What do you actually do!? Episode 33: Alexander Malt, Innovation Manager

In this week’s episode of What Do You Actually Do!? our guest Alexander Malt tells us about how he found his passion for innovation.

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Alex is the Innovation Manager at Norton Rose Fulbright’s Newcastle Hub, where he works at the forefront of technological innovation in the legal sector.  He graduated with a PhD in Philosophy, with overlapping interests in linguistics, cognitive science and economics. In this episode, Alex and Kate talk about what exactly he does each day, how he got the job and how his PhD helped him.

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Kate 0:02  

You’re listening to the What Do You Actually Do!? podcast. Each week we want to bring you an inspiring interview, a useful tip or encouraging message to help you find your place in the professional world. 

Kate 0:13  

Hello and welcome to this episode of What Do You Actually Do!?. My name is Kate Morris, and I’ll be your host today. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about working in technology innovation within the legal sector. Today we’re joined by Alex Malt, who’s the Innovation Manager for law firm Norton Rose Fulbright. So Alex, what do you actually do?

Alex 0:34  

Hi Kate! So, I work at the intersection of process, technology, data, and more and more these days my role involves strategic elements. So I am responsible for the small but growing Innovation Team we have up in our Newcastle hub. And we do everything from looking at processes, both more internal processes and also processes to deliver legal services to clients. We look at how technology can best be used to either make those processes more efficient or, alternatively, to redesign them. And from that we’ve begun to require more and more advanced data capabilities; as we’ve been doing this work, we’ve been getting more and more data sets. And we’re now keen to make better and better use of those data sets to feed back into, again, make the services better, but also ideally, to break new ground.


So are you kind of an ideas person? Or a ‘making the tech work’ person?


Ah, that’s a very good question. I think there’s a bit of both to it. There’s a conceptual tool, which is really powerful. I’m going to briefly explain what it is, and then I’ll come back to the question, because I think it’s helpful to understand it. A guy called Simon Ward is a CEO of Ubuntu, actually, a major cloud OS. He came up with a very powerful conceptual tool, a way of mapping an industry, and looking at how technology evolves from its beginnings as a sort of a very niche, a very specialized type of thing. So early computers, for example, were made of vacuum tubes, and he had to have several PhDs in order to use one. And over time would become increasingly commoditised and accessible, and used more and more and more, and now we, you know, carry… our phones are no longer phones, they’re computers. We happen to carry them in our pocket. So the industry evolves quite a bit, and, at the outset, it’s basically the realm of mad scientists. And then the other end, it’s the realm of people who are far more regimented, far more certain about what it is they’re doing, that sort of thing. Innovation is sort of in the former category. So, to return to your question – is it more of an ideas position, or are we making things work? I guess it’s often about testing ideas. And the way you do that is you see if they work. And quite often, there’s a lot of stuff that goes wrong or doesn’t work. But occasionally, you hit on something, and that you can start to push forward.


So do people in the firm come to you and say – ‘I’ve got this problem. Can you fix it?’, or –  ‘I’ve had this idea of how this could work better. Can you make that happen?’ Or does your team kind of look at technology developments, understand already what processes etc are going on in the firm, and suggest innovations and changes that could be implemented? How does it work? Is it you going to them or them coming to you?


Definitely. We have recently got something far more structured. So we.. Well, my boss, a guy called Jeremy Coleman, who is the head of innovation, has been very focused on setting up what we call the Innovation Pathway. And that’s a way of opening up the roots to either our team or another one of the teams in… Well, there’s a group of teams called Transform. Innovations are part of that, as are a lot of other teams. And these teams are kind of charged with, as the name indicates, changing the way things are done, whether that’s changing our pricing models from the traditional billable hours to more of a fixed price idea. The Innovation Pathway directs ideas to the appropriate teams, either within Transform, or perhaps even outside of it. And those ideas can then be taken forward and developed. The other side of it is, we do have considerable free rein to look ahead. Part of our function is thinking about where the market is now, where it’s going, to the best of our belief and knowledge. And then from there coming up with some predictions about what we should be looking for, what we should actually be thinking about next, and working out ways to implement that in a way that is cost effective, in a way that’s able to realise returns for the firm.


So it sounds like you are kind of having to liaise between people at the ground level, doing the jobs of all levels of seniority, with then also really senior staff who are making decisions about hiring and the direction of the firm. So it sounds like it’s quite a central role, where you have an overview and a connection to everybody within it.


