Helena Hallgarn is one of the pioneers in legal tech in Scandinavia. She founded Virtual Intelligence VQ in 2010 alongside her colleague Ann Björk, following 16 years of experience in three different law firms: Mannheimer Swartling, Vinge, and Gernandt & Danielsson. At Virtual Intelligence VQ, she has successfully merged her legal expertise with IT skills to create innovative IT tools for the legal industry. Their most widely adopted tool, VQ Legal, is utilized by nine out of the ten largest law firms in Sweden, as well as many others.
Recently, in an exclusive interview with CXO Magazine, Helena shared her professional journey in the legal tech sector, the inspiration behind establishing Virtual Intelligence VQ, insights on the challenges in and future of the legal tech sector, future plans, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.
Helena, please tell us about your background in the legal tech sector.
After completing my law studies in Uppsala, I had initially planned a three-month-long trip to Asia to take a proper break before commencing work. The next logical step for me would have been to serve at a Swedish court, but I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about that path. I also wasn’t entirely certain about working at a law firm. However, when I came across an advertisement from the business law firm Mannheimer Swartling in Gothenburg, my interest was sparked, especially since my sister worked and studied in Gothenburg.
Two days before embarking on my trip to Asia, on a Monday morning, I had an interview with a group of partners at the Gothenburg office. Following that, I underwent several separate interviews, and by noon, I had been hired as an associate. They were kind enough to arrange an apartment for me so that I could start right after returning from my trip. I happened to be one of their first associates who hadn’t completed any service at a Swedish court. Instead, I possessed a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and various other experiences.
After spending several years as an associate at Mannheimer Swartling, I developed a keen interest in modernizing legal work and began delving into legal technology long before the concept gained widespread recognition. My early interest in computers and programming during high school laid the foundation for this passion. My understanding of the potential to fundamentally change how work is conducted in the legal sector has been a driving force in my journey.
Was there a tipping point when you realized the value of technology in the legal industry? Is there a story behind it?
Mannheimer Swartling introduced an initiative with the vision to transform the legal profession by using computer-based methods to access know-how. Around the same time, Richard Susskind published his book, ‘The Future of Law’ in 1998, which I read and found inspiring. It dawned on me that significant changes were on the horizon for the legal industry, and I wanted to take part in this transformative journey.
What are the main tectonic shifts reshaping the legal industry now? Is legal technology behind one of them.
We can now access various forms of legal knowledge directly from our computers, allowing us to work and communicate from any location. There’s no longer a need to establish a substantial legal library, rely solely on in-house legal expertise, or maintain an elaborate office in a prime location. Moreover, we can collaborate with a diverse range of individuals possessing different expertise without the necessity of hiring all of them. This significant shift, driven by technology, is fundamentally transforming the foundation of legal work.
What was the inspiration behind establishing Virtual Intelligence VQ? What sets it apart from other market competitors?
After accumulating experience in legal tech and knowledge management across three different law firms, and successfully executing several projects that demonstrated the potential of implementing technology solutions capable of truly revolutionizing the way lawyers work, I made the decision to shift my focus to a business where my expertise could take center stage, rather than merely serving as an internal support function for the primary legal business. At that time, I was working together with Ann Björk at Vinge, and together, in 2010, we embarked on the venture known as Virtual Intelligence VQ. Our objective was to develop tools that could be utilized by multiple law firms.
During a family gathering in Östersund, I shared this concept with my brother Magnus when we were sitting chatting by the lake. He was working as a programmer in London with different startups at the time. He became enthusiastic about the idea of creating something for the legal industry and decided to join us, taking responsibility for building the necessary tool. This way, we had a unique blend of deep technical knowledge and legal expertise, marking the inception of our now well-established tool, VQ Legal.
Can you elaborate on the strategic decisions and philosophy behind your approach to building the business?
To achieve success in any project, I firmly believe in maintaining a clear and unwavering focus on a well-defined objective, understanding precisely what we intend to achieve, along with the reasons why and how, all combined with a systematic approach to measure outcomes. This approach should also involve designating one individual as accountable for the project and granting them the authority to make detailed decisions during its course. The same philosophy applies to our business.
When we launched our venture, VQ, our objective was not just to establish a business but to construct a solution that could provide us with income and the freedom to work flexibly without the need for hiring personnel, all while engaging in exciting new projects. Rather than hiring various experts, we chose to collaborate with other independent experts, assigning them specific roles and compensating them based on the income generated from our tool. Instead of blindly following the trend of scaling and expanding internationally, we decided to concentrate our efforts on the Swedish market, carving out a unique niche here. This deliberate decision allowed us to establish an online tool that has gained significant recognition in the legal market and earned the trust of some of the largest law firms in the country. In fact, 28 out of the top 33 law firms – and 9 out of the top 10 law firms – are now valued customers of ours.
I firmly believe in the notion that sometimes it’s wiser to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big ocean.
Our approach has not only resulted in a thriving business but has also provided us, as partners, with the desired flexibility in our work environment. It stands as a testament to the power of focus, clear goal-setting, and strategic decision-making in the world of business. We are enthusiastic about the journey ahead and the potential it holds for the future.
You are an Ambassador for ELTA. Can you tell us about this association and its mission?
