Chat with Quddus Pourshafie

19 mins

Quddus is the founder of FutureLab.Legal, a learning and solutions business that supports legal industry stakeholders with a focus on the future of law.

His aim? To assist lawyers, law firms, universities and regulators to move into the future of law. Over the past two years, he was involved in making two big events happen—the World Legal Summit Adelaide node and South Start (SA’s largest entrepreneurship and tech conference) in Adelaide. He is currently presenting at the Future Law Virtual Summit (16 – 20 October) run by the Future Law Institute, where he also sits on the Advisory Board.

With an insatiable energy and passion to reimagine how law might look in the future, Quddus is leading the #futureoflaw charge where few dare tread. And with recent events, moving to a more technological way of working in law has become a necessity, not a luxury.

Let’s chat!

LB. Hi Quddus! Thanks for joining me at Legal Brew. Let’s start at the beginning of your personal journey. You have a Bachelor of Music (including performing as a lead violinist) before transitioning to law. What made you switch from music to law?

QP. It was an interesting personal journey at the time. I’d been playing the violin since I was 4½. I was fortunate to be tutored by consecutive lead violinists (Concertmasters) from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. I went to Marryatville High School, a special interest music school on a full scholarship. Before I knew who I was, I knew that I always had a violin in my hand. As I got to university, I had to ask myself whether it was really something I wanted to continue doing. By the time I got to the end of my first university degree in music, I had been playing the violin for 20 years and practising four to six hours a day, including weekends. It got to the point where I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to keep doing this for another 20 to 40 years. I asked myself, “Where is this all going?” At the same time I knew I had other interests and passions and didn’t want to be stuck in one discipline.

LB. Did you find that your passion for music wasn’t as strong as when you started?

QP. I think it’s hard to have passion for music (or anything specific) when you’re four! I don’t think my passion for music changed—I love it. I just had a more mature approach to what I wanted in life by the time I made that decision. 

Music is still a big part of my life, I still songwrite and sing and I taught the violin up to a few years ago. It’s still a part of my life, but it was more about understanding the world of classical music that I was going into, particularly as a concert violinist. The things that were coming up for me were, “OK, now you’re going to have to apply for scholarships, you’re going to have to compete on the regional and international stage, you’re going to be living off this scholarship, you’re going to hop from country to country and from school to school, learn from some of the best in the world,” and that sort of thing.

There were also a couple of other factors. I wanted a family and that was going to be very hard to maintain. Another big thing was a specific conversation I had with my professor at the time, who essentially said, “If you want this to work, it has to be your religion.” It really clicked for me then, because I realised, “It’s not and it’s never going to be.”

I had already put in so much work towards my musical career and to an extent there was a bit of resentment because I didn’t know anything else. As an identity, it had formed in a way that was very one-track and that was how I was recognised by everyone. I knew that I was capable of and interested in doing different things, so I started to resent the idea of being associated purely with music. The comment from my professor was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

LB. I guess your curiosity and interest in becoming a more “whole person” made you decide to move to law?

QP. Yes, that’s a great way of putting it because I’m sure others who followed the law track also might feel the same way after 15 or 20 years. So yes, that happened towards the end of my degree. I did end up applying for Honours in Music and I got in. After finishing my first (of two) recitals, I decided that I would stop. I didn’t end up finishing my Honours program.

I went out to work for a large tech enterprise company for a year, which was fun and different. We supported an account for a large Australian energy company. It was a big account and we did the tech support for their ICT infrastructure. That was interesting too. But eventually, I had a conversation with my manager and said, “How long are we going to be doing this? Because I’m getting bored!” Their internal policy at the time suggested that you had to keep plugging away at the same thing for at least two years before you’d get offered something more difficult. At the time, I thought, “I’m out!” As much as being a violinist was not going to be something I did for the rest of my life, it was also not going to be this.

I went on a bit of a journey to explore what I wanted to study and lined up three areas: medicine, psychology and law. I reached out to friends I’d known for a very long time who had gone down those particular paths and had a few conversations with them about what they expected from studying, what they got in their life, and what it was all about in each stream of learning. I realised that psychology wasn’t going to be very healthy for me because I was already in my head too much!

With medicine, the thing that made it clear for me was that the people I spoke to (one of them is now a surgeon—so he was on a really clear track) mentioned that it had to be your whole life.

LB. So it was like being a violinist but in another context…

QP. Yeah. And I resonated with what they said because I knew what that was like. I realised that I didn’t have that sort of passion for health. So that made it clear.

