The managing director of Axiom spoke to Asian-mena Counsel’s Patrick Dransfield about disrupting the traditional law firm model in Asia.
Asian-mena Counsel: What prompted you to create the very first new model law business in Asia?
Kirsty Dougan: I was regional counsel with Diageo based in Shanghai for a few years and experienced law firm secondees. It felt a very unsatisfactory way of resourcing my team through busy periods and I didn’t like the expectation of reciprocity it created. I moved to Hong Kong in 2009 and was surprised at how conservative the legal profession was here. The idea of disruption to the traditional law firm model seemed an alien concept in those days. I found lawyers in private practice to be very conservative, risk-averse and even protectionist in behaviour. But a number of very progressive in-house lawyers told me the profession was ready for change and felt the business model would work well in Asia, particularly at a time when the industry was still feeling the dramatic fall out from the global financial crisis.
The question I kept coming back to in those early years was, in a world where everyone else was trying so hard to be efficient, why does the legal industry, one of the world’s largest and most important service industries, get to be so inefficient?
I saw an opportunity and in 2009 set up my own company called Asia Counsel with a former investment banker, Serena Wallace-Turner and within six months we had sold that to Axiom, opening in Hong Kong in 2010 and Singapore in 2011.
AMC: How would you describe the services that Axiom provides?
KD: Axiom is the world’s leading alternative legal services provider. With more than 2,000 employees across three continents, we provide lawyers to clients by way of secondments and technology solutions to help legal departments adapt to a demanding new era. We do this in three ways.
First, we offer a secondment platform. We recognise that in-house teams must be nimbler than ever and we help clients respond to this challenge by engaging proven, flexible legal talent backed by client-focused management. This helps our clients to save time, manage risk and lower costs — new teams or teammates can integrate seamlessly in a matter of days, we provide access to a bench of more than 1,500 vetted experts enabled by tools and continuing support, and this saves 50 percent to 75 percent versus law firms while avoiding the fixed costs of full-time hires.
Second, we provide contract diligence and integration. We believe there is a lost opportunity in M&A deals, for example. Traditional due diligence and integration is expensive, fragmented across multiple stakeholders and fails to use the power of contract data. Axiom can enable data-powered deal success. We’ve combined legal acumen and proven process to unlock the power of contract data at every stage of the deal, from collection to review and data capture to reporting and analytics and to novation and assignment.
The third element of our service is aimed at regulatory reform, where the pace of change is clearly burying organisations in an unprecedented amount of work. Axiom’s legal and process prowess helps companies achieve compliance with less disruption. By combining legal intelligence and a business-focused approach, we consistently carry large-scale compliance projects to the finish line.
AMC: How is Axiom changing the way lawyers work?
KD: We set out to create a new category of legal services and provide lawyers and clients alike with choice and control over their careers and budgets in a way they’d never had before. Even five years ago in Asia, this was an alien concept to many.
Axiom professionals typically join because they’re excited by the global reach of the company, our enviable client list (we serve over half the Fortune 100 and 10 out of 10 of the top investment banks), our 90 percent utilisation rate, and our unwavering focus on this category. This is what we do — this is not a side business, it’s our main business and that means we invest our heart and soul into making sure that the model works for our lawyers and our clients.
In terms of what it means for our clients, our lawyers are dedicated and focused professionals who are not only building their own brands but feel a huge sense of pride for the community and business that supports them — they want to do a good job for themselves, but also for Axiom, and that means making clients happy.
To attract the right talent, we offer full benefits to our lawyers including medical, dental, pension, work visas where required, competitive salaries, spot bonuses, annual appraisals and pay rises, client feedback and, for some who meet certain criteria, equity in the firm. This really is a unique value proposition in the market and one that clients also find compelling. They see us really investing in people and respond to it positively.
AMC: In your experience, are lawyers ready to embrace change?
KD: Yes, I believe they are hungry for change, which is why so many join Axiom and why we have seen such growth in the alternative legal service provider universe. The legal profession is the last profession to really embrace meaningful change although as Richard Susskind says it is hard to tell a room full of millionaires that they have their business model wrong!
AMC: How is Axiom helping to bring the legal profession into the 21st century?
KD: Driven by a spirit of exploration, Axiom has been at the centre of the changing legal industry for two decades, asking the big questions on behalf of lawyers, GCs and the industry as a whole. As such, Axiom provides talent and technology to help legal departments adapt to a demanding new world.
