the game Decentraland being played on a laptop
Get with the program: legal businesses are following tech clients on to platforms such as Decentraland © Irina Velichkina/Alamy

Antti Innanen regularly meets clients from all over the world in his office, which overlooks snow-capped mountain ranges and has a huge wraparound balcony. It is, however, a virtual space. “It’s nicer than our actual office in Helsinki,” jokes the chief executive of Dot, a Finnish legal design consultancy.

His business is one of a number of law firms and legal technology companies setting up offices in the metaverse — an immersive virtual world where workers are represented by 3D avatars, and which many regard as the next generation of the internet.

The legal industry is notoriously conservative, but some forward-thinking lawyers are testing out metaverses such as Decentraland or The Sandbox, which allow users to connect up, as well as run businesses, buy parcels of “land” to build virtual office space, host virtual meetings and buy and sell digital assets.

They are not alone. In recent months, big companies as well as smaller start-ups have rushed to stake a place in the metaverse. HSBC, for example, has purchased digital real estate in The Sandbox, which is expected to become a stadium to host virtual sporting events.

And where clients go, law firms typically follow. So lawyers are opening offices in virtual worlds as a way of connecting with technology clients and entrepreneurs who are increasingly doing business there.

Rodrigo González Ruiz, partner in digital law at Deloitte Legal in Madrid, says the firm is developing its own virtual office, which will enable team members based there and in Barcelona and London to meet clients. It will also be used to train lawyers and includes features such as a virtual blackboard — an online space dedicated to learning.

“We were thinking about new ways to interact with our clients and to attract the interests of clients,” says González Ruiz, who began exploring new ways of working online during the Covid-19 pandemic. He wanted more than the existing flat screens and Teams calls.

“Younger clients are very used to using these kinds of tools,” he says, adding that the way companies are interacting with the law firm is also changing. “Instead of having a report of evidence that is 100 pages, clients now want quick advice and effective advice. Younger clients are very, very digital.”

Dot, which redesigns legal processes and documents, has set up in the metaverse using a program called Spatial. It made the move after its staff across Europe spent months of remote working during the coronavirus pandemic and after Innanen relocated to Spain from Finland last year.

At a time when employers and employees are debating hybrid and remote working, Innanen says the law firm started thinking about its big office space and meeting rooms and whether they were really necessary.

“On the other hand, the work that we do is very collaborative,” he explains. “Teams and Zoom are very convenient but, sometimes, they lack a sense of connection . . . We have all our weekly meetings at our metaverse office. It is a good way of connecting and, as we are all present in avatars, it gives you a feeling of being together.”

There are many other advantages. Dot staff based in Spain, Berlin and Helsinki can interact as avatars using the virtual office and there are no constraints on visitor numbers.

“We get a lot of requests from student organisations [to say] they would like to visit our offices. But, unfortunately, our office in Helsinki is tiny. Inviting students to the metaverse office is a fun way to present our way of working and our cases to the students,” says Innanen.

US law firms are increasingly active in the metaverse. Grungo Colarulo, a US law firm specialising in personal injury, entered the metaverse with an office in Decentraland last December, with help from the 11-year-old daughter of founding partner Richard Grungo Jr, who used her experience of online gaming worlds such as Minecraft.

German law firm Gleiss Lutz opened an office in the metaverse in July.

Some more sceptical law firms point out that it is still expensive to “buy” office space in the metaverse, and there are also concerns about cyber security and protection for sensitive client data.

Innanen highlights some practical problems. Clients can easily get lost when navigating virtual spaces without a host avatar to guide them. There can be technological glitches and some visitors pay less attention than in real life.

“I might be giving a seminar in the metaverse and there will often be one or two people running around like crazy or doing something like creating a massive cartoon of a cat,” he says.

Opening an office in the metaverse is only one way in which law firms are embracing new technologies, though. They increasingly deal with clients that use blockchain and cryptocurrency, and some have started to accept cryptocurrency as payment for legal services.

US firms such as Steptoe & Johnson, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, and Perkins Coie are now accepting currencies such as bitcoin in exchange for legal services.

Gunnercooke became one of the first UK law firms to do the same when it said in February that it would accept payment in currencies including bitcoin and Ethereum. Partner James Burnie says: “We have three or four clients a month paying in crypto. Some clients do fundraisings and receive crypto and are very keen to do this.”