On the other hand, there were a lot of things that attracted me to the law. Like the use of the mind, logic and reasoning—lots of reading and solving problems. All of those things made it very attractive and by the time I had cancelled the other two out, it was pretty clear that I was going to go for law.

So, the story about my switch from music to law was that I had done one thing for 20 years, and realised that I didn’t want to keep doing it that way. There were certain sacrifices that had to be made to pursue music in the way that it was intended, and I went on a journey to figure out what I was going to do next.

LB. That’s a really brave move. It’s pretty tough for someone who’s known an area for their entire life to completely switch to something else. Was law school a culture shock for you, or did you take to it quickly and thrived?

QP. I took to it because it was something new and I had confidence in my abilities. I didn’t have an issue with the command of English. But sure, my writing could get better. I knew the AGLC (Australian Guide to Legal Citation) off by heart and I could do references really quickly.

Going through law school made me realise that it’s much like any other industry. There are biases everywhere. For me, growing up as a first-generation Australian, I didn’t fit in at primary school. I did a better job at fitting in at high school, but a lot of that was attributed to going to a specialist music school so a lot of friends were musos and it was easier to identify and fit in. I was the only Middle Eastern person in my primary school so people didn’t know much about my culture and background. There is a lot of stuff that a first-generation person goes through in any country.

So what I started to realise was that with the law, as much as it should be a diverse thing, the bulk of the stakeholders are of one background. And there is a lot of advantage to being from that one background, whether it’s people in your family who have done law, like a lot of my peers had siblings or parents in the profession. It’s a huge leg-up there. I had to start from scratch.

LB. On the upside, it shows that you’re a self-starter which allows you to look at the law with a fresh approach, rather than what has always been done.

QP. Yes, that’s a really good point. I think about it in a similar way, which is that the number of road blocks that you get in life shows you that you’re not suited for being on just one track.

Back to law school—it wasn’t a culture shock, but what I had already recognised as a child having gone through what I did at school was the same here, but in a different way. Different details but the same essence. Funnily enough, as I graduated, got admitted and moved on, I’m now seeing news reports about greater diversity. It’s becoming a topic of conversation, which is really great.

LB. But the profession still has a long way to go in promoting diversity. But this is why we’re having this important conversation!

QP. Yes, at the time I was battling a lot more with a sense of identity because I’d just come out of something which was all I had known since I was a child. To pull that apart and tear that down, it’s a struggle.

It doesn’t help that the way law school is designed is that it’s so jam-packed with stuff that you have to learn so quickly. If there are legitimate reasons why you can’t figure something out, and it might be cultural, there is not enough time to break that down. It’s like, “Catch up and may the best win.”

But there’s a funny story around that. As far as book learning went, I was doing alright but I couldn’t figure out what was getting people the high marks and no one was laying it out for me though I’m very observant. There were a few good friends who were scoring better than me and I couldn’t figure out why. I did get better at book learning and marks towards the end of my degree. The funniest thing was when we started doing our practical legal training, we were given a transaction and had to go figure it out. I felt calm because it was really practical. I thought, “Well, that’s common sense, so just apply common sense.” I recall looking around and seeing some of my peers, who were Honours students or even higher, freaking out because they didn’t know what to do. I realised at that point that actually the book learning is there for the score more than anything.

In real life, if you can’t embed what you’ve learnt in a practical way, the score will only get you so far. Fair enough, the score is the only thing that gets you through the door. But I think that’s changing too. People are realising that the mark of someone’s capacity as a good lawyer is how they are as a good, well-rounded human being and not just about pure book learning.

LB. Yes, some employers are starting to look beyond the standard markers of success to be more open-minded about other qualities in people. Moving on to the next question, which is about the Future Framework for Legal Practice which you created. Can you give us a rundown of your Framework and how this will change how lawyers work?

QP. The Future Framework came through my work at FutureLab.Legal and many discussions I’ve had with people across the world, both those who work in innovation but also partners who work in the legal industry. It maps out how any lawyer or any firm can use multiple forms of legal tech in their workflow.

I came to realise that the concept of legal tech is growing and maturing as a legal system, but its application and how it translates to the way people practice in law right now is just not working.

Some anecdotal evidence includes my conversation with a legal tech founder who was working for a couple of years on this thing and he said, “It’s ridiculous working with lawyers because their sales cycle is like 18–24 months and we’re a SaaS (software as a service) company which doesn’t take more than 2–4 weeks turning something over at that level for a reasonably sized client.” It gives you the idea that 2–4 weeks versus 2 years are very different timelines.

