LinkedIn for Lawyers Looking for Takeoff

Original Article appeared on Financial Times on December 9, 2019: https://www.afr.com/technology/linkedin-for-lawyers-looking-for-liftoff-after-funding-20191204-p53gtf 

Philipp Thurner came up with the idea for NEXL, a LinkedIn-style platform for lawyers that launched in July, when he was working as a techie for law firm Gilbert + Tobin. Now he has raised $820,000 seed funding to see if he can make it fly.

For $79 a month lawyers can make an NEXL profile to find and connect with other lawyers, in order to share and secure cross-border work.

Herbert Smith Freehills partner Celia Davis, who headed the firm’s trademark practice, G+T founder Danny Gilbert and G+T chief operating officer Sam Nickless all pitched in $25,000 to help NEXL get off the ground.

The NSW government also helped with a start-up matching grant.

NEXL chief executive and founder Philipp Thurner has been working round the clock for two years to bring NEXL to life.  James Brickwood

The 32-year-old Austrian said he came up with the idea when working as a legal solutions tech analyst at G+T, and was shown a spreadsheet of global lawyers they used for international advice.

He was told to ask the lawyers to update their contact details annually and said he was surprised by how outdated the process was.

His start-up lets lawyers update their details in real time and adds Tinder-esque matchmaking algorithms to help lawyers-seeking-lawyers find the right person for a particular cross-border job.

Mr Nickless said he was sad to see Mr Thurner leave the firm, but said G+T supported his entrepreneurial ambitions.

While he said he believed traditional methods of using existing cross-firm relationships to secure work would remain, NEXL had the chance to disrupt a notable part of the market.

We are essentially the Match.com of international referral relationships.

— Philipp Thurner, CEO and founder, NEXL

“Where there’s parts of work that are higher volume, and it’s a bit smaller, or where it hits many more jurisdictions – take for example, there’s an acquisition and there are assets in 30 or 40 countries and there needs to be work done in each – I think that’s where [NEXL] is going to get its sweet spot for the bigger firms,” Mr Nickless said.

Legal start-ups

In law and technology, there are two key buzz words floating around. The first is “NewLaw”, which refers to start-ups like SprintLaw or LegalVision that look to change the very business structures of the legal industry.

The second is LegalTech, which refers to start-ups that try to make lawyers’ lives easier, more efficient, or provide some kind of a competitive edge with technology. NEXL arguably falls into this latter category.

“We are essentially the Match.com of international referral relationships,” Mr Thurner said.

“We are trying to give every professional access to that international market. And that’s the interesting part. So we’re going away from that Swiss Verein model, to digital networks.”

NEXL founder Philipp Thurner says his team have been instrumental in getting the platform off the ground. From left: Grant Petersen-Speelman, May Chen, Leya Thurner, Andy Chen Fang, Philipp Thurner, Bapu Sethi, Truman Biro, Konrad Konczak-Islam and Heleana Franco pictured at their Sydney offices.  James Brickwood

NEXL is still at a very early stage and faces numerous challenges in disrupting the legal market.

First, is whether it can attract enough users. It has 552 user accounts in 60 countries, but needs to grow this significantly. Mr Thurner said, however, email marketing was proving effective.

The second is the same issue of quality control faced by any online match-making platform.

“This is the trust issue we’re trying to solve. Because if I’m a lawyer in Australia and I’m just digitally connected with a person, how can I send them a client of mine?” Mr Thurner said.

“But it’s based on their networks, the firm they are a part of, and who endorses them. We get every lawyer to sign up with their work email address, so their email locks them towards their firm. Based on that domain, we can do the checks on what’s the law firm, where they’re based, so we can basically check they aren’t fake.”

Third, the platform’s master language is English. But given NEXL needs to be global from the outset, some kind of translation tool is essential. Mr Thurner says his team are working on this.

The fourth challenge is a question of behavioural economics. The value of paying to be on the platform has to exceed alternatives, be that searching up a lawyer on Google, using internal spreadsheets, or competitor referral networks like Dentons’ Nextlaw Referral Network.

Founder life

When asked what he has learned since starting his own company two years ago, Mr Thurner laughed.

“That it’s hard,” he said, who starts every day at 4.30am.

Mr Thurner, who is newly married to an Australian paralegal, said he and his wife have had to make sacrifices to pursue his start-up dream. The couple had to sell a plot of land on which they planned to build the marital home and instead move in to his wife’s Dad’s two-bedroom apartment in Dee Why.

Six months ago Mr Thurner said he was also underweight and feeling exhausted, crediting his wife’s support and the NEXL team for helping him get his health back on track.

“What’s hard is you hear 1000 ‘nos’. Something is going and going and going, and then at the last minute, it’s a no. So it’s just draining. You need a lot of passion. If you don’t have that, don’t even try,” he said.

“But I just tell myself if it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. And everyone would be successful.”

Global chief investment officer of early stage investment firm Investible Hugh Bickerstaff led NEXL’s capital raising.

“What intrigued us about Philipp was his personal story. For us, it was a combination of his history in technology, his family history, his father had a technology company, and then how he got involved in technology and developed his career,” Mr Bickerstaff said.

“If you’re going to be involved with a founder, you’re going to be involved with them for a number of years. Philipp is the guy you’d actually want to work with them. He’s coachable, he listens, he hustles.”

Mr Thurner certainly has the attention of some big names. Now he’s hoping for the attention of lawyers everywhere.

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