May 12, 2020

Tech can make the legal sector better for women

Women leave the legal profession in droves because of the lack of flexibility, but harnessing tech can change that, says Alice Stephenson.

Maija Palmer

5 min read

Alice Stephenson is not your average lawyer, having gone from a teenage mother who was told she had "no future" to founding her own alternative law firm, Bristol-based Stephenson Law. Stephenson is an angel investor and a passionate supporter of tech companies — particularly women in tech. She's harnessing technology to challenge the centuries-old practices that still dominate the industry.

This is what she told Sifted about the way she sees the legal sector changing.

How would you describe your job and — and what is unique about the approach you take?

As the chief executive of an alternative law firm, my job is to make sure that we are setting aside all the archaic, conventional practices that are prevalent in the industry and, instead, embracing innovative and inclusive practices that deliver a fantastic service to clients and make us a great company to work for.

One of the big issues in the legal industry is the lack of authenticity and, since starting my own business, I’ve realised that this is the key to our success. Through embracing my own individuality, and that of each of my employees, we can achieve so much more, and be much happier in the process.

What is currently NOT working in the legal profession?

For me, the biggest issue is the lack of inclusion and diversity. A recent study showed that only 2% of lawyers believe there is true equality for women in the industry, which is staggering.

Only 2% of lawyers believe there is true equality for women in the industry.

Out of my trainee intake 10 years ago I’m the only one still in the industry, and that isn’t an anomaly. Female lawyers are leaving the industry in droves as they come face to face with the challenge of juggling their career with a young family. Even if they manage to stay, they are routinely underestimated and overlooked for promotion. The knock-on effect is that not enough women are reaching the top, and the changes that are desperately needed to make the industry more inclusive are not happening fast enough.

I hope that, as firms such as Stephenson Law enter the market with a different set of values, change will be forced as lawyers realise there are better options out there and start voting with their feet.

How do you think the Covid-19 pandemic will change the legal profession? And what should legal firms be doing now to adapt?

The legal profession is several years behind most industries in its adoption of technology and flexible working practices, so many firms have been forced to implement radical changes just to maintain business continuity. Even the basic provision of laptops and mobile phones has been challenging for some, and Stephenson Law was in the minority using Zoom pre-lockdown. The pandemic is certainly dragging firms kicking and screaming into the 21st century!

The pandemic is dragging firms kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

I think now is the perfect time for firms to be questioning everything they do; tradition has prevailed over sound business logic for too long and only those firms willing to adapt to new ways of working will survive. On top of the much-needed investment in cloud-based technology, firms need think about new ways of supporting their employees during this period to maintain their loyalty and commitment. It’s also the perfect time to embrace digital marketing and online ways of delivering content.

I’m hoping that technological innovation will make the legal sector more inclusive. If flexible and remote working can become normalised, the opportunities for career progression for female lawyers should improve, leading to greater diversity of leadership teams. So, whilst none of us would have wished this pandemic upon us, the positive change it could bring about in the legal profession could be significant.

What do you think will be the biggest threat to the legal sector in the next five to 10 years?
Big Law serves a purpose for flexing legal muscle, but folks are seeing through the peacocking.

The disruptor law firms that are adapting to modern working practices. Not just the tech but the whole approach. Big Law serves a purpose for flexing legal muscle, but more and more folks are seeing through all the peacocking. They’re starting to realise that the solicitor that serves them best is one that understands them best. Not the one with the fanciest suit

Which legal tech startups do you see doing interesting things right now?

As we handle a lot of commercial contracts work for clients, I'm really interested in legal tech startups that are focused on streamlining the review and negotiation process, such as ThoughtRiver (contract intelligence), Clause (dynamic contracts) and Juro (contract management).

Startups to watch: ThoughtRiver Clause Juro
How do you challenge yourself and your team to think outside the box?

I’ve never understood this concept, I guess because I’ve never actually seen “the box”. If I did, I probably wouldn’t have started a law firm on my own!

My entire business requires us to look at everything we’re doing and ask ourselves whether we’re doing it that way for the right reasons, or just because that’s the way it’s always been done. I need every member of my team to think creatively and constantly question the way we are doing things. I love hearing their ideas and, if an idea makes sense, we’ll just do it. We make decisions quickly and constantly keep moving and, in doing so, everyone is encouraged to put their ideas forward because they know they’ll be taken seriously.

What book about innovation has been most helpful to you?

I like reading books about innovative leaders and one of the best is ‘Steve Jobs’ by Walter Isaacson. The way he pushed the boundaries on what everyone thought possible is super inspiring.