Document Automation in 2021 – Avvoka – S3E29

This week on the Legally Speaking Podcast, our host Robert Hanna was joined by Giles Thompson, Head of Growth at Avvoka.

Prior to this, he enjoyed successful stints working at BP, Herbert Smith Freehills and Kirkland & Ellis. In this highly topical episode, Giles shares his story and insights on the fast-moving world of legal automation, including how Avvoka is turbo-charging the industry’s adoption of intuitive and user-friendly document automation software.

Overall, he discusses:

    • His experience in private practice before joining Avvoka
    • His role at the firm and how its pioneering next generation document automation for multinationals and boutiques alike (it’s corporate client list already boasts names such as Slaughter & May, Allen & Overy, Baker McKenzie, Clyde & Co, HSBC, Carlsberg and more)
    • The wider legal automation landscape, and his predictions for the space in 2021
    •  An exclusive on the firm’s possible future pro-bono initiative, and how you can get involved in the firm’s exciting story


Rob Hanna (00:00):

Welcome to the Legally Speaking Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Hanna. This week. I’m delighted to be joined by Giles Thompson. Giles is the head of growth at Avvoka. Fronting, the company’s revenue growth strategy to create bespoke document automation solutions for clients. Giles has previous experience as a city lawyer, at both Herbert Smith Freehills, and Kirkland and Ellis. Equally, he has in-house experience working for BPS technology, media and telecommunications team, and worked in the regulatory division of PAX lab in San Francisco. Before becoming a lawyer, Giles worked as an assistant football coach for the Docking Devils FC under 13 side. So a very big welcome Giles.

Giles Thompson (00:45):

Thank you very much for having me, Rob. And I’m so glad that my coaching Docking Devils managed to slip into my bio there. I was just talking about the other day how I would disown any children I had if they played for any other grassroots football team.

Rob Hanna (01:01):

Well, I’m a little bit down in dumps at the moment, because I’m a Liverpool FC fan and it’s not looking like it’s going to be our year, so we’re going to move swiftly on. And before we go through all your amazing achievements and legal experiences today, we do have our customary opening question on the Legally Speaking Podcast, which is, on the scale of one to 10, 10 being very real, how real would you rate the hit series Suits in terms of its reality?

Giles Thompson (01:29):

Six. Six, I would say, and the basis for that is that they’re, you know, they’re a nice suits, there are long hours, but it seems that, Harvey Specter does actually every single type of matter. And if only real law was like that and you basically just could be a litigator one day, corporate transaction lawyer the next day, and then well breaking the law the next, I don’t know.

Rob Hanna (01:53):

Yeah, I know. I think the only way to liking it too, is a heart surgeon then becoming an eye specialist the next day is probably some of the simplest way to put for people who have not seen the show, the way they work. So let’s, start at the beginning then. Tell us a bit about your family background and upbringing.

Giles Thompson (02:10):

Yeah, so my family background I’m actually back in Norfolk at the moment, is farming. So my first job was driving a tractor. Well, actually before that was sitting on the back of a harvester for potatoes chucking out the rotten ones. So I definitely short of got used to the long hours, as a kid. But driving a tractor or grading potatoes as opposed to working in an office. Yeah. So that’s my background. Really. I didn’t really have any exposure to law or anything like that. I basically just got to university and one of the sort of people in my class, you know, took me under their wing and took me along to some of those sort of commercial law, milk round stuff. So I ended up doing that that way, but, yeah, that’s sort of where I come from.

Rob Hanna (02:56):

Great. And I mentioned in the intro, you worked as a city lawyer before becoming the head of growth at Avvoka. So what was that like, tell us about those experiences.

Giles Thompson (03:06):

Well, I mean, I really enjoyed it. I have to say. And I think that actually commercial law and training contracts an amazing opportunity, it’s obviously super competitive, but actually having the opportunities to be in a job getting paid and actually learning as much as you do during a training contract and, you know, being an associate really, I really enjoyed it. One of the things I most enjoyed was actually, I ended up doing quite a lot of tech focus work, both contentious and non-contentious and actually concerned cyber security related stuff. And I really enjoyed speaking to people who really knew their stuff about cutting edge technology. Um, and I think that was one of the things I most enjoyed and actually ultimately ending up a litigator, it was one of the things I really specialized in, but also one of the reasons I found being in private practice, frustrating in some ways as a patent litigator, you don’t get much closer to the cutting edge of technology than that, but actually, you know, it just, made me want to be on the, on the tech side and developing some new stuff myself.

