Innovating the practice of law in Asia: An interview with Jonathan Voo – Asia Law Portal

Jonathan Voo has devoted his career to working within law firms, most recently as Senior Manager of Innovation (Asia Pacific) at Mayer Brown.  In this interview with Asia Law Portal, he explains what inspired his career focus, his current role in legal innovation with Mayer Brown, challenges and opportunities to innovating within law firms, his thoughts on the importance of technology to legal innovation – and his hopes for the future.

You are Senior Manager of Innovation (Asia Pacific) at Mayer Brown. Tell us more about the firm and your role within it.

Mayer Brown is a distinctively global law firm, uniquely positioned to advise the world’s leading companies and financial institutions on their most complex deals and disputes.

With an extensive reach across four continents, we are the only integrated law firm in the world with approximately 200 lawyers in each of the world’s three largest financial centers—New York, London and Hong Kong—the backbone of the global economy.

My responsibility is working closely with the Global Chief Innovation Officer and our leadership team to develop and implement regional and practice-specific transformation strategy while streamlining and innovating the practice of law, leveraging business cases, process analysis, identifying, prototyping, and implementing related technology, with a specific focus on Asia region.

At Mayer Brown, we are continuously trying to help our lawyers and client move beyond the tenterhooks of time, build a culture of change and find/build solutions and work smarter.

What led you to this career?

I have worked within law firms for most of my career, having been fortunate to work within a wide range of firms, from various Magic Circle Law firms to London-based firms known for packing a punch that belies their size. Being a geek at heart and always looking for ways to automate things in my personal life, I have always had a big interest in technology and enjoyed finding solutions. Back in 2017, during my previous role as a Legal Project Manager managing large-scale projects at Baker McKenzie, there was a gap in the market and what motivates me is to drive and to make a difference. One of the exciting elements of my role is to support clients in responding to their challenges and pre-empt those they may face in the future. Earlier this year, Mayer Brown reached out to me and asked if I was interested in helping to build out their Innovation offerings with them, and I jumped on the chance. We have made some great hires recently, hoping to finish off some exciting projects in 2022 and start on new ones in 2023.

What do you see as the unique challenges and opportunities to innovation in law firms?            

I wonder if this is unique anymore but I feel over the last few years, there was a buzz to get ahead and try and adopt any legal tech offerings under the sun. You’ve got to have conversations with the business and stakeholders to strategize adoption along with other internal teams such as KM, IT, Risk and Procurement.

Don’t create a new committee because it sounds cool or will to a box. Alignment, strategize and look where the money lies in the organization. 

We are coming out of the tail-end of the pandemic (especially in Hong Kong) where hybrid working, work-life balance and optimizing resourcing is now part of client conversations.

Buy in an organization – starts from leadership and important stakeholders. We do need legal leaders and firm influencers to stand in front of their team and speak about experiences, embracing new ways of working and questioning on how we can be better.

We need to embrace new opportunities and explore different ways of driving innovation through our legal operations. At Mayer Brown, we have fully believed in having an inclusive environment by listening, ideating and rewarding our people for their contributions.  Satisfying lawyer’s curiosity will help put them on the path to tremendous success.  

Is innovation only or mostly about tech?

The legal technology field is dynamic and reactive to what is happening in the legal market, and there is a stigma that when you mention innovation, the word technology is around the corner. I quote my colleague and author Adam Curphey and say that the language of innovation is shifting toward being more people-centric. There is much talk about empathy and emotional intelligence within the law and purpose and well-being beyond that. I think technology does play a bit part, but there are other elements we should be aware of.

What are the most important innovations law firms can undertake?

As mentioned above, it’s not always chasing the latest tech. With legal tech spending forecasted to rise, law firms and legal departments have tighter administrative budgets. Economies around the world are heavily impacted.

It’s about asking how we can do our jobs better, how we future-proof ourselves and be successful in the future. Looking at internal processes, exploring what we already have in our toolkit and changing that mindset. One area of consideration is developing workflow solutions, whether it is client or industry-specific.

I think the biggest disruptors of all might be right under our noses, our clients, specifically the increasingly influential and effective teams of legal operations professionals that work for forward-looking in-house legal departments.

On a personal note, I foresee virtual legal assistants on the rise. Over the last few years, I have seen a demand of requests come through, where we demand for information faster at any time of the day and technology has evolved to make it now possible.

What are your goals for the future of your career in legal innovation?

From experience, making incremental changes every day over time will make a difference and continue to get buy-in and endorsements from our leadership.

I will expand my team in Asia Pacific, mainly focusing on specialist skills based on client demands within the region. As my team matures, we will also be looking to enhance our client’s offerings and stamp our mark the Mayer Brown way.

I appreciate Asia Law Portal for reaching out to me, I hope to connect more with legal innovators within the region and speak at panels and conferences.

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