Interview with Shilpa Bhandarkar, CEO of CreateiQ
In our March 2022 issue, Marc May (MM) interviewed Shilpa Bhandarkar (SB), CEO of data-centric CLM solution CreateiQ, designed and developed by global law firm Linklaters.
MM: Could you tell me a little bit about your current role?
SB: I’m the CEO of CreateiQ, the CLM platform designed and developed by Linklaters. My role is typical to that of any CEO of a tech start-up. I’m responsible for the strategy and growth of our platform, for delivering on our business plan and for all the operational processes required to do that. I spend most of my time talking to people – either clients or my team – and the rest in between whiteboards and spreadsheets (can’t live without either!).
The only added dimension is that we are backed by a law firm – so I am in effect running a business within a business. I report to a Steering Group that acts as our Board.
MM: I understand you started off as a lawyer, right? How does your previous life as a lawyer and current life as a CEO compare?
SB: Yes, I started my career as a project finance lawyer at Linklaters – although I have spent more of my professional life outside the practice of law than in it. I initially moved to business management, first as the COO for our India Practice and then our Africa practice. I enjoyed building and managing new, emerging practices.
I then left the law entirely, co-founding a mobile app company, Coo, with a friend from business school. Coo was a communication and calendar app for parents of primary school kids – it had nothing to do with law. I was the non-technical co-founder and this was my first experience with tech and product development. I learned everything from the difference between UX and UI design to the beauty of working in sprints.
All of that was entirely new to me until then but from then I was hooked. When we sold Coo, I knew I wanted to stay in tech but also wanted to leverage my experience in legal services. I therefore moved to legaltech, before eventually returning to Linklaters in 2018 as its first global head of innovation.
In the summer of 2020, in the middle of the first wave of the pandemic, I moved roles to take on responsibility for CreateiQ. This role has brought together all my previous experiences – the practice of law, legal management, start-up, legaltech. Safe to say that it is entirely different to my life as a junior lawyer, but that experience has definitely played a part in where I am now.
I imagine you learnt a lot from running your tech company previously before taking on your current role. Were there are any lessons learnt from the previous venture?
SB: Definitely. I learned about the importance of product-market fit – about constantly getting feedback from clients and then iterating the product based on that feedback, always with one eye on how much money you still have in the bank to prove your business case. I learned how to hustle – definitely not something I needed as a junior lawyer! I also learned to take rejection less personally. I remember standing outside a primary school in the middle of Shoreditch, asking parents lined up to pick-up their kids if I could take 5 minutes to show them the app and get their thoughts. Bucket load of rejection on a Thursday afternoon interspersed with some fantastically useful feedback – typical start-up day!
MM: CreateiQ is a business within a business at a law firm. In recent years there has been a number of law firms forming businesses in this way. Is the future of law firms to monetise not only legal services but also tech elements too?
SB: I think it depends on both the law firm and the type of tech solution you’re talking about. Personally, I don’t think law firms are, or should be, building tech solutions for the sake of creating new products – that feels like something better left to a tech company.
The obvious question then is why Linklaters chose to develop CreateiQ. Well, it is because there was a very specific unmet client and market need for a negotiation (rather than automation) platform. The design of any meaningful solution needed deep and up-to-date knowledge of how contracts are drafted and negotiated across practice areas and product types – which is where being surrounded by lawyers works to our advantage!
CreateiQ’s USP is the design of a workflow for contract negotiation that is tailored to how lawyers (private practice and in-house) actually work, while being able to give businesses the contractual data they need. Because we have access to practitioners and clients negotiating thousands of these contracts day in and day out, we are able to design and adapt workflows to suit our target audience, whether that is a derivatives lawyer negotiating an ISDA Master Agreement, a banking lawyer negotiating a bilateral facility agreement or a commercial lawyer negotiating a services agreement.
To your broader question of should law firms be using tech and leveraging tech to become more tech-enabled in how they deliver their services and potentially generate revenue from that? Yes, definitely.
MM: What is the USP of CreateiQ?
SB: Structured data – creating it, giving our users access to it, giving businesses the ability to leverage it. It is at the core of our product. We call it a CLM legaltech tool because that’s the easiest category to put us in. However, at its heart, it is an enterprise data and technology solution that happens to use data created in the contracting process.
There are a number of existing AI solutions in the market at the moment. However, our current challenge is that we still need to invest a substantial amount of time to train up the algorithms for particular contract types or particular languages. Our solution ensures that you are creating and have access to clean data so that the algorithm can then do its thing.
And that’s why we have a very structured approach to how we capture data in CreateiQ, from the contract creation process all the way through to negotiation and all the audit data created in between. You can download your contract as a Word or PDF file, but the real value is downloading your contractual terms in machine readable JSON – because that then means any part of your business can access, use and manipulate to make better business decisions.
To take an example, if you’re a property company, your finance team needs to know the aggregate value of all the outstanding leases and the security deposits, including the currencies they’re in. They likely need to know in which countries those properties are based and when they are coming up for renewal. If you have signed leases in countries that are now impacted by the pandemic or any other macroeconomic factor, then likely your risk and compliance team need to know. All of this “data” is available in your portfolio of lease agreements. What CreateiQ does is make that available to you and your business by clicking a few buttons rather than having to trawl through thousands of documents manually – assuming you can even locate them in the first place.
MM: I think there has always been a difficulty up to now with structured legal data and accessing it in a way that can provide accurate business decisions. CreateiQ seems to solve some of these issues with its data-centric approach.
SB: Definitely. In the past it was difficult for companies to access what was in their contract portfolio, or even know if it was complete. Couple that with a constantly changing regulatory environment where global companies not only need to keep track of different regulatory regimes and how they interact with each other, they also need to know how their contract portfolio sits across and interacts with them. Even with the best will in the world you’re not going to be able to do that manually. You need technology that’s designed to give you access to this contractual data in real time, in a format that’s easy to manipulate and analyse, with the confidence that it is accurate and complete. CreateiQ does all of that.
MM: I know you were in a legal innovation role with Linklaters before this one. What was your greatest lesson learnt from that role?
SB: The greatest lesson was learning to stay focussed on the problem you are trying to solve. Much of the innovation role was about identifying and using the right processes and technologies to make things more efficient for our lawyers. There were three parts to that.
First, to clearly identify and articulate the pain point you are trying to solve. This is the obvious first step to finding the right solution but does take a lot of time and drilling down into the detail of how lawyers work. Second was to cut through all the sales pitches from legaltech companies and other vendors to understand the problem they were trying to solve – to see if there was any genuine overlap between our need and their services. There’s a lot of what feels like “shiny new toy”-syndrome in legal at the moment. It’s in everyone’s interests to cut through the hype and be honest about whether there is the right fit. Without that, there isn’t any chance of adoption – and that hurts both the buyer and the vendor in the short term, and the industry as a whole in the long run.
Learning to stay focussed on the problem we were trying to solve, which often had quite mundane solutions (a change in process, using something already in the tech stack at the Firm etc) and not being enamoured or distracted by what felt like all the glitz and glamour of the growing legaltech space was a good lesson learned!
MM: What does the future lawyer look like to you?
SB: I don’t think the future lawyer looks hugely different to the lawyer of today. At the core of the role is delivering accurate and commercial legal advice. How that advice is delivered will likely change – and perhaps that’s where the new skills come in.
The way legal advice is delivered has changed a lot thanks to technology – from faxes to emails, from online data rooms to data extraction tools. This will likely change at an exponential rate going forward and I therefore think lawyers will need to be a lot more adaptable in the way they work. They will hopefully channel some of the creativity they deploy to structuring new legal structures and solutions, through to designing ways to deliver their work product and legal advice. Imagine a world without 200 page due diligence reports and all of that information shared in a more visual and interactive way.
MM: What advice would you give to anyone plotting the same career path as you?
SB: My career has evolved rather than been plotted in any meaningful way. With that disclaimer I would say first, get to know yourself – know what motivates you, know what makes you tick, know what makes you happy. Second, combine that knowledge of yourself with a healthy dose of curiosity and being open to opportunity, generally with an eye to the “where do I want to be in 5 years” question.
As an example, after selling Coo, I knew I loved the start-up and tech space. I also knew I wanted to come back into legal given that’s the sector I knew best. But I was still unsure about what role was right for me. I went into workinstartups.com, searched for “legaltech” and found a maternity leave cover role for a Legal Network Director at Lexoo. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to test the waters – a time-bound role at a fast-growing legaltech company before I moved to Amsterdam to join my husband. What was meant to be a short-term (4 month) role lasted well over a year and set me up really well for my move to the innovation role that came after.
I wouldn’t describe myself as a risk taker, but because I’ve spent the time working out what levers are available to me, I’m more risk aware and risk tolerant than most. I’m generally unafraid of change and trying new things because I’m aware of exactly why I’m making that change and what I stand to gain and learn out of it.
MM: Thanks Shilpa