Rob Hanna (04:05):

Brilliant. Okay. Well, it certainly had a lot of interesting experiences. And I can assume that’s only helped you in your current role, but for those less familiar with Avvoka, what exactly is it?

Giles Thompson (04:17):

Well, very valid question. Well, what we do is, we essentially document automation. And document automation has been around since the eighties or nineties, but we basically see it differently. So it’s, you know, essentially document automation is taking a standard form precedent or contracts, or even just a regular document or form, and then designating the parts of that document, which needs to be made bespoke or custom each time a new version of it is drafted by a lawyer or, a regular business person. And then once you’ve done that, it generates this, questionnaire or a survey, which the end user will answer in order to generate their custom or bespoke document. Now that sort of methodology has been around for awhile. However, it’s actually setting up the document for automation, and doing that designation of the customer information thing, quite laborious. And so we’ve taken a really, hopefully straightforward approach to it whereby you know, anybody with less than an hour’s training can get into a document and start automating themselves. And the software is very consumer friendly and intuitive. And also what we also believe quite strongly is that there is more to document automation than just filling out the questionnaire and spitting out your first graph. Actually, we think that document automation should continue right the way through a negotiation. So if you’ve sent off your first offerto the other side and they said, hey, that confidentiality term is far too uneven, you know, we want that to be a mutual confidentiality term or something, you know, being able to go back and, once you’ve received the turn back to your questionnaire reanswer and say, actually, yeah, the confidentiality temps throughout this agreement should be, what we’ve, we’ve just agreed. And then all of those changes throughout the document being, autonomously made. So being able to sort of reautomate your document as you go so that you don’t have to make, you know, 50 amendments based on one comment from the other side. But yeah, that’s in a nutshell Rob.

Rob Hanna (06:12):

Yeah. And you’ve very much outlined that very simply, but I know it’s a lot of hard work and very complex in terms of getting it to the level that you’re at at the moment, but just sticking with yourself and your journey. If we can, because you did have a very successful, you know, city legal career. So for you, how and why did you make that transition to Avvoka? Because I talk a lot about people maybe taking risks and other routes you can take. So I think that’d be really helpful for our listeners to talk us through your process and how you did it.

Giles Thompson (06:42):

I guess the first thing I’d do is just be a little bit tongue in cheek in my response and say that I feel quite strongly. And I think this is something which is pretty common among people who are more entrepreneurial on the scale. I actually should be staying in private practice and missing an opportunity, like the one available to me at Avvoka, as the real risk, because ultimately I think that we’re going to be a hugely successful company, you know, beyond where we already are. But, you know, I thought that the real risk was spending two or three years and missing the opportunity. And then that was sort of a guarantee that risk that I would take, but actually if I never tried it, you know, I’d always know that there was a possibility I potentially missed. So I actually, I think answering your question more head on, I think there’s actually a real reflection point at the moment in, in legal tech. And actually also in just the practice of law more generally, I think it’s sometimes unhelpful to think of technologies like Avvoka as legal tech. When actually we help anybody who needs to use a contract or a document drafted to get stuff done. I actually quit and moved during the, during the lockdown. And I just felt like we were at this inflection point where this pace of change, people’s openness to collaboration and people’s frankly, awareness that any of the admin that they were doing on contracts and documents was preventing them from finishing earlier in the day and spending time with their children. Obviously not withstanding the fact a lot of people of spening more time with their children then they ever hoped to now, but you get the point. I felt like it was going to draw into sharp focus, the benefits to something like Avvoka. And actually when I was in practice, I saw that there were a lot of document automation products out that, which frankly just took a bit too much work to get going. So I thought I saw the point I thought, actually, this has a chance of being adopted both by private practice law firms and corporate, and now’s the time if I’m ever going to do it. And I’m very thankful to David and Elliot who hired me because as head of growth, I wear lots of caps and it’s a really, it’s a really invigorating role. And I’m certainly using and developing skills. I didn’t really have when I was in private practice. So that’s been really exciting.