Yeah, I’m just very aware that no matter how I answer this question, I’ve got a risk of sounding like I have an ego the size of a small planet. So I am trying to restrain myself, but it is a very complimentary question, thank you. One of the things that was said to myself, my boss, and a few other people recently was by someone who joined the firm to head up a new division of it. And they… When we met them and we talked through what we did, they recognised us from their previous experience with other major corporate outfits. Because they said in every single big corporation, you’re probably going to find a few people, or, you know, a few very small teams that have a degree of autonomy that isn’t enjoyed by many of the other teams. A lot of other teams will have very specific mandates, you know. Like, accounts payable isn’t going to get to go off and decide to do things in a completely different way, because accounts payable really need to pay the bills. You know, they can choose how they do that the best way, they’ll be limited, but they have a very specific mandate. Our mandate is a lot more vague, and that is, in part by design. You know, it’s very difficult to give it a definite shape, because a lot of what we do is very hypothetical, and the importance of trying to work out, you know, which of those hypotheses actually worth pursuing. So, yeah, it’s a pattern you’ll see if you work in a big corporate – there are certain people, certain teams that have that trust invested in them. And yeah, it’s a great position to have, it’s… I feel quite lucky actually in a way to have that.


So as you kind of suggest, there – it’s quite, in a sense, quite an ambiguous kind of role and quite fluid. What was your starting point? And where did your interest in technology in innovation come from? How did your role come about?


Um, so I guess, within the firm, I originally entered the legal industry, because I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. And I very quickly realised that I didn’t really want to be a lawyer, I was far more interested in technology. A lot of legal work traditionally has been quite a… There’s a substantial element of grinds to it. You know, when you enter the legal industry, at least, when I did a few years ago, everyone was telling me, you know, this isn’t ‘Suits’, that isn’t how lawyers live. There’s a lot of, you know, there’s a lot of late nights and a lot of hard work, but, you know, the reason that that exists is because… A great deal of the time it’s actually because of a lot of manual processes and that kind of thing, that law is quite slow to change. When I started seeing a few of these… I guess I kind of describe my work ethic as – intelligently applied laziness. I tend to look at things that are quite repetitive and think – ‘Can I make a computer do this for me?’. And I stayed late one night, and just started writing some codes. Really really basic stuff, guided entirely by YouTube, by the way. And just created a way to loop through spreadsheets, and create templated documents that are rated about one per second, or something, I think it was. It’s very, very fast. I think, perhaps a bit longer, it might have been one per ten seconds or something. But it was kind of enough to prove the concept that this could be done. And luckily, I had a boss who was quite keen to encourage this sort of behavior. And over time, it just became my full time job. So I became… I think I might have been the first person in the firm to have the title Legal Technologist, which is a title you sort of see cropping up a bit more. What that means varies from firm to firm, there’s no clear consensus on what a Legal Technologist does. But I guess the short answer would be: a bit of coding, bit of using out of the box solutions, delivering legal services or helping a legal team deliver legal services… But not necessarily being a lawyer, so not able to offer legal advice, but being able to alter the way the service is provided.


You have a PhD in Philosophy. How do you think that’s impacted on your career?


It’s obviously not a structured course, where it preps you for being in a particular industry, and a PhD in Philosophy definitely isn’t really done with any view of industrial application. But it gives you a very interesting perspective on the subject matter, and you’re free to play with a lot of ideas. My PhD was on the Philosophy of Language and Mind, and I think that language piece… I did a lot of work on linguistics, specifically syntax and grammar. And I think that turned out to be very very useful for the legal world, which is all about language.


That’s interesting, though. Having that kind of skill set, where you’ve really honed that ability to be very specific, analytical, very precise and clear, and understanding the impact and power of language… To kind of see how that could apply to technology, and specifically within the legal field. That is interesting, and kind of, at the same time, not obvious to somebody who hasn’t studied philosophy. So did you have to, you know… Did you just apply for a job? I know you said once you were in the job, they kind of gave you a shot. But was there any kind of convincing involved for people to understand the connection between the transferability of studying philosophy, and that ability to come up with innovative solutions to problems, but also apply it to technology?


I guess the PhD and the academic background wasn’t part of how I got my start or anything initially. At least not beyond the talking points on the CV. It was more about, you know… I started off as a paralegal in the firm. So you know, when I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, I just took an entry level job and started working that way. It wasn’t, you know… And I was treated the same as everyone who came in from universities. It’s really very meritocratic. Some people, you know, try their best to get training contracts, and, you know, we’ll go off to wherever it is they get an offer from to qualify as a lawyer. But I opted for a different path when that opportunity arose, which was to go into this alternative space [inaudible]. I think the PhD has helped in some ways, though, informally. It gives you a new perspective you can bear, and I think people really appreciate that when you’re able to do this. And so it’s, you know… It’s obviously not… I don’t, you know, reference philosophy papers or anything in my work in the office. But I think people can kind of appreciate where you’re coming from. And I think a degree in Philosophy especially… It gives you… The Anglo-American tradition of Philosophy – which is all about clarity, structure, logical rigor – really gives you a very powerful toolkit, which you can use to both analyse ideas, and also structure and advocate your own ideas.


