Forum Magazine: Is the Law Firm of the Future in Abu Dhabi?

Topics: Alternative Legal Service Providers, Artificial Intelligence, Client Relations, Efficiency, Forum Magazine, Law Firms, Legal Innovation, Legal Workforce, Legaltech, Technology

Forum magazine

If your vision of a law firm is an ornate, wood-paneled office staffed by a sea of lawyers sporting tailored suits, it might be time to think again. From a quiet, unassuming office in Abu Dhabi, a new enterprise named Support Legal is rapidly building a 21st century model for providing legal services.

The premise is both straightforward and potentially revolutionary — quality legal services delivered entirely without hourly billing and supported by an innovative business model that takes a fresh approach to engaging topflight lawyers. “We don’t think of ourselves as a law firm,” insists Lee McMahon, co-founder and principal. “We are a provider of legal services, but that’s really our only similarity. We’re engineering a new end-to-end approach for everything from how the lawyers perform their work to the speed, value and cost-effectiveness of delivering those services to the client.”

Support Legal changes virtually everything: how it employs lawyers, engages with clients and transacts legal services. For clients, one of the most obvious differences is that all services are provided on a fixed-fee basis. No billable hours means complete up-front transparency and predictability for costs.

At the same time, Support Legal assures clients that the quality of its work is equal to any major global law firm. They hire only senior lawyers with 10 or more years of experience at internationally recognized law firms or multinational corporations. The marriage of senior lawyers and technology removes a need for junior associates and paralegals.

Support Legal maintains a modest office in the Abu Dhabi Global Market Square in the heart of the capital of the United Arab Emirates. From there, it manages its team of seasoned lawyers who are spread across whatever location suits their work style and lifestyle. “We avoid the need for having massive infrastructure,” says McMahon. “Not just the need to maintain physical infrastructure such as offices and support staff, but we also remove organizational infrastructure. No committees, equity partnership arrangements, multilayered practice groups or junior lawyer training programs — all of which contribute to costs that we’ve eliminated. This creates a win-win as clients enjoy greater cost-effectiveness, while still being profitable for us.”

A New Model from the Ground Up

Like so many innovative business models, Support Legal arose from the realization that there was a gap in the market — an unmet need for legal services provided in a more streamlined and transparent manner, supported by state-of-the-art automation tools. Only a few short years ago, McMahon was working as general counsel for a multinational corporation and co-founder Patrick Rogers had a corporate practice at a top US law firm, both being friends since they first arrived in the Middle East. The realization struck them that both sides could benefit immensely by taking advantage of a technology-based mobile workforce built around a new legal services delivery model.

See our interview with Ciara Henry from Support Legal about the firm’s innovative business model for providing legal services. 

McMahon and Rogers tackled the problem by taking a clean-sheet approach compared with the traditional law firm. “We knew the only way we could change the model was by building it from the ground up,” said McMahon. “We were both legal technologists stuck in an old school environment, so we understood what needed changing as well as how we could go about it.”

As insiders who intimately knew both the client and lawyer sides of the equation, they quickly stripped the existing models down to core essentials: high-quality legal work delivered super-efficiently with transparent, predictable costs.

McMahon and Rogers saw a ground-floor opportunity to plant their new business model in the UAE, a jurisdiction that both men had worked in and were familiar with, and where a new, thriving environment was just emerging to spawn and nurture start-ups.

Support Legal next borrowed a page from the playbook of Silicon Valley start-ups by offering “freemium” services to help bring start-ups into their orbit, offering value to all comers while demonstrating their expertise. Hannah McKinlay joined from Linklaters as principal and head of Knowledge Management, and conceived ScaleUp, a website that provides an extensive free library of documents, legal know-how and other advice that helps guide start-ups through their legal journey. Many start-ups who have taken advantage of the free content have since become paying clients.

Support Legal arose from the realization that there was a gap in the market …

While Support Legal wasn’t the first law firm to provide such a service, it was the first of its kind in the Middle East serving the region’s burgeoning start-up environment. The UAE government and business community had launched a concerted effort to grow technology hubs, funded by venture capital firms and supported by a legal system largely based on English common law.

A Global, Remote Workforce

As the assignments come in from clients, they are assigned to Support Legal’s remote lawyers. The enterprise has encountered no shortage of lawyers eager to join a virtual environment that gives them both challenging legal work and a workplace alternative to conventional law firms and legal departments.

Many former Fleet Street and Wall Street lawyers are now drafting shareholder agreements and IP submissions under the banner of Support Legal from the comfort of countryside cottages in New Zealand or even coffee shops in Chiang Mai.

“A happy lawyer is a more productive lawyer,” says McMahon. “And our setup incentivizes them to invest in the client relationship, rather than just trying to squeeze out more billable hours.” Many of their hires, he notes, are younger attorneys seeking alternatives to chasing the partner track in high-cost cities such as London, New York or Hong Kong, or new mothers looking to re-enter the legal workplace but at a more measured pace.

Back-End Technology

While highly experienced attorneys help ensure quality work output from Support Legal, technology orchestrated by in-house legal engineers provides a key linchpin for making the model work.

Using a digital platform, new clients complete an online questionnaire instead of exchanging an endless string of emails or phone calls. Documentation requirements are clearly detailed and easily fulfilled via uploads with a few keystrokes. Once completed, the back end of processing and approvals within Support Legal is equally streamlined. The end result is an onboarding process that moves at warp speed.

“It’s mind-blowing when you think about it,” says Ciara Henry, Support Legal’s innovation engineer, noting that what used to take up to four weeks of emails, inputting data and copying-and-pasting can now be done in a matter of minutes. “The speed at which we can generate the client engagement letter is critical for us,” she says. “The sooner the client is on board, the sooner we’re bringing in revenue — this is transformational, not an incremental change.”

The Future of Support Legal

Having achieved a strong foothold in the start-up space, Support Legal is now getting attention from more established companies in sectors from banking to mining. Major corporations both inside and outside of the region are lining up to explore whether Support Legal’s innovative technology-based business model can work for them as well.

But while the company sets its sights on new markets, Support Legal remains committed to fostering the growing start-up ecosystem in the UAE and beyond. McMahon, Rogers and McKinlay are in the midst of developing new AI-supported systems in their relentless drive to provide even more services with greater efficiency and lower costs.

McMahon stresses that like their clients, Support Legal is a group of entrepreneurs at its core, and they interact with start-ups in a manner they’re both comfortable and familiar with. “We speak their language and understand their need for transparency and predictable costs,” he says.

“We need to move as fast as our clients — which is incredibly fast sometimes — and provide the quality legal services that enable them to focus on building their businesses.”