Rob Hanna (08:46):

Yeah. And I must say you’re a very progressive business and I’m loving everything that you’re doing. So, and I think that ties nicely to the slogan of, next generation of document automation. Tell us more about that. I know you gave a good outline before, but go into a little bit more detail, particularly around that slogan and maybe some of the challenges that you face and how you sort of overcome them because I can appreciate it’s not straightforward.

Giles Thompson (09:11):

Yeah. And I would say without name checking, the incumbent document automation solutions that exist in the market. And I think a lot of people know who they are. I, first thing I would say is, you know, and it might become at some surprise for some people, but there are competitors, but I have a huge deal of respect for what they’ve achieved and actually the work that they’ve done for us. You know, when I go to private practice law firms, I do not need to explain what document automation is and what some of the fundamental benefits are. All credit. So that our legacy competitors, that being said, it’s, I think it’s important that we distinguish ourselves as being a next generation product, because as I say, the intuitiveness is that much better. And also we’re not just doing the first drop document automation, we’re trying to automate other bits. And I think it’s important to distinguish as well because document automation projects, shockingly, haven’t always been a success within private practice firms and also within big corporates. And that’s because, you know, where you have a product, which does require a bit more training. And, honestly, a lot of it was down to the tech limitations at the time, you know, it was intuitive as it possibly could be at that point where it’s a little bit harder to get adoption, sometimes the project fails. So we’re basically trying to distinguish ourselves from a lot of those legacy tools and to make clear that actually the approach we’re taking is quite different. Really it’s, we’re almost designing for a consumer audience rather than a B2B audience. And we’re hoping that, you know, anybody can pick up the tool. So, yeah, that’s a little bit of background to the tool as well and, next generation also covers off some of the other stuff to do with workflows and approvals and playbooking and all that lovely sort of document automation and negotiation jargon too.

Rob Hanna (10:51):

Brilliant. Well, thanks again for sort of giving us a clear outline of that, and I’m sure this would have piqued a lot of people’s interests. So where can people go to find out even more about the LMA dot automate project? Tell us about.

Giles Thompson (11:04):

Well, the first thing to say, it’s a bit of a boring one Rob which is that asked to caveat what I say here by saying that the project is a joint project with the loan market association themselves, who are the biggest publisher of recommended form of loan documentation and ancillary documentation. That’s certainly that I’m aware of. And then also Allen and Overy as well. And the big caveat I have to make is that, you know, in terms of any breaking news on this stuff, I have to, as a courtesy give that right to our partners so they will be breaking, you know, lots of news in the, in the coming weeks and months. I’m sure, but certainly if people want to know more, they can absolutely contact me my email is And I’ll be very happy to talk through sort of all the information that’s publicly available about the project and also to keep them apprised of any new updates that are coming out about it. But it’s, yeah, it’s a really exciting project. And anybody involved in finance law and land financing related business, it could be a real game changer. I think, that is really my hope in terms of drafting those kinds of documents. So yeah, stay tuned

Rob Hanna (12:09):

Very, very exciting. And, you know, Avvoka was founded in 2015, I believe, and, you know, currently boasts, and this is testament to all your hard work as head of growth. You mentioned there Allen and Overy, but Baker McKenzie, Carlsberg, Saughter and May. So from your perspective, how do you do it? You know, what’s the secrets, I guess, to your success.