The decision by law firms to accept thee digital assets means that smaller businesses that have raised start-up funding in a cryptocurrency, can now buy vital early-stagelegal advice that they otherwise would not have been able to pay for.

However, many mainstream law firms have steered clear of being paid in cryptocurrency because of swings in its value. Bitcoin’s price dropped from above $67,000 in November 2021 to below $19,000 in September, for example.

US regulators have also urged caution because of concerns that volatility in cryptocurrencies could breach professional conduct rules that prohibit the country’s lawyers from charging unreasonable fees to clients. The Nebraska Ethics Advisory Opinion for Lawyers was one of the first by a US state ethics body to address bitcoin payments. It advised that lawyers should swiftly convert any cryptocurrency received into US dollars to comply with professional conduct rules.

Aside from these questions over payments, lawyers such as Innanen are convinced that becoming early adopters of new technology will give them a vital edge.

“I met a Swiss lawyer in our metaverse office today and I felt I got to know them better than if we had spoken on a Zoom call because we were effectively in the same place,” he says.


Case studies in best practice
Researched, compiled and ranked by RSGI. ‘Winner’ indicates the organisation won an FT Innovative Lawyers 2022 award.

Winner: Norton Rose Fulbright

Originality: 8 Leadership: 8 Impact: 8 — Total 24
The firm created a service that provides generic legal opinions for financial institutions looking to meet capital requirement regulations.

Financial institutions would previously have obtained these opinions on a case-by-case basis, but this service allows them to assemble opinions from a range of up-to-date options, saving time and money.

The service is used by 10 of Europe’s largest investment banks.

Standout

Bird & Bird
O: 7 L: 9 I: 7 — Total 23
Since September 2021, personal data sent to any country outside the EU and European Economic Area that does not normally require protection of that data according to General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) directives must be accompanied by a standard contractual clause (SCC).

So the firm has created a tool that automates production of SCCs, and now has 4,500 unique users each month.
Commended: Gabriel Voisin

Hogan Lovells
O: 8 L: 8 I: 7 — Total 23
The firm, alongside bank BNP Paribas and tech company Integra Ledger, has developed an automation product that extracts data from any document. Metadata is inserted into documents on their creation and stored using blockchain technology. The tool cuts time spent on reviewing information and reduces human error.

BNP Paribas logo is seen at a branch in Paris, France
© Benoit Tessier/Reuters

DLA Piper
O: 7 L: 7 I: 8 — Total 22
The firm’s employment law and knowledge teams collaborated on an online tool for clients to assess their diversity and inclusion strategies. The tool assesses approaches to training and leadership and other feedback. It then compares the results against wider benchmarks to produce scores. The tool identifies where clients are performing well and where they may be opening themselves up to legal risk.
Commended: Katie Davies and Gurpreet Duhra

Watson Farley & Williams
O: 6 L: 8 I: 8 — Total 22
The firm developed a Global Aviation Restructuring Index as a free online tool that compares restructuring procedures across the sector worldwide. Users can choose the best option based on benchmarks such as speed and cost of restructurings and treatment of creditors and debtors.

Commended

Cuatrecasas
O: 7 L: 7 I: 7 — Total 21
The firm structured the first investment round in Realfevr, a start-up issuing football videos and collectibles as non-fungible tokens, through contributions consisting of crypto assets.

Ellex
O: 6 L: 7 I: 7 — Total 20
In collaboration with consulting firm Gooliver, the firm launched a digital tool in 2022 to help handle annual assessments of money laundering and terrorism financing risk required by Lithuanian regulators.

Fragomen
O: 5 L: 7 I: 7 — Total 19
The firm rolled out a tool, Nomadic, that stores documentation and automates business visa applications to ensure compliance with complex immigration rules for travellers.

macro view of an old US visa
© Getty Images

Sayenko Kharenko
O: 7 L: 5 I: 7 — Total 19
The white-collar criminal defence team launched a chatbot for clients in Ukraine that uses the messenger functions on social media sites Facebook and Telegram to provide round-the-clock legal advice in emergencies.

PwC Tax & Legal
O: 6 L: 6 I: 6 — Total 18
The Spanish firm developed a service that uses tech to help clients manage the collection of debt and reclaim overpaid tax for unpaid invoices.