For all intents and purposes, legal tech is becoming more and more accessible and affordable in that they are SaaS designed companies. The payments are no longer a matter of large upfront capital expenditure but more regular operational type expenditures, where you’re paying subscription fees rather than $100k upfront for code. SaaS companies are saying, “This is the service, this is what it does. It works and we are pricing it for scale.” So it’s very affordable, especially for mid-tiers up.

The Future Framework was born from that idea. Essentially, I started to look at the partnership model and asked where origins of legal tech started and what’s happened to it now. The first instances of legal tech, say around 20 years ago, were to resolve very niche challenges within that business model. In a partnership model, you have your pillars or verticals consisting of different practice areas and different partners at the head of each. You have a management layer at the top and an admin layer at the bottom. Legal tech dealt with little chunks of those pillars. One of the early examples of legal tech was a six-minute timer—literally a window that ran for six minutes and flashed red when six minutes had gone past.

But what’s happened since then, was that as people developed technological solutions for legal practice, they’ve also had radical ideas about doing other things better or in a more sophisticated way. If you fast forward from about 15 years’ ago to about now, you can see that ecosystem maturing. You start to see more complex, cheaper and more accessible technology that can be applied to the work of a lawyer. For example, initial contract analysis and review, which can be done automatically now from scanning a document and applying machine learning to identify problem areas based on keywords.

Contract management is a huge one at the moment in terms of its maturity, being its ability to manage the lifecycle of a contract, negotiate with parties on a platform versus via back-and-forth email, secured e-signing, built-in reminders, notes, renewals, and so on.

LB. Instead of emailing Word documents which is still how it’s regularly done…

QP. Exactly. So with this maturity in legal tech, if you think about it as a Petri dish with algae growing on it, the rate of growth and the way in which it grows initially is erratic. However, It starts to form patterns as it grows bigger and a larger interconnected whole. That’s essentially the growth of legal tech and what’s happened to date.

Now if you look at that Petri dish with the algae all grown out, then you look back at the partnership model in law firms—you think, “How do you reconcile this monster of an ecosystem and how do you push it back into that partnership model?” And the reality is, there is no easy way to do that and there was no answer for that.

So I realised that I was authoring something new and offering a framework which allows lawyers to figure out how to implement legal tech into their practice. Whether they implement it into a department or one pillar, or an entire firm as a whole, the Future Framework is built as a way for lawyers to understand how to swap in or out legal tech options to transition into a future-facing firm.

To compare, I know firsthand of a firm that spent $200k to get a developer to write bespoke coding to add this little extra feature set. The developer will take at least 6 months. Now, we’re in a world where people are building SaaS (software as a service) companies and perfecting the process of a specific thing, charging for it on a subscription fee basis. So, you could just swap solutions in or out depending on your preferences and needs. The question now is how you architect that all together and that’s how the Future Framework comes in.

LB. On a separate note, I wanted to ask for your thoughts on the legal tech firm, Atrium, which hasn’t been able to pivot and ended up pulling out of the market completely.

QP. What Atrium tried to do was to build all of that in-house. They were trying to build a homogeneity of technology and people, and develop the actual software that they thought everyone was going to want, need and use.

The reason why I’m excited about the Future Framework is because you can choose any product you want and you can fit it into this jigsaw puzzle that you call your firm. That’s a lot more liberating because there isn’t a clear answer when there is a lot of change, but also because there is a lot of change, there is a lot of fear about making decisions and specifically, the right decisions. Agility is important and in order to move you need to think and plan at a systems level.

The Future Framework educates any lawyer, junior, senior, managing partner, about what sort of technologies they want to stack together to provide their service. Either to cut out the costs attributed to manual labour, or add more value to their service so they can charge more. And all of this will move away, predominantly, from time-based billing for most of the industry.

For some areas like litigation there are so many unknowns, but I have recently heard about the law firm Aptum Legal in Melbourne which is trying to move litigation to a fixed-price model. So it’s happening even in difficult areas of law.

LB. Do you have any tips for law students on building the skills they need for how law will be practised in the future?

QP. I have a lot of ideas, but the first one would be… *shameless plug* go and read the Future Framework which is free and let that excite you as to what is possible.

While there is nothing wrong with the education you’re receiving—we know that the changes are really quite drastic in the legal industry at the moment.