The legal tech landscape in Europe is incredibly dynamic and innovative, with numerous initiatives and expertise across the continent but there is a need for international collaboration. Networking and knowledge sharing among legal tech enthusiasts have never been more critical. It’s through these connections that we can collectively drive forward the development of the legal tech sector. By harnessing the power of collaboration, we can not only stay at the forefront of industry trends but also actively shape the future of legal technology, transforming the way legal services are delivered, and ultimately, enhancing access to justice worldwide.
What should the legal industry of the future ideally look like? How do you see the lawyer tomorrow?
In the future, we should expect to see a wide range of legal services, including online legal tech tools, self-service legal solutions, online legal services with digitally accessible lawyers, traditional legal experts, and legal project leaders who understand how to efficiently combine these services. We will also witness the emergence of a new type of legal professional – the legal tech lawyer – individuals well-versed in building tech tools and integrating legal content into them. The lawyers who are more business oriented and focused on an in-house career, can focus on how to support businesses by managing the array of legal services available.
This shift signifies that our focus should transition from the lawyer to the resolution of legal issues themselves. Whether it’s a personal or business challenge, the goal is to solve it efficiently, whether through legal expertise or online solutions, without necessarily involving a lawyer. The emphasis lies in resolving the legal issues, regardless of who or what is facilitating the solution.
What do you think hinders the evolution of the legal industry? What changes need to be made to foster it?
Law firms are traditionally structured and profitable businesses, often staffed with exceptionally talented lawyers. Consequently, they may not always have strong incentives to embrace change. True transformation in the legal industry is likely to result from a combination of factors, including evolving demands from buyers of legal services and the emergence of a new breed of legal tech lawyers possessing the competence to drive digitalization within the field.
Major purchasers of legal services typically include in-house lawyers within large corporations, many of whom have a background in law firms. They recognize that law firms can provide excellent legal services and often opt for this straightforward route. To manage the escalating costs of legal services, in-house legal teams have been steadily increasing their ranks for several years, partially to take on tasks previously outsourced to law firms. However, this approach is proving insufficient given the expanding workload and the heightened demand for internal legal and compliance services. As a result, there is mounting pressure to embrace digitalization and leverage technology more effectively to handle the growing volume of work.
The primary challenge here is the technical competence required to oversee a legal tech project successfully. A recent survey reported that 77% of in-house counsels’ internal tech projects failed. Numerous reports on failed projects underscore a common theme: a lack of appreciation for the necessity of technical expertise. Undertaking legal tech projects without a sound understanding of technology and by solely focusing on lengthy specifications of requirements is often doomed to fail.
Once we cultivate a new generation of legal tech lawyers with significantly enhanced tech proficiency, we can anticipate the development of more effective tools and services that will revolutionize legal work. These legal tech professionals can actively engage in internal tech projects, leading the development and implementation of technology solutions that can genuinely transform legal practices. Simultaneously, these tech-savvy lawyers can spearhead the creation of user-friendly plug-and-play solutions that in-house legal teams can readily adopt. This has the potential to fundamentally alter the way legal work is approached and executed.
What three qualities do you think a modern lawyer should have?
We live in a complex world of constant change, so it is important with a curiosity and a mindset of constant learning. The modern lawyer shouldn’t just focus on their legal knowledge. They should also try to understand the business side of their specific field. This means gaining extra skills like knowing more about different areas of law, being good with technology, or understanding basic business ideas. Having these varied skills is important for knowing which questions to ask and when to involve other experts. It also helps in communicating better with these experts.
Presently, we observe many lawyers engaging in discussions about digitalization and change, yet often they lack the practical knowledge required to drive such projects and an appreciation for the imperative of collaborating with specialists in these domains. This often results in a multitude of failed projects and a growing disillusionment with technology.
To achieve success, it is essential to excel in your specific area of expertise while simultaneously acknowledging when to seek out other forms of expertise. Proficiency in one domain does not automatically guarantee success in another.
How do you like to spend your time when you are not working?
I’m fortunate to have a wonderful family that includes my husband and two teenagers, and I cherish the time we spend together. Our favorite moments revolve around preparing delicious dinners, sometimes just within our family circle and at other times with close friends, often complemented by a fine bottle of wine. We’re also the proud caretakers of a golden retriever named Charlie and two feline companions, Tom and Thor. Whether it’s taking Charlie for a leisurely walk or enjoying quality time with all three of them, our pets bring joy to our lives. During our spare time we are also renovating our house and taking care of our garden.
Besides all activities at home, I have a passion for horse-back riding. I enjoy connecting with these great animals, learning to communicate in a subtle way with small signals.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
After several years of dedicated and strenuous effort, our VQ business, particularly our flagship tool VQ Legal, has firmly established its presence in the market. It has now entered a phase of mature management, affording us more time and opportunities to explore new ventures. Consequently, I’m keen to extend my involvement in external projects where I can contribute to fostering fresh legal tech concepts, aid in the creation of more intuitive and innovative tools and solutions, and, in a broader sense, champion the digital transformation of the legal sector.
I firmly believe that my background and years of experience in this field can bring substantial value to these new projects. I’m enthusiastic about the prospect of collaborating with like-minded individuals and organizations to drive forward the exciting realm of legal technology.