She’s been called the Lady Gaga of New Zealand’s legal profession. Taranaki’s Claudia King is on a mission to rejuvenate an outdated sector – harnessing new technology to improve the careers, businesses and reputations of lawyers and provide people with affordable and accessible legal services.
Claudia King and her father Dennis King had always enjoyed a very special bond.
The best thing about working with her father in his New Plymouth-based law practice, Claudia firmly believes, is how he totally supported and encouraged her curiosity for technology.
“He gave me free rein to try new software as well as other innovative stuff, like different pricing and marketing strategies,” she recalls. “If we tried stuff and it didn’t work out then that was OK, we just got on with it and tried something else.”
Growing up in Taranaki had given Claudia a good mix of country and small city life. Her parents worked hard, so she learnt early in life that you need to put in the hard graft if you want to be successful.
They also taught her that having your own business lets you live life on your terms.
Claudia had graduated from university in 2006 and was admitted to the bar the following year.
Three years later came her proudest moment. On April 1, 2010, just two years after joining her dad’s firm, she became a director of Dennis King Law, aged just 26 – which apparently came as a bit of a shock to the Law Society.
That father-daughter bond was strengthened even further over following years, but the stress levels associated with the business rose with each passing year as well.
A year after she became director, the practice manager retired. Claudia was promoted to managing director, giving her dual responsibilities.
With no experience managing a law firm, she had been thrown in the deep end.
“I still had a ‘full fees’ budget to achieve and the pressure I put on myself was massive,” she says. “This stress continued for years and it changed me; it altered my personality and not in a good way.”
However, when Claudia’s father lost his battle with cancer in March 2016, the stress levels went up another notch.
Fortunately her major focus, since 2012, had been on her online legal documents website Legal Beagle, and its associated automation software Automio.
Claudia’s desire to work in the law profession as a lawyer had slowly diminished. She could see clearly what the future held for the legal profession, not just in New Zealand but worldwide.
It was time to sell the law practice and focus on a new future.
The idea for the website and Automio was born from Claudia’s views on the state of New Zealand’s legal sector, which she describes as “not particularly healthy”.
“There’s a real problem with people not getting the legal help they need because it’s expensive and inaccessible. Lawyers have done very little to address this problem, and have largely run their firms and delivered legal services in the same way since….forever,” she says.
“Some lawyers will look for ways to be more efficient in their work but few pass the benefits of these efficiency gains on to their clients, and that’s not good enough.”
Claudia says law firms need to have real conversations with their clients about what they really want from their lawyers.
“Lawyers avoid these conversations because they’re scared of clients saying that lawyers charge too much. Once lawyers know what their clients really want, they can wrap a strategy around this and then work out how technology can help them achieve it.
“As lawyers we have huge innovation challenges in front of us, so we need to be far more entrepreneurial in our approach to the law. This means we must stop being narrow-minded, and gain more expertise from outside of the law.”
Claudia points out that there’s been an increase of ‘NewLaw’ players in recent times and new legal-tech entering the New Zealand market.
“Once they start getting traction it will be difficult for more traditional law firms to compete if they refuse to change. It’s going to be interesting to see the tension in the legal sector in 2018 caused by these new players.”
Having worked in the traditional law profession, and now getting game-changing technology established in the marketplace here, across the ditch, and as far afield as the UK and US, Claudia’s in a good position to view the difference in attitudes towards technology and innovation.
New Zealand’s legal sector is behind the times, she says.
“When we’re speaking to lawyers from other countries we don’t have to educate them on what lawyer bots* and automation are, they already know and understand the benefits.”
Claudia says many New Zealand lawyers admit they don’t understand what automation is. Some can’t see themselves using this kind of technology in the future, or believe that talk of change in the legal sector is futile.
“Many say they don’t have time to look at options for better serving their clients and themselves. Lawyers in Australia and beyond seem to have accepted they must make the time to implement better ways of doing things,” she says. “I pin my hopes on what I’m seeing with our customers – the early adopters doing cool stuff that will help to future-proof their careers, create new revenue streams and grow their businesses.”
If that sounds like a plug for Automio – it’s understandable. Claudia can see so much potential with her platform.
“Lawyers do so much repetitive, boring, lower-value work. And clients can’t stand inconvenient meetings with their lawyers and paying for lawyers to fill out forms. Automio solves this by creating ‘lawyer bots’ for lawyers to use to interview their clients and create instant, customised advice, contracts, legal documents and reports,” she explains.
“Clients can serve themselves anywhere and anytime, and on any device. Lawyers can also set up customised document libraries for their VIP clients so these clients can serve themselves. Lawyers can then sell their bots to other lawyers and legal documents to clients in our smart document marketplace.
“This gives lawyers the opportunity to create new revenue streams that are largely passive.”
It’s true that lawyers often suffer from a poor image – but, in their defence, many people don’t understand the enormous pressures they work under.
Claudia believes progress is a mindset issue for many lawyers. “Traditionally lawyers earn money by selling time. So being efficient isn’t in their interests. Why create a digital workforce if you can’t bill their time?!
“Plus, being a lawyer is really hard. Every aspect is demanding – clients, staff, the Law Society, your partners, your boss – it’s hard to please everybody and very easy to disappoint people.
“And while you’re trying to please everybody you start neglecting the people who matter most – your family, who you start disappointing too!”
Legal issues can be emotionally draining as well, she says. “You slog your guts out for a client, only for them to not pay your bill and complain about you to the Law Society.
“Getting justice for people in New Zealand can be a very long process, and it’s tough to manage a client relationship on that journey through all its ups and downs. Plus if you’re a partner [in your firm] you have to help run the business.
“So with all this to manage, finding the time and energy to be innovative and entrepreneurial is difficult.
“It is 100 percent worth it though. Lawyers need to find the time if they want to survive,” says Claudia.
Speaking from experience
Having decided to make 21 July 2017 the last trading day for Dennis King Law, Claudia was naturally sentimental about her business journey and inspired to blog about the many highs and lows.
Her ‘lows’ list is headed by her father’s passing – which highlighted how unprepared the firm was in terms of succession planning and provided a valuable lesson in resilience.
There was the stress, the heartache of having to witness one client losing almost everything, the issues around working with staff and family, as well as some hard lessons during the initial launch of her Legal Beagle website in 2012.
In her blog she describes how she was expecting people to flock to the site and instantly become clients. Instead – it was just ‘crickets’.
“At first I was very discouraged by this and I let the website just sit there basically not being used for almost two years, while I sent it negative vibes! Then I got my s….t together and upskilled in digital marketing. After that we had no trouble getting clients through Legal Beagle. It became an important part of our firm.”
On Claudia’s ‘highs’ list past clients and colleagues come in for a mention, along with the “super-talented” people she worked with while developing her online platform, and the team she has currently working with her.
She also singles out Karen de Beer – her business coach from Results Group, who was not just a mentor, but also taught Claudia about strategic planning, goal setting and accountability.
“I’ve used a lot of the stuff Karen taught me to get Automio off the ground. My experience with Karen taught me that using coaches and external consultants in my business can be hugely valuable. And asking for help is OK.”
The bigger picture
Automio is now at the centre of Claudia’s vision. Launched in the middle of last year, she describes life since then as a “crazy rollercoaster of highs, lows and ridiculously hilarious moments”.
With around 130 customers, she says the feedback from their early adopters has been invaluable in helping to shape the product.
“In 2018 we’re going to trial our first AI (artificial intelligence) integration and teach our bots to do maths so Automio can automate the pricing process for law firms and other businesses.”
Claudia says the plan is to continue making legal help affordable and accessible to everyone.
“Our ultimate goal would be for legislation to be created using Automio, so that instead of reading and trying to interpret statutes, etcetera, people could speak about their specific situation with a bot who will apply the law to that situation.
“We’re also keen to use Automio as an affordable way to deliver AI to the masses. Many people don’t realise that the early phase of bespoke AI development is about demonstrating the software to a handful of users concurrently – in many cases commercialising the software puts it out of the price range for mass consumption.
“Our interview bots allow Automio to not only make legal advice and documentation more affordable and accessible for the masses, but provide quality control and standardisation improvements for higher-end applications.
“We’re also excited to work more with other sectors, such as financial services, as there is good interest there in using our bots for customer information collection, ‘robo’ advice, and as a digital marketing and lead generation tool.”
More play, less work
While still only 34 years of age, Claudia can look back on a career that for many people would seem incredibly pressurised. She has long known that at just 26 she took on too much responsibility and probably wasn’t mature enough to handle the stress.
If she had her time over again, she says she would have more fun, travel more, and not take everything so seriously.
Will Claudia ever go back to being a lawyer? She doubts it; she’s too busy enjoying her new found freedom – the freedom to spend time with her husband Brent and two children Carolina (three) and Austin (one); to help the legal profession harness technology to improve their world and the world of their clients; to solve the world’s problems over cocktails with her ‘BFFs’; and to take better care of herself.
It’s a big ask – but one she’s more than up to.