The first thing you have to understand is that universities are institutions that are built around a model of establishing reputation based on iterative change. They don’t go out to do things quickly. When everything around you is moving fast, you have to realise that universities aren’t going to move fast. Their model is built on stability and, like the law, what research has been done and being academic but not always practical. They’re also bound by the regulations on what they’re even allowed to teach. The other thing to realise is that the business model of universities is to get people through the door and charge them fees for it. The two things dance with each other in the sense that people won’t come through the door if they know they can’t get work coming out of it, but at the same time, they can’t lose their reputation by doing things in an agile and quick manner. I think those realities are changing, but you shouldn’t wait or have high expectations.

The fundamental thing for law students is to recognise that you need a degree to be qualified, but don’t think that it’s all there is. So get curious about what’s actually happening right now. Start reading and listening (if you have the time) to different publications such as Legal Brew, and check out Artificial Lawyer. Start to form your own opinion about where you think the Law and the practice of law is going. Have those conversations with existing lawyers and people who work around the law, especially in change/innovation.

Unfortunately the recipe for becoming a lawyer is a really old one—basically get into law school and as soon as your first year is done, get a vacation clerkship, then just clock up as many clerkships as you can. Then make sure your GPA is high and… that’s it. Ok great, but realise that it’s the practice of law in that business, the existing model, which we repeat over. Now go and look at the practice of a firm that leverages technology as a core function and how they practice and work in that business. And ask yourself what you’d prefer.

In terms of building skills, the Future Framework can help with your thinking. It’s about building your understanding of systems because that’s how everything operates these days. The iPhone, for example, is a piece of hardware with a default home screen and you “design” it. You add your apps the way you want it and build your workflows. You choose how you want everything to be placed and you add shortcuts for how you want it to work as well. Systems architecture involves playing on a different field and that’s what you need to start getting curious and creative about. The tools are being built as you study and graduate, you need to become a master of combining tools to produce efficient outcomes.

LB. Those are great tips. I think getting curious is probably the most important. If you’re not curious, you won’t be interested in anything that’s happening in your industry and elsewhere.

QP. I agree. It’s not for everyone, but I think it’s really helpful saying it here, kind of like parenting advice. Look, if you want to do what everyone else has done and follow that recipe which is well-known and traditional, then do it—but just know what you’re doing. You’re leaving yourself in the hands of a firm, a partner, or something else and that ship might be sinking. So you might be doing a lot of firm hopping in the first five years because things aren’t working out for you. And during that time you may face a lot of mental stress and overwork which is now finally being documented. So if you want to do it, no one is stopping you, but make sure you know what you’re stepping into. While you’re young, think about that and see if that’s really a decision you want to make. That’s my advice.

LB. Now for lawyers, where the challenges are slightly differenthow can they effectively pivot to new ways of working?

QP. So like we said before, curiosity is key. It’s sort of the same pattern of reading up and knowing what things are happening and “getting your hands dirty” with a few products. The reality is that you should simulate a few products to understand how they would look for you. My company is positioned for things like that—it’s like, “Hey we want to do something but we don’t know what and we don’t know where to start.” The Future Framework is a great place to start. I’m also there for those who want to navigate their ship through this storm.

It also depends on which lawyers we’re talking about as well. It’s normal for lawyers at 3–8 years PQE to defect to start their own thing or move somewhere better, or completely move on to a different industry. If we’re talking about lawyers who want to pivot and effectively rise to the job of lawyering—then you need to open your eyes a bit, be curious and have an open mind. Start talking to people, reading books and listening to podcasts that allow you to explore. It’s a journey.

Another thing that I really recommend is establishing a community where you can exchange different ideas. Find a group anywhere or with your peers internally. Try to ask these questions and figure out what’s happening and how to possibly solve the issues you have right now. And if you get stuck there, well, there are companies like ours which can help you figure out where things are moving.

On how lawyers can effectively pivot, everything i’ve mentioned so far is just a starting point. I think a lot of lawyers end up there and stay there. They go to the conferences, they read the books and so on, but practically they’re just clocking in and clocking out doing the work.

LB. I think a big reason is that most lawyers don’t actually have the time.

QP. Right, the current model doesn’t actually allow them to do anything other than work. So effectively pivoting means that you actually have to value your time and look at your life beyond the next billable hour and say, “I really need to take time off and think about these things.” You should do that for yourself. And then you should try and advocate for that within the business, which is—we need some space and time to look at these things.

The irony is that if you can’t even afford the time to step aside to do things, discuss things and implement things, where do you think that ship is headed?

LB. It’s very tricky. I recall being put on an “ideas” committee while in private practice and getting pretty annoyed about it because I felt that I should be back in the office finishing off my work—which I still had to get to once I finished up with the committee.