It sounds like for your role – it’s being able to come up with creative solutions to problems, there’s a technical skill that you’ve already sort of developed and continue to learn. What other skills or, sort of, personal qualities would you say it’s really useful to have if you want to work in innovation, whether that’s in the legal sector or, perhaps as you say, there are other big businesses that are doing this now. What does it help to… What’s the sort of profile like? What does it help to be good at and enjoy doing, if you want to kind of break into this type of work?


It’s probably a mistake to think – ‘I want to work in innovation, for the sake of working in innovation’. I think you need to have a… something you want to change or improve. And so, part of our stress right now is – we’re not really… we don’t want to claim exclusive ownership of that word. You know, we don’t want innovation to be our thing, and no one else is allowed to do it. We want it to be very much just part of the way work is approached. If someone wants to do that kind of work – you can do it anywhere. I think it’s more a matter of understanding what’s been done, and also why it’s been done, and then trying to come up with more effective ways to actually deliver to the client, or the end user, or the customer, or whoever it is that will be using what it is you’re doing. So there’s an interesting framework by Clayton Christensen, called – the Jobs to Be Done framework. So he talks about – everything is designed, you know… People demand stuff because they want it to do a job. People don’t buy a drill, they buy a hole in the wall. Work done is really a means to an end, you know, and in law, that’s definitely the case.


So it sounds like, essentially, if you want to work and enjoy working in the legal sector, it’s really – enjoying problem solving, but being able to understand exactly what somebody’s problem is, rather than what they’re saying they necessarily want to achieve. And being able to deliver that in the best possible ways, keeping up with developments etc, but understanding that you don’t have to necessarily give somebody all those details. It’s just helping them achieve their end goal. Is there any other sort of key challenges or issues that students who are thinking about breaking into the sector should be aware of, and maybe try to anticipate?


Yeah, so there are, um… I guess there are a lot of buzzwords, and I’ll try and give you the buzzword free version. The legal sector as a whole is changing very dramatically, I guess. Over the past two decades the pace of change has accelerated. In the UK about, I can’t remember roughly when it was… But an Act of Parliament passed the Legal Services Act, which enabled law firms to be owned by non lawyers. And since then we’ve seen the market for law start to open up. So, if you have any economics training, you’ll probably look at this, like myself, through the eyes of a cynic, and notice that as the market opens up, a lot of the barriers to entry, that stop new competitors coming in, have gone. So you’ve started to see technology firms, or firms like the Big Four – the big four accountancy firms – start to make inroads into the legal market, because there’s nothing stopping them now. As soon as the Legal Services Act was passed, they all started to set up their own law firms, and they are therefore bringing their expertise to bear. So, there’s a concept called ‘exaptation’, from evolution. And the idea is that you might be an apex predator in a particular environment, but if that environment changes, there might be something else out there that has a different kind of adaptation, that it can then use for a new purpose in your ecosystem. And suddenly, you’ll be very over-adapted to the old ecosystem, and suddenly, you’ll find yourself at a competitive disadvantage against these new entrants. As a result we are seeing the change in the Legal Services Act that made it possible for people to provide legal services, who are not necessarily lawyers. They will need lawyers to provide legal advice, but lawyers don’t need to own the firm. That opens the door to a huge amount of people coming in that can either specialise in a particular niche initially, such as, processing of legal documents, or forms, or whatever it might be. Or alternatively, they might be able to start to offer alternatives to legal services themselves, or alternatives to traditional legal services. So just because an old school lawyer might do a bit of work one way, that can’t be mechanised, doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to automate it some other way, or to create an automated version of something that does, or an automated process that does the same thing functionally, even though it doesn’t bear as much resemblance. So we’re seeing more and more of that. And as a result, the traditional incumbents, such as ourselves, I believe our history goes back something like 250 years or something. So it’s a very old firm that has been an apex predator in the old ecosystem, is now finding – ‘Actually, there’s a whole new bunch of people coming in. We have to change as well’. So that effort has been going on for quite a while, and more and more we’re looking to alter the way we practice things.


So watch this space. Well basically, I’m going to put some more information about the career areas that we’ve mentioned today, and some relevant links to the episode description, and a full transcript of today’s show onto our blog. So that just leaves me to say – thank you so much for your time today, Alex, really appreciate it. Really interesting stuff there. And yeah, thanks for joining us.


No problem. My pleasure. Thank you for having me, Kate.


Thanks for joining us this week on What Do You Actually Do!? This episode was hosted by myself, Kate Morris, and edited and produced by the Careers and Placements team. If you love this podcast, spread the word and subscribe. Are you eager to get more tips? Follow University of York Careers and Placements on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. All useful links are in this episode’s description. This has been produced at the University of York Careers and Placements. For more information visit york.ac.uk/careers.