LONDON — Jimmy Vestbirk, the energetic, high-fiving organizer of the sold-out, day-long Legal Geek Conference near the heart of London’s Shoreditch technology district, said at the outset that his goal was to make London the next global legal tech hub.
Throughout a day of fast-paced TED-Talk-style presentations, more than 30 entrepreneurs, technologists, practitioners, law firm leaders and various innovation and startup funders tried to prove Vesterbirk’s proposition. The event was sponsored by Thomson Reuters, The Law Society and Freshfields.
Toward the end of the day, it was Balderton Capital’s Suranga Chandratillake who made the strongest case for the rise of Europe, not just London, as a new center for legal tech innovation. Chandratillake began as an engineer at Autonomy, founded video startup Blinkx and took it public, and then moved on to become a venture capitalist. A classic Silicon Valley profile, in other words. So what is he doing in London?
Chandratillake said he sees a sea change in Europe’s approach to innovation and entrepreneurship. As Europe has become more friendly and welcoming to start-ups, momentum has built. Successful startups have spawned a generation of mentors, advisors and funders, he noted, adding he sees new life in a number of centers of innovation, including London, Paris, Berlin and Stockholm. Silicon Valley, by contrast, is a very provincial and narrowly-focused place, he explained. It’s good at producing tech for tech’s sake, but doesn’t understand much of the world outside the Valley. In particular, he said, it’s not good at taking on existing markets (like legal) where there are entrenched business models and institutions that need to be dealt with.
To him, the legal industry “looks like a big pile of money that hasn’t changed hands for a long time.” Technology provides a push to transparency and unbundling in markets, and law hasn’t turned that corner yet. It all adds up to what he sees as a very big opportunity.
Aside from Chandratillake’s comments, there was plenty of evidence on display elsewhere during the conference that the UK and Europe are gearing up for a long run of legal innovation. First, there was the event itself. With a level of energy reminiscent of the ReinventLaw events in 2014, the event space at the Old Truman Brewery near the center of the Shoreditch innovation center was packed.
A session on legal tech lessons learned from around the world featured speakers from the US, France, Canada, the Netherlands and Australia. Jeroen Zweers of the Netherlands described an active legal startup sector there, despite the resistance or indifference of a very conservative bar. The Dutch Legal Meetup group is 21-months old and has 632 members, and a robust legal tech awards program that just announced its second annual winner, digital signature player SignRequest.
The meaty parts of the day were provided by sessions on Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain, with practitioners, vendors and early adopters sharing lessons about where those technologies will bring the industry in the future. Sessions on innovation, diversity, and investment explored the human and financial infrastructure needed to support tech hubs like the one emerging in London.
Does this all sound familiar? Yes, Europe is at the stage where the US legal tech sector was in about 2012 or 2013. The same types of eager entrepreneurs are eyeing an inefficient market, the same funders are trying to gauge the size of the opportunity, and the same industry insiders are trying to estimate the pace of change and the level of its impact. The same hype, and the same warnings against hype.
Vestbirk might get his wish to make London a global legal tech hub, but London will have lots of company in what is becoming a global wave of legal innovation.