QP. Yes, so they want you to be on this thing but they don’t actually give you the time…

LB. Exactly, it creates a lot of pressure which lawyers do resent. Particularly when we’re asked to be creative when there is no headspace to do that. Lawyers are expected to be innovative when, well, we often don’t have the time.

QP. That’s a big reason why I started my business and run it on a subscription-based model for the clients I work with. It’s a tricky situation because there is this twilight zone or gap between what is happening in the future of law space and what law firms actually do. The intrapreneur idea is a great one, but without freedom for that headspace at a systemic level, you’re not going to be able to do a lot.

This is why a lot of lawyers end up defecting. But unfortunately, those who end up defecting are not always doing the best thing for the industry at large, because they’re defecting and saying, “Oh, I’m sick and tired—there are a few things I’ve picked up as a lawyer and I think I’m really smart and figured it all out. So yeah, why aren’t we using X, Y or Z software?” And they struggle with this for a while with their partner as a senior associate or an associate and they go, “You know what? I’m going to start a firm by myself and I’ll do things my way.”

That’s great, but the change that this creates is very iterative and small. I’ve seen a lot of people start their own firms that are just changing one or two ways about how things are done, and just doing the same things again. So it’s not really changing anything!

LB. That probably leads well into this next question, being that many legal problems have its own unique set of facts and solutions. How do we use future ways of working when it is difficult to “scale up” our solutions in some areas?

QP. That problem goes back to the origins of legal tech and how it’s grown as a system. In the absence of technology, the business of law requires human labour. We’ve always had to deal with complex things, or simple things, but always by hand. When an industry like legal tech matures, a lot more of those things can be replaced, augmented or made more efficient.

I think we’re now at a point where we are trying to figure out what things scale well and it has become quite clear that contract management scales well, but things like litigation don’t (yet). And by “scaling”, I’m assuming what you’re suggesting is that we’re moving away from this bespoke everything is different and priced differently, time-billed, and so on.

Firms like Aptum Legal are trying to figure out difficult-to-scale-well areas of law, which essentially involves treating every piece of work like a project. By project managing the work, they’re able to build in some fixed costs, like charging upfront for certain amounts of work that they know that they will need to do, and make better predictions of where a case might go. Then, also having ancillary options when the work heads in a different direction, like an open line of credit or time-based costs. It’s still a lot better because you’re creating a lot more clarity and efficiency. That’s an example of how even the most difficult stuff is starting to scale well.

What we need to understand is that a lot of people are trying to solve a lot of niche areas, both legal technologists and lawyers. The question I’m trying to pose here is, “What happens when your entire system is made as efficient as possible based on what you can get in the (legal tech) market?” 

With e-discovery work, you can outsource to someone or use a product, and this is very niche. But then all of the firm’s admin is still managed by their head receptionist! So they actually don’t have streamlined ways of efficiently getting clients signed on, storing their data, having everything ready to go, getting files created and getting documents signed automatically without anyone needing to be there.

LB. Yes, it’s very piecemeal at the moment, where the legal profession isn’t engaging in the whole “systems thinking” process.

QP. And that’s where we’re at right now. But we’re fast approaching the time when there is enough technology or legal tech in every element of the business of law where you can essentially build the whole thing digitally, from client engagement to the way you interact with clients to your actual legal analysis. All of this will be made more efficient and at a point, it will scale well. But there are some things that will still need manual work.

The idea isn’t that we replace lawyers with robots. Rather, that the business of law is conducted in such an efficient manner that we can return to what is really important. So for you, it wasn’t important for you to run files to the court—it’s not important because now we have e-filing. And doing that for a year or two doesn’t teach you anything about where we’re headed. So now that you have e-filing, you don’t have juniors that you can send off to do this thing over and over and over again for a year or two, or however long.

So what does that time get used for? It gets used for more complex, sophisticated things. But that means we need to step out of the thinking of simply going from Job A to Job B. We need to step into systems thinking and know that there are multiple balls rolling at once.

LB. And to our usual final questionif you could turn back time, what do you wish you could go back to tell your past self about?

QP. Don’t worry or obsess about what other people think. Look for confirmation in the results of your actions—be brave and get started on your own path. A lot of people are looking to others and taking action based on their reactions. You can be creative and bring value and impact and enjoy your expression of “you” if that’s what drives you.

Want to keep in touch with Quddus’ #futureoflaw work? Sing up to his #FutureofLaw Newsletter and follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter @Futurelablegal.

Still curious? Quddus previously co-hosted a podcast covering stories on what it means to be a lawyer or law firm of the future. You can check it out here: The Future of Law Podcast.