And we are embracing the technology that promises to define and reform that new era. For example, in August we announced the market launch of AxiomAI — a program that leverages artificial intelligence (AI) to improve the efficiency and quality of contracts work. As part of AxiomAI, we will accelerate the use of current generation AI to help extract information from contracts in order to streamline contract analysis. At the same time, we will continue our research and development efforts to shape next-generation AI applications for more unique and transformative use cases.
AMC: What are some examples of your value proposition in Asia?
KD: Axiom is known for having the most commercially minded professionals in the market and our investment in people does not end with getting the right people on board. We offer top-class business education in addition to the professional education you would expect. Our executive education programme — offered through the world’s leading management consultancy company McKinsey — provides our lawyers with an MBA-like certification that covers subjects such as business strategy, risk and effective communication.
Clients can hire our lawyers on a retained basis, for example at 20 hours a week or on a full time basis — there is no minimum requirement. So our secondments can be very flexible and can be scaled-up or back at any time.
High-value insourcing has recently been very attractive to investment banks facing regulatory events — where they don’t want a law firm or contractors — so turn to Axiom with confidence in the quality of our lawyers and our client service, where we’re putting together concrete deliverables that clients can rely upon. In the area of margin reform, for example, we’re seconding global teams to clients with detailed processes, technology and key deliverables in place. In Asia, this has been a compelling value proposition for investment banks as they struggle to manage tough deadlines set by regulators.
AMC: What does Axiom have planned for Asia in the future?
KD: Axiom was the pioneer of new model law in Asia and remains the market leader in the region, bringing meaningful change and innovation to legal departments on a scale that other providers struggle with. To stay competitive and relevant to our clients we need to look at new markets in the region and I am excited to be working on that plan right now. We are also looking at where we could put a centre of excellence to build out our contracts transaction service and projects capability in this region. Our new CEO, Elena Donio, is also driving the technology side of our business with a new CTO appointment imminent and the recent launch of our AI platform. The future looks very bright!
AMC: What has been the best piece of advice given to you in your career to date?
KD: I’ve had advice from a number of great people over the years, some of which I have taken on board and some I have disregarded! As a business owner with an entrepreneurial streak, I realised you have to be pretty fearless if you want to succeed running your own business. And stubborn! When I’ve been criticised or told my ideas won’t work, it simply fuelled the ambition.
I think the single piece of advice that still resonates came from Tim Proctor, the global GC at Diageo, who was my unofficial mentor during my time there. He was with me in Shanghai one week and saw that I was working too hard and possibly heading for burn out. He took me for a walk round the block and said very firmly: ‘Kirsty, you need to get cleverer with your time.’
It was such simple advice, but it has stuck with me over the years. I am razor-focused on where I spend my time now and I write much shorter emails!
I have learnt what to worry about and what not to worry about with regard to the business, and I have hired some super-smart, clever people into my team in Asia and given them the trust and empowerment to succeed.
AMC: What is your hinterland (ie, what are your interests outside of Axiom)? How do you control your time so that you can pursue them?
KD: I do a lot of yoga! And I have recently taken up kickboxing, which I find very cathartic. I am also a keen skier and love interior design and renovation projects.
I tend to come into the office pretty early and do any calls with New York/San Francisco before heading to the gym for an hour or so before anyone else is around. I am very lucky in that I can control my hours and will often relocate home early evening to spend time with the family before I do evening calls with our London and US offices. It works brilliantly for me and I think I am happier as a result. I couldn’t go back to having to complete time sheets for every minute of the day or working in a company where the culture requires you to leave your jacket on the back of the chair.
Kirsty Dougan is managing director of Axiom for the Asia region, the world’s leading provider of legal advisory services. She has advised general counsels on all aspects of legal department management, including restructuring and process reengineering, and has hired more than 200 lawyers across a range of disciplines covering major Fortune 50 companies along with mid-sized financial, pharmaceutical, FMCG and tech companies.
Prior to her experience with Axiom, Dougan served as regional counsel to Diageo in Shanghai, where she led the first foreign investment in China’s domestic spirits industry. She was also adjunct professor at Fudan University, and previously a law lecturer in the UK, where she taught EU, anti-trust and international law, and is the author of several legal texts.