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Shieldcast: Episode 015

Hosted by Geoff Dunnett

Eliot Benzecrit on why contracts are enablers, not blockers

Co-founder of Avvoka, Eliot Benzecrit, discusses the importance of data in contracts, whether automation tools should aim to co-exist with Microsoft Word and how to achieve interoperability of legaltech platforms.

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Eliot Benzecrit is the Co-founder of Avvoka, the next-gen document automation tool. Prior to starting Avvoka in 2016, Eliot was a corporate M&A lawyer at Slaughter and May, in London. 

Learn more about Avvoka: 

Website: www.avvoka.com

LinkedIn: Avvoka

Twitter: @avvokadocs

Eliot contributed to our recent Transaction Management eBook. You can read his insights on why we should care about data in contracts by downloading the book here

In this Transaction Management episode of Shieldcast, Eliot and Geoff discuss:  

  • The disconnect between the knowledge of the precedent and what's actually in generated deal documents
  • Whether lawyers should leave Microsoft Word
  • The two types of transactions where automation tools can provide real value
  • Why data structuring is so important for transaction management
  • How lawyers can use legaltech tools for cross party collaboration
  • Building an integrated legaltech system and how to achieve interoperability 

Read the transcript of this podcast

Geoff: On today's episode of the Shieldcast, we welcome Eliot Benzecrit. Welcome Elliot.

Eliot is the co-founder of Avvoka, which is a next-generation automation tool. A former corporate M&A lawyer, having trained at practice at Slaughter & May, he was armed with the belief that things could be done better and excited about the opportunities that sat outside of private practice. He became a legal techie, a man after my own heart. At the core of any transactions are the contracts that are seen and looked at crystallised commercial understanding of the parties. For non lawyers, they're often considered a burden and not always considered an enabler.

I'm looking forward to talking to you Eliot about why that isn't necessarily the case and why there can be so much more to a contract than meets the eye. Great to have you on the show and to begin with, please tell us a little bit about you, Avvoka, the story and the... yeah.

Eliot: Again, thank you for having me, Geoff. I guess my background is, as you've already summarised, I was a corporate M&A lawyer at Slaughter & May. I trained there and then went on to go and qualify into the corporate M&A team. And as I guess a lot of corporate M&A lawyers, certainly at the junior end of the spectrum, we were frequently performing due diligence tasks on targets that we were looking to acquire for our clients and was struck by the lack of understanding that the GC, for example, when we were diligencing this target, that they would have in terms of their generated documents. So, if you would ask them what you would think are relatively simple questions about a portfolio of documents, let's say how many times a particular change of control threshold is above X percent or how many times do you think you have this particular type of assignment clause, and the answer was I know what that particular clause is in my precedent, but I haven't got much by way of understanding in the actual generated documents that the sales team have potentially then entered into. Now let's say you’re hypothetically financing that portfolio of contracts, and you want to put them into a pool of receivables so that you can get finance in respect to them. It suddenly becomes very important that you do know the terms of your contract. And I just thought that was a really big disconnect, that we had the precedent, we had all the generated documents and they had actually stored them in a relatively sensible place. But actually we were going in and inviting Slaughter & May to diligence those documents and tell the GC about the documents that were out there in the world.

And it just fundamentally felt like a bit of a disconnect. And I guess that's where the kind of moment of inception for Avvoka was born. And we very naively didn't really think of ourselves or the idea. When I mentioned this to David, another corporate M&A lawyer we didn't really think of ourselves as a document automation tool at all. We just wanted to provide a method of ensuring that the data in generated contracts was more accessible to general counsel because it would be useful not only when you're selling in the business, but also when you're seeking to secure finance. And that's, I guess that was the background and the genesis of the idea and then we went off from there.

Geoff: That's interesting. So you and David having no code background just a good understanding of contracts, decided you'd go off and find a way of mining all of that data and create a database from existing contracts.

How did that initial process happen? Because without that necessary background, how did you guys go about doing the first prototype?

Eliot: Yeah, absolutely. So I guess what our kind of mantra was at the outset was that to get good data out, you need to get good data in. And you can either do that as a result of kind of, you can use either a person or an AI tool to go and diligence the kind of contract portfolio. But, as you rightly say, is that we weren't techies and that was all far too technical. So we thought let's go back to first principles and we thought we'd actually try and create an MVP of Avvoka where we would be automating those documents on the platform, but capturing the kind of key data points at the same time. And through my brother actually we had a good relationship with the UCL computer department and we were lucky enough to have two students that were willing to work on this platform that allowed us to digitize documents, but always having that kind of very database centric methodology in the background so that the contracts were more than just a record of a document at a point of time. They were actually storing those obligations to do some funky stuff. So we were lucky that those two developers that UCL team put us in touch with wanted to create an MVP. And we had a very basic version of Avvoka probably back in 2016.

So that was the connection and that was our original idea that we went off to go and speak to angels, to secure funding and respect of and we worked on a very small basis with actually letting agents because actually they are high volume, relatively simple, and we thought we'd actually try and test that idea on it. And we used that MVP in that space in the first instance.

Geoff: Ah interesting. So it started in that sort of rental space. What prompted the next moves? Cause that's a pretty big market, right? Like being able to automate that is great. So did you, was it a natural progression from there? How has it changed to becoming what today, which we'll talk about in one more detailed, such all singing, dancing platform? What validations did you get to make those moves?

Eliot:  If you can imagine this kind of data centric model was always at our core. We wanted to give information back to the owners of the contract, if you'd like. And I was really fortunate through one of our angel investors to be put in contact with Hamptons International. And they had a problem that they were trying to get more information out of their landlord terms of business and other rental documents. And we'd already been working in that rental space and digitising documents and they very kindly agreed to do a pilot in two of their flagship branches in London. And it went really well. And they were getting more data out of their documents, so they can suddenly report on that portfolio. And you can imagine the kind of volume that goes through something like a Hamptons is very high. So for us, it was an excellent test case to scrutinise this more data centric method of contracting. That pilot converted and we ended up getting a full contract with Hamptons and therefore Countrywide plc.

So that was 2017, but it was very organic. I had absolutely no intention when we left Slaughters of A, working in real estate and B, we still didn't really think of ourselves as a contract automation tool. I think now everyone thinks of Avvoka as that, that knows of Avvoka, but David and I, and we always say this, really naïvely didn't even think of the likes of Contract Express and all those other great tools that allow you to automate a document. So it was very much kind of organic use case led and that's where we started.

Geoff: It's true. Cause if you'd gone out to try and get seed money and said, I'm going to build Contract Express, people would have probably told you to ...... But it's fascinating. It is amazing how there's sort of those moments... those lucky breaks are really quite defining in so many ways about how the business develops.

I think one of the things that I know we've talked about in the past, is Word going to be replaced by platforms like you guys? And, how has that adoption of contract automation happening? So I know you guys don't replace Word necessarily, or don't want to kill it. And it'd be great to talk a bit about that.

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