant thread, along with finding ways to make better use of more and more data without it being cumbersome. It’s funny that we’re talking about digitisation in 2021 when you were an editor when publishing digitised in 2000, but you now just have a lot of experience of the same thing which is great.
Has the perception of this sector changed? If so how?
Service design is definitely an area of change. When I started my Reed Smith role, myself and sometimes the firm with regard to its efforts in that space were often unfairly told it “wasn’t being exponential enough”. At the time, circa 2016 onwards, this peak AI and blockchain hype. I think the market was mesmerised by the promises of instant fixes via the medium of AI and blockchain.
But the reality is there are no instant fixes, especially when it comes to data.
That plus actually building things users want and need are important.
In most cases users – apart from tech aficionado early adopters – don’t care about how something is done but rather the value (or not) it provides. If you can create an amazing experience without AI or blockchain, why overlook it? People didn’t love Google because of how its page rank algorithm worked, but what it delivered: the ability to actually find relevant information!
What has been the most promising change in this sector?
Increasing diversity. There’s lots of exciting data and product roles cropping up and, unlike previously, it’s increasingly the case that legal teams are hiring experienced professionals from outside the law rather than trying to do everything themselves.
Do you think law firms will find it difficult to attract and retain talent from outside legal?
Potentially. Legal has hired outside skills for some time so this is an extension of prior form. That said, experienced data, tech and product professionals are perhaps more expensive than a lot of folk assume, partly due to increased demand. But that’s not the real risk.
The real risk is retention. It’s great hiring X or Y data or product or tech talent, but if they aren’t given the freedom to try things and access data or individuals then they can’t get their job done, will get bored and probably leave.
Likewise progression and equivalence. If you are creating data, tech or product roles etc you need to ensure the organisation is ready for them and accepting that they may need to work and think differently. Career tracks need to be thought out and planned. It’s a bit unrealistic to expect to hire individuals and want them to stick around without offering them any opportunities to grow and get promoted or take on greater responsibility etc.
What skills and / or experiences would you recommend to someone wishing to work in Legaltech?
Don’t disregard experience at large organisations. Start-ups are fun, but they aren’t the be all and end all. Perhaps get exposure to both and decide which you prefer.
At start-ups you can learn a lot very quickly, and take on lots of responsibility and sideways projects and roles. But they can fail.
You have to be comfortable with your own risk appetite. Understanding that is key.
If you join a large organisation of the right type, you can learn a lot quickly and take on sideways tracks.
If you are a lawyer looking to get into this space, look for opportunities to go on secondments to an innovation team. If your firm doesn’t have that option, why not create it?
That’s a great point. We know several lawyers who pitched the business case for an innovation secondment, won over their decision makers, did their secondment and turned it into a regular thing and in at least one case have moved into the vendor space subsequently.
Exactly. Engineer experiences. It’s not always easy, but focus less on status and more on experiences.
What tips would you recommend for anyone applying for jobs in this sector?
Do a variety of experiences: law firm vac schemes, in-house experience, Legaltech (big or small), or general business experiences.
If you want to get flogged, choose a big law job as a lawyer. You will either love it, or at least make peace with it, or decide it’s not for you. At least you know how it works and what could be improved by the end of your period doing this, especially if you remain curious of how things could be done.
If you want innovative practice areas, focus on the firms doing the most interesting work in their niche.
Reach out to people on all sides and make connections. You’d be surprised how many people love being asked about what they do, how they got into it, why they did it and what tips or connections they might offer. It’s flattering and “feel good” for most people.
There is no pressing need to code. If you are interested, do it. If you’re on the fence, try it and see if you click with it. But equally learn to be a product manager or service design or some basic UX course, they may equally get you into a tech role.
For most people, it’s a better investment to understand more broadly how products and services are built, but not at the level of code.
Having a good knowledge of how to identify, qualify and quantify customer personas, processes and painpoints is probably more useful day to day. You’ll be better at finding the right problems to solve for the right people at the right time for the right value… and bringing the best people together to solve all of that.
There are still a lot of misconceptions that you need to code to work in product or build great things. Someone on the team might need to, but it isn’t the entire team.
There’s lots of differences between the way roles are set up in legaltech and innovation. There are a lot of distinctions without a difference. There is also a huge disparity in remuneration, skills and seniority.
Don’t be afraid to take a chance and a step down in remuneration, especially if you are a lawyer coming into this sector. Sometimes the skills you earn, and the connections you make, return a bigger reward further down the line.
Are there tips for tailoring legal experience to legaltech, product, innovation and similar roles?
Yes. A lot of legal folk have chronological CVs that describe they did deal X, deal Y etc.
Outside of legal roles, you should reframe your CV and focus on highlighting relevant skills and experiences, ideally with a specific example. You need to speak the same language. Use the same language the job description uses. Make it easy for people to see your transferable skills.
I’d also stress finding roles that enhance your strengths rather than try and level up your weaknesses. Look for teams that have gaps you fill.
For instance, Lawyers are generally good at analysing problems and getting things organised, dealing with detail, actioning stuff and making people accountable. As start-ups scale, the importance of doing boring stuff really well can make or break investment decisions, e.g. having your house in order in terms of the legals, security processes and so on. It’s also the sort of stuff people try and leave until the last minute.
Be selfish in the sense of asking: What’s in it for me? What skills will I leave with? Where will I end up? Don’t overthink it, but don’t underthink it.
Find an experience with an approximate beginning, middle and end and aim for breadth of experiences as much as you can. You have plenty of time to become an expert if you desire.
What do you wish you knew at the start of your career that you now know?
You can spend a lot of time thinking a system is normal, rational and full of pre-defined paths and tracks. In reality this isn’t true of careers and life generally.
The presence or absence of certain elements don’t necessarily make sense or drive the right consequences in every case.
You should challenge those systems and beliefs (including your own) and define new roles and career paths within subsystems.
Don’t play the system, find the cracks and joins in the system. These will be opportunities to know enough about two or more domains and build bridges that create value that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Find ways to be the person that can make 2 + 2 = 5.
What books, blogs, podcasts or other media would you recommend for anyone wanting to learn more about this sector, or already working in this sector?
I really recommend these books:
- This Is Service Design Doing. It’s the bible of service design packaged in a highly visual, easy to apply and reference book. Can’t recommend it enough.
- Freakanomics. The book, blog and podcast. All of it. It has some eye opening perspectives that reframe interesting data, challenge beliefs and reveal unexpected insights from novel problems.
- Good Services by Lou Downe. Downe is the former Design Director of the UK Government where they founded the discipline of service design in the UK government, growing a 1000 strong community of designers into one of the largest, and most influential design team’s in the UK – winning a Designs of the Year award and a D&AD lifetime achievement award.
- The Jobs to be Done Playbook by Jim Kalbach. This is a practical and easy to apply book that explains the jobs to be done framework, i.e. the idea that consumers have jobs to be done and buy products to help them complete that job. Understanding the jobs, who they belong to and why they are important is key to building products customers love.
- Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. A history book that explains how most societies are imagined and held together so long as people believe in the system and when that fails, systems fall. Very interesting, especially given the huge amount of change in today’s world that challenges many core beliefs about our societies.
John Cutler (@johncutlefish) is a great person to follow on twitter regarding product management.
⚡ Interested in legaltech careers like Alex’s? ⚡
See here for our legaltech careers guide for advice and tips on the roles, organisations and routes into legaltech.