Designing the client experience

Winner: Simmons & Simmons

Originality: 7 Leadership: 9 Innovation: 8 — Total 24
To deepen relationships with key clients, the firm launched a new approach to client collaboration, called Supercharge. The clients have access to multidisciplinary teams that include lawyers, product developers, business development professionals, and financial analysts. They deliver value through product development, alternative resourcing models, hackathons and design sprints.

businessman preparing plan on glass wall in office
© Getty Images

Standout

Norton Rose Fulbright
O: 7 L: 8 I: 8 — Total 23
The firm created a tool for insurance company Markel Corporation that provides analytics on the type and volume of legal work being completed and presents them in a dashboard for easy interpretation. The tool allows the legal team at Markel to identify repetitive work, save time and see where additional resources are needed.

Commended

Bird & Bird
O: 7 L: 8 I: 6 — Total 21
A new legal project management team aims to improve communication and collaboration both internally and with clients.

Colleagues discussing project in modern office
© Sunwoo Jung/Getty Images

Dentons
O: 7 L: 7 I: 7 — Total 21
Clients want innovative technological solutions, but lawyers are often inexperienced in product development. A new framework guides the creation of products and tools.

Macfarlanes
O: 7 L: 7 I: 7 — Total 21
The firm has created a cloud-based platform to manage projects and administrative tasks, as well as track documents. It is built for private clients’ family offices, which often lack document management systems.

Taylor Wessing
O: 7 L: 7 I: 7 — Total 21
The firm is partnering with clients to design new products. In one example, it designed a tool that would enable a multinational tech company to anticipate and respond to regulatory changes.

Shearman & Sterling
O: 7 L: 7 I: 6 — Total 20
Two new services have been launched by the firm: one provides consultancy on how a client can optimise its legal department, while the other in effect outsources or supplements a client’s legal operations function for a fixed monthly fee.

Herbert Smith Freehills
O: 6 L: 7 I: 6 — Total 19
An app takes users through a series of choices to determine whether a document is protected by legal professional privilege.

Shoosmiths
O: 6 L: 7 I: 6 — Total 19
Shoosmiths8 Connected Services, launched in March 2021, brings together eight different areas of the firm’s work and includes an innovation lab. As part of the firm’s legal services structure, lawyers are motivated to join in.

Challenging traditional models

Winner: Gunnercooke

Originality: 9 Leadership: 8 Impact: 6 — Total 23

Gunnercooke was the first sizeable UK law firm to accept payment in cryptoassets for legal services. It set up a payment structure and worked with the Financial Conduct Authority, the regulator, to exceed compliance rules and remove any possible perception of money laundering. The firm acts for around 100 small company clients working in the blockchain and cryptoasset sector, and its model allows them access to legal advice they might not otherwise be able to afford.

Bitcoin
© Kin Cheung/AP

Commended

Chronos Law
O: 7 L: 8 I: 6 — Total 21

Founded in 2019, the firm was established to outsource legal work for growth start-ups. Still relatively small, it has significantly expanded both revenue and team size over the past year.

Cleveland & Co
O: 6 L: 7 I: 7 — Total 20
Focused on providing resourcing to the financial services sector, the firm acts as an extension of its clients’ teams, which cuts their need for in-house lawyers. It has significantly increased its client base over the past year.

La Scala Società
O: 7 L: 7 I: 6 — Total 20
La Scala Società tra Avvocati has entered a joint venture with law firm Advant Nctm to create a company dedicated to IT security, privacy and process automation.

William Fry
O: 6 L: 7 I: 6 — Total 19
A new business service, PeopleBridge, helps meet clients’ short-term needs by providing a vetted contract lawyer or tax adviser, in a first for a top-tier firm in Ireland.

Eskariam
O: 7 L: 6 I: 5 — Total 18
Specialising in high-value class-action lawsuits, the firm is structured as a non-hierarchical matrix of multidisciplinary teams, backed by technology — which allows it to manage large workloads cost-effectively.

Antoniou McCollum & Co
O: 6 L: 6 I: 6 — Total 18
The Cypriot firm enables foreign-owned companies that have set up operations or branches in Cyprus to outsource their in-house legal needs.

360 Law Group
O: 5 L: 7 I: 6 — Total 18
The virtual law firm offers legal services through a subscription pricing model and serves 70 jurisdictions globally.

law, legl system concept on virtual space
© Getty Images
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
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