Cambridge University Society for Women Lawyers

Kindly Sponsored by

Ashurst Logo.png

Tech, Journalism and Law: An Interview with Annia Mirza

Annia Mirza

University of Cambridge Graduate

Founder of Legit.

Trainee Solicitor at Clifford Chance LLP

1. Chronologically, what led you to pursue a career in corporate law?

My journey into corporate law was a myriad of trial-and-error decisions. When I was younger, I toyed with the idea of different careers. I was fascinated by the media industry, so I did a short internship with a place called ‘The Media Company’ in Abu Dhabi. Very on-the-nose. As much as I enjoyed my time there, I knew digital media and marketing just wasn’t for me. I’m an avid writer, so briefly considered working in print media and journalism before coming to the realization that: (a) I probably wouldn’t win a Putlizer Prize; (b) writing was something I could do alongside any career.

Around this time, I started to think more introspectively about my strengths and what kind of environment I wanted to build my career around. I’m a very internationally minded person. I’ve grown up across the UK and Middle East and have always loved watching how cultures and values trickle down into the commercial landscape of a country. Everything is different, from what industries are successful to how much appetite for risk there is. I knew straightaway I wanted to work in an industry whose outlook mirrored my own global upbringing.

I went on to do two law internships: one with Clifford Chance in Sixth Form and another with Linklaters in my first year of university – both in Dubai. I really enjoyed the work I was given, the people I worked with and – most of all – learning about the kinds of deals that took place across the UAE. All the clients were household brands and individuals I’d grown up hearing about. This was when I knew I wanted to start off my career with a job in corporate law; it packaged my craving for global work and interesting deals with my own strengths and interests.

2. Why did you choose Clifford Chance?

As I’ve mentioned, I’d already done a short internship with Clifford Chance and so I knew I would fit in well with the firm culture. I also knew I wanted a training contract that was split across the Middle East and the U.K. to reflect how my own life has been largely split between the two. Clifford Chance was one of the only firms at the time offering a Middle East training contract that promised one year in London and one year in Dubai. So it was a perfect fit, almost as if someone had moulded a training contract just for me.

3. Tell me more about your start-up Legit. and how you got into journalism with a focus on making legal news digestible?

I started Legit. after getting frustrated with how outdated the legal news industry was. After I graduated from university and ventured into the working world, I wanted to be more in-tune with the news happening around me. But every time I tried to find legal news I was hit with a ridiculous paywall. It felt like the entire legal media industry had built a barrier for the sake of profit, which is understandable on a business level but incredibly annoying for everyone else - especially students.

Anytime I managed to get behind a paywall through things like free trials, my frustration doubled. Legal news sites were reporting exclusively on things that, to be blunt, I didn’t care about: what partners were being hired or fired, what revenue firms were bringing in, how long the lawyers in X firm worked compared to the lawyers in Y firm.

Instead, I wanted to know about the legal aspect of business news. Questions like: what’s the effect of that IPO? What new tech patents are being filed? Who’s suing who? Not to mention there are so many industries (social media, cryptocurrency) that are only now realizing the importance of law. We’re living in an era where almost everything is touching regulation.

I thought it was a shame there wasn’t anywhere that bundled important legal news like this. At the same time, I was getting all of my business and finance updates from newsletters like Morning Brew, The Hustle and The Generalist, which were skyrocketing in popularity.

One day, the penny just dropped. Why not connect the need for accessible legal news people actually care about with the magic of bundled news channels like newsletters. As someone who loves writing, it was the dream project for me. So that’s how Legit. came into existence.

We launched in late October 2020 to an incredible reception. Within the first week of announcing Legit., 500 people signed up. Within a month, we crossed the 1k mark and started getting offers for monetization. It’s only been a few months, but the journey so far has been incredibly rewarding. I think a large part of that is down to offering people the news they want to read in a way that’s quick and fun.

4. In an article entitled “Figuring out Legal Tech: Is it a Gimmick?” published in 2019 for TCLA (The Corporate Law Academy) you famously argued against the ‘hype’ of legal technology. Have your views changed since?

