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Q&A: Anthony Bekker – “We look for people with high emotional intelligence and who are pragmatic problem-solvers”

Biztech Lawyers is really making its name as a specialist in tech M&A, handling everything from raising capital and navigating regulatory and compliance issues to data privacy issues. Can you tell us about the firm’s origins?

We’re a technology-focused global legal advisor. We work with driven builders to scale their ambitions across jurisdictional and practice areas, with confidence and clarity. I started Biztech Lawyers about five years ago from Sydney when I saw a gap in the market for a tech-focused legal advisor – and one that doesn’t have to say goodbye to its clients at the border. We've now expanded into the United States and the United Kingdom. What we’re really doing is following our clients, which are predominantly tech start-ups that are growing across borders. Increasingly, we are also targeting truly global tech companies.

What separates your firm from others?

Biztech Lawyers lifts clients above the friction of crossing global jurisdictions and practice areas. This creates room for vision and confidence. I’m the managing director of the Asia-Pacific region and my partner, Chris Spillman, is the MD of the Americas region. We launched in the UK at the end of last year. Having started the firm in Sydney, there’s a pretty clear roadmap for Australian start-ups and scale-ups to follow in terms of going into the US and UK markets. We’re also interested in a number of other markets where start-ups and scale-ups cluster – places like Singapore, Ireland, Hong Kong and Israel. We’re considering, when the right time presents itself, to do more in those markets.

The other key aspect is that law, like tech, thrives on networks. We leverage personal relationships and subject-matter expertise to solve client problems. We excel in building a trusted global network.

As you engage in work each day, what drives you and interests you?

The thing that engages me each day is giving clients a vantage point that allows them to move quickly and intelligently. Our clients have ambitious goals and a sense of how to achieve them, but want more confidence. They view the cost, time and complexity of traditional law firms as a necessary evil, instead of an asset. Our expertise and global reach add value to growing businesses, without many of the negatives of large, traditional firms.

You formerly led legal and operations at e-commerce firm Rokt. What lessons have you brought from Rokt that have helped drive the success of Biztech Lawyers?

I started at Rokt in 2013 and, immediately before that, I'd done an MBA and actually got out of law all together. I was a management consultant for a number of years, and the Rokt role was really a mix of management, consulting and law, providing a neat fit between the legal and operations side. It’s really interesting to deal with founders who have big aspirations and entrepreneurs who want that vantage point to do interesting things and solve big problems. In that way, Rokt was very much a first-hand experience of observing those elements.

For me, it was very inspiring, both in terms of helping other entrepreneurs while also motivating me to follow an entrepreneurial path in setting up a new consultancy and addressing an under-served market. Sitting inside a company such as Rokt that is growing so rapidly, and seeing the sort of experiences that founders have, was invaluable. They want to add people and infrastructure, but still want to move and pivot quickly. It's not rocket science to solve for those things. It just takes a lot of consideration and careful planning. Now, at Biztech we draw on that experience in terms of being able to guide our clients through similar experiences.

ALMJ goes out to a lot of law firm leaders and managing partners. Can you tell us about your management style and how you try to lead Biztech Lawyers.

I’m very hands-on in terms of the work that we do and making sure that the quality of work is really high. That goes without saying, and it’s table stakes in terms of what our clients expect. I’m also a big one for trying to capture knowledge and disseminate it in the consultancy in a written way. I think it’s especially helpful when you’re growing quite rapidly and people who join your consultancy know that, okay, this is how we do matter filing and this is how we enter timesheets and these are our expectations. All of that is highly systematised and written down at Biztech. It saves a lot of time and people feel empowered when they join the team because they know what to do and they don’t feel like they need to ask silly questions.

That being said, I also take the view that there aren’t any silly questions. The more that people can challenge the thinking in terms of what we’re doing and the sorts of approaches that we're taking to different problems is absolutely to be celebrated. We all learn new things from other people in our team all the time. We embrace learning as a way of doing business, and we get up to speed with our clients’ businesses very rapidly.

Law firms often talk about their team culture. What sort of people do you want in your firm?

Clients need to have trust across the whole team. We look for people with high emotional intelligence who are pragmatic problem-solvers. We also seek out people who are trustworthy. They can develop specific sector expertise over time by learning from the senior leadership team, but they should have an ability to do complex problem-solving with limited information from the beginning. They need to thrive in an environment of uncertainty.

You're a finalist in the Australian Law Awards 2023 category for Innovator of the Year. That prompts the question – what does innovation mean to you, and what does it look like in your firm?

First, there is business model innovation. There’s the formalities, we’re not a subscription-based law advisory and we offer fixed fees, for example. However, we basically offer all types of fee structures to our clients depending on what they want. We’re pretty agnostic on how people want to pay us.

I think our real point of innovation is in addressing our clients’ key challenges – they are typically facing a cross-border problem and grappling with their own internationalisation. That’s what our clients are solving for, and in terms of our innovation, or our lens on it, it’s about how we help them do that. It can be complex to solve for, and there are very large firms who also solve for those things. But frequently in those big traditional firms, the Australian team is disconnected from the foreign team and has a separate profit pool. Structurally, the local firm is effectively a sister firm to the overseas firm. They may not have dealt with each other much and there's very little incentive to refer work to each other.

We have a global profit pool at Biztech, so we’ve got every incentive to refer work across borders and bring in people in other teams to help with those client problems. Setting ourselves up in this way, rather than having a group-of-partnerships structure, is something of an innovation. We’re not the first legal advisor to do it, but it does differentiate us in terms of how we think about solving problems and not having any impediments to dealing with things in a truly global fashion.

Many stories are being run in the media about generative AI and tools such as ChatGPT and how they can assist lawyers, or threaten them. What impact can you see such technology having on the legal sector?

Well, it’s an absolutely game-changing technology in a lot of ways. If you think about how good ChatGPT is – you put some pretty difficult questions into ChatGPT and it gives you a very, very good answer. Then you think, okay, if it can do that for me, and it can do that for every single other person who is an expert at something, how powerful that technology is becomes mind-blowing. So, it’s going to change things. The marginal jobs will drop off, I think. For example, I’ve talked with clients who are writing performance reviews through ChatGPT, or at least doing a first draft. The things that previously took a lot of time are now very accessible.

Obviously, though, with any sort of thing that gives you a first draft of something, it needs to be carefully thought through and not assumed that it’s right. There was an example where a lawyer in the US was using cases made up by ChatGPT. So, guard rails need to be put in place and you need to have good sources for your information. You can’t use it recklessly. However, it’s such a powerful tool.

Are there any other messages you would like to convey to our readers?

The other message I’d get across is that it’s very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day industry that you’re working in. It’s crucial, though, to be mindful of the broader context in which lawyers sit in terms of the role and the broader public discourse about things like human rights and the First Nations Voice. There’s a real role to play for lawyers in terms of advancing social justice and human rights issues, separate from whatever’s occupying us that day. Being mindful of that and not being afraid to stand up for those issues when they arise, even if it’s not directly in your wheelhouse, someone needs to do it. And lawyers are generally people who are very well equipped to do that.

[Editor’s note: This is an edited version of the Q&A. The full interview will soon be released as a podcast.]