A Walk on the Entrepreneurial Side: Interview with Beth Fenton
Beth Fenton is a litigation partner at Saul Ewing LLP, an accomplished writer and speaker on corporate legal issues, and an investor and advisory board member of Hire an Esquire since 2013. We chatted with Beth about how she developed an interest and involvement in the legal tech world, and how the law firm sphere and the startup sphere can come together. Our CEO Julia Shapiro, had a couple points to add to the interview too!
1. How does a busy litigation partner become involved as an investor and an advisory board member with a legal tech startup? The power of what I call the “young girls’ network,” even though I’m not so young anymore. In 2013, I met Julia Shapiro, one of the founders of Hire an Esquire, through my financial advisor, Pari Hashemi. Julia and I shared frustrations about some of the inefficiencies in traditional legal staffing and in particular how large e-discovery projects were managed. When Julia told me about Hire an Esquire, I thought it was a great service for law firms and in-house legal departments alike. I’ve been involved as an advisor and an investor ever since.
Beth saw the future in 2013— She was one of the first investors to commit to Hire an Esquire— at what was supposed to be a sales meeting—in the early rough days of legal tech and Hire an Esquire.
- Julia Shapiro, Hire an Esquire CEO
2. Why is it important for partners to stay up to date on legal tech, even if they don’t use that specific technology in everyday practice? I’m a big fan of using technology to eliminate some of the more mundane aspects of legal practice. I understand, though, that not every lawyer is as enthusiastic about technology as I am. That said, we have ethical obligations to be “competent,” and many jurisdictions are now including knowledge of legal technology as a prerequisite for competence. I think (hope) most of us seek to be much more than competent at providing legal services, and so we have to know what is out there to make sure we get what we need in discovery or due diligence, just to name a few examples.
We have ethical obligations to be ‘competent,’ and most jurisdictions are now including knowledge of legal technology as a prerequisite for competence.
- Beth Fenton
3. What advice would you give to other partners and practicing attorneys who are curious about investing in startups and in legal tech? Read Venture Deals: Be Smarter than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson. As someone who litigates corporate disputes in the Delaware Chancery Court, I enjoyed learning about the founder perspective on what we do as lawyers. It’s not technically a book about startups, but Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam Grant has fantastic insights on the culture of Silicon Valley, which still drives a lot of startups. Check out Angel List if you are interested in specific opportunities (of course, only if you are an accredited investor). Local incubators and co-working spaces are popping up all over the country, so investigate your local startup scene. Many startups have a great presence on Twitter and other social media. I am a devotee of Twitter for all things legal technology. (Check me out at @bfentonesq).
4. How is technology changing the legal industry, and what are the other areas where you are excited about companies innovating in this space? As I mentioned above, legal technology, when properly implemented, has the potential to eliminate some of the more tedious aspects of lawyering. Not that long ago, we hand-delivered documents to the courthouse and reviewed reams of paper in warehouses. I think staffing, the space Hire an Esquire inhabits, presents a great opportunity for lawyers, firms, and businesses to have flexibility. E-discovery, with the potential of predictive coding, has been and will continue to be a game changer. Project management and other ways of measuring what we do and how we do it are also critical.
5. What have you learned from working with and investing in startups? I have learned to think more like an entrepreneur as a result of my involvement with Hire an Esquire. I’ve worked on our branding campaign and I’ve been an ambassador for the company in my various civic and bar association roles. We do this kind of thing as partners in law firms, but the way we sell legal services is still different from selling software as a service.
Beth is on another level. She's one of the rare attorneys who understand tech and innovation and the legal industry from 360º.
Beth can drill into a key details on a contract, recommend and make the perfect introductions and is perfectly at home at a female founders happy hour in New York after a day of meeting with clients.
- Julia Shapiro, Hire an Esquire CEO
6. What similarities do you see between succeeding as a law firm partner and succeeding as a startup founder? I think to succeed in anything you have to know yourself, be curious and be willing to take risks. That is certainly true for law firm partners, who need to think of their law practice as a startup.
7. What similarities do you see between women law firm partners and women startup founders? How can they leverage those shared experiences? Women professionals of all stripes are starting to speak up about their experiences. We tried for decades to play the game by rules which we had no role in creating. I am grateful to Sheryl Sandberg for giving voice to my generation of women professionals in Lean In. What I see now is women starting their own law firms and founding their own companies not just to “escape” male-dominated settings, but to fulfill their vision of what a good workplace looks like. It’s very inspiring.
8. What skills do you recommend attorneys cultivate to be more entrepreneurial and more savvy in business? I really go back to curiosity, self-knowledge, and willingness to take risks. Lawyers are trained to be skeptical and pessimistic. We need to shed some of that training because it is not helpful in the modern era of work.
Lawyers are trained to be skeptical and pessimistic. We need to shed some of that training because it is not helpful in the modern era of work.
- Beth Fenton
9. If you could change the legal industry in any way, what would you do? Oh boy, that’s a toughie. For starters, I take a cue from President Obama’s remarks in 2013 when he suggested that law school course work be two years, reserving the third year for clinical programs, internships, and other practical experience. As a Delaware lawyer, I think it’s great that we require an apprenticeship before one can join the bar. It includes drafting legal documents, observing a sheriff’s sale, attending various court proceedings, and other practical experiences that most law school programs did not offer until recently. I was a student in the civil practice and the legislative clinics at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and those experiences were the best part of my legal education.
Beth Fenton is a corporate litigator and partner at Saul Ewing LLP. To learn more about all that Beth is involved in - Hire an Esquire, the American Bar Association Section of Litigation, and more - follow Beth’s twitter feed here.