My views now are largely the same, but I will make a tiny clarification – I do think we’re on the cusp of a really meaningful wave of disruption in the legal industry as a whole. The pandemic accentuated the need for lawyers to break out of their status quo and be more open to the solutions tech can bring, and I think this shift in mindset has opened the door for tech to automate the drudgery of certain processes.

Overall, I’m incredibly optimistic about the future of legal tech; there was a lot of market consolidation in 2020, as well as VC interest and funding for start-ups. When I argued against the hype of legal tech, the point I was trying to make is that we’re not reaching our full potential, innovation-wise. For example, there are a lot of individual narrow legal tech tools but there’s a lack of end-to-end solutions that tackle the whole deal making process.

There’s also a product/market fit problem. We’re developing tech that makes our lives as lawyers easier instead of asking how to make a client’s life easier. Ultimately, clients are going to expect law firms to come up with low-cost solutions that are easy to navigate and they’ll compare law to industries like online banking via Revolut and Monzo. When you start viewing the industry through the lens of client expectations like this, traditional law firms begin to look a little out-dated.

For legal tech to be truly disruptive and also supportive (a brilliant distinction Richard Susskind makes), I think we need to do two things. One, ask what clients want in a law firm. Two, realize there is no finish line for technology; it is constantly evolving and will continue to constantly evolve. It’s in everyone’s best interests if we evolve with it.

5. What are your views on the regulation of Big Tech?

To be honest, I think it’s long overdue. A few years ago, when the topic of regulation in Silicon Valley first started spinning around, my opinion was completely different. I used to think that, as private companies, we should let the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and Google come up with their own internal policies and abide by them.

As time has progressed, I’ve realized this just isn’t feasible. We’re living in an experience-driven world that’s almost entirely shaped by these companies. Our reliance on them has grown even stronger throughout the pandemic, and it’s becoming clearer that competition in Silicon Valley doesn’t really work like it should. So we have a handful of tech monarchs, essentially, calling the shots on things they shouldn’t be in charge of. Things like free speech, democratic elections, data handling. Things that usually fall under the purveyance of independently drafted laws and regulations.

I also think we have to take a step back and ask whether we want these companies to be able to make these decisions in the first place. How do we weigh the peace kicking certain political figures off of Twitter brings against the precedent we’re setting for platforms to selectively ban people and companies - platforms who, by the way, haven’t been democratically elected in any way? Platforms who are run by a pretty narrow demographic of people out of one corner in San Francisco?

I think the majority of people now agree Big Tech is permeating the world in ways that seemed unimaginable just a decade ago. Industries like product manufacturing and electric vehicles are subject to regulations so, to me, it makes sense to regulate what is essentially the biggest industry in the world. Whether Big Tech is responsible enough welcome this regulation or comes to the discussion kicking and screaming is a different issue altogether.

6. How do you view innovation as its changed in the legal industry?

Over the past few years, the industry has been increasingly innovative. Not just on the start-up front; we’re seeing Magic and Silver Circle firms partnering with tech companies and launching their own incubator/sandbox programmes and tech solutions. There’s a sense of excitement circling the legal world, with VC investors pouring cash into the industry in the hopes the next decade will bring radical transformation.

That being said, I love tracking the trends between law and similar industries that were a little more open to innovation a little earlier on. I think the fintech industry is a great blueprint for the legal industry. Some of the parallels are really cool to draw; after the success of buy now-pay later platforms like Affirm and Klarna, there are a few start-ups experimenting with the idea of advice now-pay later billing for law firms. Innovation in the Middle East is also one to watch; Lexyom, for example, is a great Lebanese-based legal tech company making waves right now.

7. What are the challenges facing law firms today?

Where to begin. I’ll try to stay away from the obvious factors you’re probably tired of hearing about – the Big 4, the pandemic etc.

I think the main challenge right now is accessibility. Law has traditionally been an insular, inward facing industry that has perpetuated the perception that legal services are for the rich. There are a worrying number of people and SME’s, both across the UK and US, that fall into the justice gap because lawyers aren’t affordable to them. I find it interesting that a lot of old-school lawyers and firms don’t realize how much of a missed opportunity this is; they’re stopping themselves from tapping into enormous under-served client markets because they prioritize a rigid business model.