Giles Thompson (12:31):

Honestly, Rob, I didn’t build the business from the ground up that was David and Elliot and a number of the other early employees of the business who, you know, there are too many to name. What I would say, I think the thing which really makes us different is care, and everybody in our business really cares about what the clients need to achieve. And, frankly looking after people’s mental welfare and time. And I think that the way that kind of helps us stand apart is by because we care, we end up having these conversations with clients where we figure out what the real issue is. And honestly, our product development has been very much led by conversations with clients. We can’t take every recommendation and you can’t take every sort of feature requests and do that. Otherwise you end up with a product that ends up being really confusing and not intuitive, but what you can do is you can figure out and speak to your clients to figure out what is causing them pain. And then you can do the thinking around how you can, how you can avoid that and, draw the parallels between all of your different clients. I think the other thing to mention as well, Rob, is I’ve been very lucky, to be an Allen and Overy fuse incubator. And that’s been really, really helpful as well. And we have a number of great clients that they’ve been a particularly good client for us in terms of collaborating and having in the early days, having a lot of patients with, our products as we brought it up to spec. And now I’d like to think that, Allen and Overy, as well as our other clients are really benefiting from having that patient initiative with us now that we’re sort of fully fledged and, and frankly leading tool.

Rob Hanna (14:03):

Yeah. And, just to mention, we’ve mentioned some really big brands there that you have, but to be clear, this product is for everyone. So, you know, we have a number of sort of boutique firms and smaller firms that listen to the show. So it’s worth emphasizing that point, that whilst you are obviously servicing, you know, magic circle and these large international firms that, you know, it’s very accessible for other firms, is that fair to say?

Giles Thompson (14:26):

Yeah. And I think this is the point that I’m still trying to address Rob, and it’d be interesting to have a chat about it because on the one side, when you’re trying to work with corporates, you need to have the big corporate names and frankly the clients. And we’re really, really proud of having on the website, but also I’ve certainly had feedback from smaller firms, both law firms, but also, you know, smaller businesses that frankly it just makes us look a bit inaccessible and it’s hard because you want it to look slick and you want to look like you’re, you’re the business. And you know how people are HSPC as well on your website proves that you’re, you’re all there from a security perspective and things like that too, which is really important. But yeah, certainly we’re really interested in working for the full strata. And actually, I personally – and this is my personal view rather than the company’s view, but I actually think that we have a moral responsibility to make sure that tools like document automation are accessible to everybody throughout, throughout the corporate world, but particularly in the legal service delivery. Because if we’re helping large law firms to deliver services in less time at lower cost, actually we need to make sure we’re doing that for the medium sized firms. Otherwise they’re going to be out competed and ultimately I looked at a Law Society report that came out recently, which said the 80% of people in the UK don’t have access to sort of meaningful legal services. That actually, I think if we give this technology to medium and small size law firms, that’s going to really help that problem. It’s going to mean that they can do two or three times as much with the same time. And that can only be good.

Rob Hanna (15:58):

Absolutely. And I couldn’t agree more. It’s trying to make it more accessible. Ultimately for those that need it as well. So I absolutely love what you’re doing and you touched on it a bit earlier. You’re very open and, you know, people can get in touch with you, but how can people maybe get involved in, Avvoka as you look to grow and for anyone just wanting to make more sense of legal tech can of Avvoka help them?

Giles Thompson (16:19):

Yeah. I mean, there’s a few things. One thing I will mention as well as if anybody is listening to this and they work for a nonprofit or a charity, one of the things I’m, you know, very much- and this is the first I’ve mentioned about it publicly, I’m actually thinking very much that we should be doing more in that space. So, you know, if you would like to get in touch, we might be able to help on a, on a pro bono or free basis. You know, if that, if that’s of interest, that’s what I just drop that in there. We certainly want to be helping people who are doing good and help them more efficiently in terms of getting involved. Well, you know, one thing that we’re going to be doing is we’re always looking for new hires and people who can bring talent to the business and you don’t necessarily have to fit into a certain box. The main thing is, is caring really about what we do. So, yeah. Please get in touch with that particularly interested in sort of marketing and design people, over the next month or so. One quite cool initiative , that we have Rob is actually the two things actually I’ll, I’ll mention. So the first is the Avvoka lab and that’s a bit more niche and it’s, that’s a, actually a scheme that we’re using to get people who are either quite techie or, or potentially very interested in providing feedback on document automation tools. I may actually get them to test our tool, an unreleased versions of a Avvoka. So yeah, please do visit the Avvoka website if you’d like to be part of that. The other thing that we do on an ongoing basis is we have the Avvoka Academy, and this initiative has gone absolutely crazy this year actually mean we have something like 50 or 60 of Avvoka academies slated for the year. And what these are is essentially a session where we invite a bunch of people hosted on zoom, and we actually open up the platform, give everybody an account on the platform and get them to go and, and do some automation after some pretty brief instructions. And that’s amazing. It really shows people the obvious return on investment and actually that it is as easy as we say it is. So yeah, if you want to get involved in any of those initiatives, um, or, you know, find out other ways, yeah. Please get in touch, visit our website or email me.

Rob Hanna (18:24):

Yeah. And I love the sound of the of Avvoka Academy. I know that produces a lot of value and I believe that free to attend. So people should definitely go and check that out. And you recently I believe started a campus ambassador scheme, which covers three different countries. So can you tell us a bit more about the reason to take this sort of next step and also whether any students who don’t have campus ambassadors at their universities can get involed?

Giles Thompson (18:50):

Yeah, well, so the reason we did the campus ambassador scheme, it was really inspired from my time in, my time in private practice where a lot of the private practice firms would have have campus ambassadors who would organize events and things at universities. I think it’s a great piece of work experience to put on the CV and get a good experience with sort of project management and things. But actually one of the things that we really thought was there is a bit of a hole when it comes to legal tech, commercial law is such a well defined career path with so many competitive, but so many different work experience options. We just saw such a hole in that, um, when it came to legal tech. So one of the really great things about the campus ambassador scheme is we’re doing an insight day. I was hoping to do it in person, but that’s looking unlikely at the moment, but an insight day where we sort of provide career advice, CV review, several people in the organization will sort of tell their stories through private practice and legal tech. And also we’re going to do some mentoring as well. So that’s a bit of a way for us to, to give back and actually train the next generation of legal techies. And that will be really exciting. And the other thing as well is we don’t see that being a huge commercial opportunity and doing academies to students. What we do think is educating increasing awareness, that document automation as really a necessary skill for lawyers can only be a good thing for us, but also it gives a lot of these, you know, younger, generally the junior lawyers, an opportunity to add value and to offer something different when they get into their training contracts. So that’s just a nice way for us to take it back and actually to train and, and make sure that we’re getting the product right. And taking all that feedback, which is really well received from us.

Rob Hanna (20:27):

Yeah. And I just love your approach. You know, you continuously learning continuously opened for feedback continuously looking to help others selflessly give back. So absolutely love everything that you’re doing. And I guess there’s a lot of the discussion at the moment, particularly when I’m delivering talks around the O shaped lawyer, but do you think, and if you’ve touched on it lightly there, do you think that future lawyers will need to be legal techies or not?

Giles Thompson (20:51):

I mean, it’s a philosophical thought at a certain point because I bore people with this example, but you know, If before, if you were, if you were a lawyer and you operated via email, you’re probably considered a really techy lawyer and now that’s become standard. And I remember when I was in practice, what I would do is when a transaction finished and I received the scans from the other side, I would use a PDF editor like an expert version and just compiled as PDF. And a lot of the partners would what they thought I would be doing would be waiting for the original document, scanning them back in, but scanning them back in order, they hadn’t clocked that you could just, you know, change order and compile documents on a PDF editor. I mean, that’s silly example, but I just think that these skills are just going to become part of the job and you’re going to be trained in them. And it’s just going to be expected with the analogy I would make when it comes to document automation. I think document automation is going to become part of a master triage process. So for example, at the moment, certainly at the top, the top, end firms, when a piece of work comes in, they say, okay, well, should we be doing this work? Isthe first question they ask. And then if the answer is no it’s well, okay, let’s, let’s take it up, put it over to one of our outsource centers and then we’ll supervise the work and that will, you know, it’d be better value and quicker for the client. The second question, or maybe even the question before that I think will in future will be, should we be automating this? Should, should that person be doing this in a manual way at all? And I see that as being the direction of travel, it’s just a case of how quick that’s going to be.

Rob Hanna (22:25):

Yeah, it’s certainly very, very exciting. And I get very excited about the future of the legal industry. So I guess as a, as a, as a final question from me, and it’s probably a very open-ended question, but what are you expecting to see in terms of legal trends in 2021? And do you expect to see a continuation of sort of technological adaptation by the legal sector or not?

Giles Thompson (22:50):

Hopefully I’m not too bias. I actually think that one of the big legal tech trends this year is going to be making the most of what companies already have. And I think there’s definitely been in the last two to three years. There’s definitely been a as well as an investment of investment in the legal set. Well, there’s been a lot of investment from external investors in legal tech companies. It’s been a lot of investment by law firms and corporate in legal technologies and actually adoption in some corners of the market has been quite disappointing in terms of once, once they’ve been full actually adopting them properly. So I actually think that we’ve got to be a real push for people to make the most of what they already own and figure out what that is. And I think a lot of the time that’s going to be sort of why the packages of, of apps that people have. So, you know, the Microsoft suite and that kind of thing, and figuring out what can be done with that. And I think what that means is we’re going to have to be really sharp when it comes to demonstrating the return on investment and why we’re better than perhaps one or two of the sort of less dedicated or specialists tools that firms have in their arsenal. What I think also is it’s going to mean that those companies who have really, really strong adoption plans and can articulate those plans for adoption and really do all that thinking and planning for their clients are doing to really succeed. So I think that we will see a continuation of a technological adoption. You know, actually primarily people’s incumbent tools, but also there’ll be some providers. And we wanted them to really do well to work collaboratively and help providers plan seamless adoption adoption program. And I think sometimes the issue is people go for adopting, you know, because I’m talking about those mentioned, they want to automate every single one of their documents within three or four months, and it’s just never going to happen. If there’s a large amount of documents, I think what we’re going to see is people like us going in and automating, you know, three or four documents perhaps at the start and then, you know, everything expands from there. That’s what I would say. So I think a bit of a cautious approach to adoption actually, but I think ultimately it’s provided a great job of planning and working with clients we’re likely to see, I think actually a really strong adoption.

Rob Hanna (24:55):

Yeah, no, I agree. And I hope that’s the case as someone who’s a tech enthusiast myself. I, I look forward to seeing that. So I guess Giles, we’ve covered a hell of a lot today and you you’ve mentioned your, your email, but could you just kind of recap because if people want to follow or get in touch and believe that’s the best way also, can people follow a Avvoka on social media or any other platforms feel free to shout out any other web links or relevant social media. And we’ll also share them with this episode.

Giles Thompson (25:22):

Sure. Yes. I mean, it’s just and it’s a v v o k a dot com. .And yeah, we’re on, we’re on LinkedIn, we’re on Instagram, we’re on Twitter. I might even be making an appearance on Tik Tok at some point in the near future, but I’m not very funny. So

Rob Hanna (25:44):

I have also ventured on other platforms, so yeah, I think it’s one of those that you just have to hope for the best.

Giles Thompson (25:49):

Yeah. Well, Rob, I’ll be, I’ll be sending you an email asking you for some tips.

Rob Hanna (25:56):

Don’t hold your breath too much on that one.

Giles Thompson (25:59):

Well, yeah. Follow us on all those. The team’s worked really hard and they’ve had a real sort of boost and we’re putting out some really interesting content at the moment. We also have a new address that’s launched as well. So yeah, I mean, if you, if you jump onto the website, plenty of routes that guide you down and so you can keep in touch with that.

Rob Hanna (26:20):

Well, it just leads me to say, thanks. An absolute million Giles it has been a real pleasure having you on the show and learning lots more about Avvoka, that’s clearly on a very exciting journey. Very much a forward thinking business. I’m excited to see where you guys go in the future. So wishing you lots of continued success with the company and all your future pursuits, but for now over and out. Thank you for listening to episode of the Legally Speaking podcast. If you enjoyed the show and want to help support us, remember to leave us a rating and review on Apple iTunes, you can also support the show and gain exclusive benefits, bonus content, and much more by signing up to our Patreon page, which is Thanks for listening.

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