The former head of Axiom and newly appointed Asia managing director of Vario talks to Nick Ferguson, managing editor of Asian-mena Counsel magazine about her new role and the future of NewLaw.
Asian-mena Counsel: What is Vario?
KD: Vario is a flexible law service that provides legal consultants (we call them Varios) who want to work differently and enjoy the challenge of new assignments and a more flexible way of working. Vario has been established in the UK for around six years or so and is now in Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore. Since establishing in Asia Pacific, Vario has built a strong bench of over 100 legal consultants in the region.
Vario builds flexible legal solutions tailored to specific business requirements of clients in the region. This offers clients the ability to bring in resources for specific projects or to cover a period of absence with the flexibility to bring this to an end when the need changes. It also gives clients control over costs without compromising on quality.
Our Varios vary in terms of experience, sector and skillset. However, they do also possess certain commonalities — for example, all are choosing this career path and enjoy the flexibility it brings. This choice and their careers are underpinned and empowered by the resources of the Pinsent Masons group. In addition, our Varios understand the benefit of relationships, both with us, each other and with our clients and how this helps them achieve their ambitions in life. Furthermore, all of the Varios go through a rigorous assessment process to ensure our consultants possess the technical ability and behavioural qualities that they need to succeed and that they are suited to the life of a consultant.
Asian-mena Counsel: What attracted you to join Vario and how does it differ from other flexible-law providers?
KD: Vario is now the largest global bench of legal consultants, attached to a law firm. The rate of growth has been phenomenal, with a new location being added every nine months over the past two years. This is an ambitious business that is having a substantial impact internationally. We are looking at adding another two countries in the next 12 months. That’s exciting and I wanted to be a part of it and lead it across Asia.
Another thing that attracted me is the answer to the second part of your question. What makes Vario different? As a part of Pinsent Masons, our Varios get the global support of the firm behind them. When working through us, they will be able to access the knowledge systems and support from a global firm. Being part of the largest bench of legal consultants means that we can find the solution for our clients. It’s not just about the size either; each legal consultant is of the calibre that Pinsent Masons would employ. This means that our clients access the very best talent and that more often than not; we can find someone for their needs.
Having led the growth of NewLaw in the past nine years in the region, as the former head of Axiom, the opportunity to bring all my expertise into building a disruptive and innovative business model but within the infrastructure of an international law firm was a compelling and very appealing proposition for me.
Asian-mena Counsel: What is driving the growth of this sector?
KD: I think it’s a real range of factors affecting the sector at the moment. Firstly, client demand — 2008 had a significant impact on business on a global scale. Ever since, clients have sought ever greater value, more transparency, more flexibility and more control. This has placed pressure on all business and law is no different. Hence the rise of ALSPs such as Vario.
Secondly, technology has undoubtedly had an impact. Many of our Varios work remotely for all or part of their contract. This couldn’t have been achieved 10 years ago, not without some fall in output. However, nowadays technology enables legal consultants to be just as effective whether they are in the office, at home or working somewhere else remotely. Of course, the relationships that are built through physically being in the office are still really important and I personally advocate this as an important part of being part of a team. It’s about balance; time in the office alongside some working remotely is, I feel, a healthy way to operate. This has meant people can accept work they wouldn’t have previously, if they had been required to be full-time in the office.
Thirdly, the change in attitudes that has evolved. We’ve heard lots about Generation Y over the past years and more recently Gen Z. Generations of people who seek greater work-life balance and place more emphasis on their own personal plans and development than they do solely on their career. The millennials are now firmly entrenched in the workforce and we see the impact of this in their career decisions. They are choosing a flexible career, to give them time out to travel, run a passion project or be more available for the family. Interestingly, I don’t feel it’s just limited to these generations, I think their focus on work-life balance has inspired others to follow in this career path and explore life as a legal consultant.
Asian-mena Counsel: How have you seen the attitude to such innovations in Asia change over the past decade?
KD: In the early years, pioneering New Law was a rather lonely venture. A lot of time was spent educating the market as to what innovation in the legal profession could look like for in-house general counsel — and clients were too busy firefighting to adopt innovation in any form. Lawyers are traditionally conservative and risk-averse and there was reluctance to embrace alternative ways of working. Fast-forward a few years, however, and the landscape has dramatically changed in Asia. In-house legal departments have adopted alternative legal services providers as a clever and cost-efficient way of delivering legal services. The next wave of innovation will be technology-led solutions and in this regard Asia is fast catching up on technological developments in the profession elsewhere.
Asian-mena Counsel: You helped to open the Hong Kong office earlier this year — what are Vario’s plans in Asia?
KD: Yes, Hong Kong is the latest addition to Vario. We opened in early May and have had a terrific response in the market since then. I have hired several people to my business team from the New Law sector in Asia and they will all start in July this year. We have a hugely ambitious growth plan for Asia Pacific. Not only will we be looking to serve clients in the market and achieve growth that way, but we will also be looking at new market opportunities and potential acquisitions to accelerate our plans. For me, the opportunity to achieve this within an international law firm platform with the backing of all senior management and the board for my plans for the Asia region is tremendously exciting. There is a refreshing understanding within Pinsent Masons that Asia is not a cookie-cutter market and what might work well in the US or London, does not necessarily translate to success in Asia.