I don’t think it will take long for someone to come along and change this. Not a lot of people know this, but Amazon has already entered the legal industry, albeit very quietly. Around a year ago, it launched an IP accelerator that helps SMEs obtain IP rights and brand protection more quickly. I imagine if Amazon expanded this into a full-blown legal service it would be hugely successful; it’s already an ‘everything store’ that most people trust. Although it probably wouldn’t compete with Big Law, creating an Amazon legal service would still shift the way clients view and interact with lawyers.

Accessibility, by the way, doesn’t just mean affordability. Contracts and documents are often peppered with language the average client hasn’t been trained to understand. There’s a great start-up called Visual Contracts currently tackling this information asymmetry.

So, bottom-line: the big challenge is clients want more for less and will (rightfully) expect barriers to accessibility to be broken down. If law firms don’t figure out how to meet these expectations – or don’t want to tap into those smaller markets - someone else will. Other important challenges are cybersecurity, mental health and, of course, diversity.

8. What barriers you have been as a woman in corporate law and in Tech?

Regardless of industry, I think women and minorities will attest to battling biases from the outset. As early on as university, I found myself having to navigate microaggressions from various students and academics. I heard a great analogy about microaggressions recently: they’re like mosquito bites. If you get one, it’s annoying but not a huge deal. Overtime though, the more bites you get, the more your frustration compounds – e.g. being talked over, having someone ‘mansplain’ something back to you or – as a minority – being asked where you’re ‘really’ from.

Experiences like this are, unfortunately, not unique to me. As Iris Bohnet says, “bias starts in year one” for women. Tearing these barriers down and snuffing out ingrained bias will take time, but I think we have to go beyond quotas and have a more pervasive discussion about awareness. The question all businesses – not just law firms – should be asking is how to fight “subtle sexism” i.e. the kind of biases that are so embedded people serve them without being aware. The good news is a lot of firms are realizing how important it is to hold these discussions and educate entry-level trainees on microaggression, workplace bias and supporting colleagues who face these barriers.

9. Could you list three female leaders that have inspired you and why?

The list is long and constantly expanding, so I’ll tell you about three women that inspired me this week.

Amira Yayhaoui: I stumbled across Amira on Twitter this week. She’s a Tunisian human rights activist who was exiled at the age of 17. She fled to France, where she lived as an illegal immigrant and, on the heels of the Arab Spring, returned to Tunisia when she was 25. After building an NGO called Al Bawsala, she moved to San Francisco and founded a VC-backed edtech company called Mos that aims to decrease student debt. Amira’s mission – to tear down financial barriers to opportunity – is incredible. It takes determination, vision and authenticity to not only break into Silicon Valley without a web of connections, but to pair tech with morality and accessibility above everything else. Her story immediately inspired and humbled me.

Polina Marinova: a friend recently sent me a link to a podcast Polina did with Bilal Zaidi on Creator Lab. Polina is a former writer and editor at Fortune Magazine who left to start a newsletter called The Profile (go check it out, it’s amazing). She spoke to Bilal about how she got over her initial fear of abandoning the safety net and reputation Fortune gave her to create her own content. She said something that really resonated with me: “nothing is more powerful than tying your identity to your name.” Her advice to new graduates – to make sure you’re working on a passion project that you do just for yourself – was equally refreshing.

Doria Shafik: I don’t remember how I came to hear about Doria Shafik, but I regret I didn’t know who she was sooner. Doria Shafik was, amongst other accolades, an Egyptian activist, poet, editor, doctorate and feminist. In 1951, she led a crowd of 1500 women through the gates of Egypt’s all-male parliament, where they stayed until the president of the upper chamber promised to give women the right to vote and hold office. Although she’s probably one of the most influential women in the history of the Arab world, not many people know her name. She passed away under sad circumstances in 1975, but the NYT recently (in 2018) published a belated obituary for her headlined “Overlooked No More”.

Find out more: