I recently spoke with Tunji Williams, a truly inspiring legal tech founder and entrepreneur. He describes himself (and accurately, I would say) as “a dreamer, entrepreneur, technologist and former mergers and acquisitions attorney building a team to help revolutionize deal process technology and service delivery for corporate transactions, and beyond.”
Tell me a little bit about your background and the impetus behind DealWIP.
My career journey so far has been a bit untraditional. I started out as an attorney in the corporate group at Hogan Lovells. My practice was focused on public and private mergers and acquisitions, general corporate transactions and public company advisory work. I lasted all of 7 months at the firm before I got the entrepreneurial itch.
I left Hogan to join the early team at an incredible technology startup called FiscalNote. I was the first employee focused on selling their politics-focused predictive analytics product to the Am Law 200 law firms. The algorithm behind the software product was able to instantly predict with over 97% accuracy, the likelihood of any given piece of introduced legislation - state or federal - passing. One can imagine how difficult it was to sell that kind of software to attorneys who had spent their entire careers building the relationships necessary to deliver precisely that kind of insight to their clients. My experience helping to build out the business at FiscalNote taught me very quickly how to sell ambitious software products with empathy for the people behind the use cases.
After my time at FiscalNote I returned back to legal practice at Hogan and then eventually at a smaller firm called Miles & Stockbridge. I had my heart and mind focused on learning the ins-and-outs of corporate practice. I was also looking for opportunities to apply what I learned during my time at FiscalNote. I wanted to build software to nudge corporate transactional processes into the 21st century.
Each day at work, with each task I was assigned, I was taking careful personal notes. I recorded what I was doing, why I was doing it, and I how I was doing it. My purpose was to unearth gaps and opportunities for improvement in my own work processes. I reduced every task for which I was responsible down to discrete step-by-step instructions. I dedicated myself to that exercise for nearly two years. It became glaringly clear to me how much process pain, coordination stress and execution inefficiency we endure as lawyers. Worse yet, because of some of the outdated tools and processes we employ, we put our clients and stakeholders through the same pain.
I managed to boil the issue down to two core factors I wanted to address with my own transaction management software product: (1) lack of workflow process transparency and (2) lack of process standardization.
I spent nights and weekends during my last year of practice designing what would become the initial prototype for dealWIP. The idea was to build a suite of software tools that would empower deal teams on any given deal to coordinate seamlessly and in real-time with stakeholders and counterparties. The idea was to build software to help teams execute a corporate legal transaction in a standardized and repeatable manner - all within one cloud-based application. Once the prototype was built I took a leap of faith. That meant burning through my savings, moving back in with my parents and setting off to build our company.
For those who don't know DealWIP, how would you describe it?
At dealWIP we’re building a comprehensive suite of project management and workflow tools for modern deal professionals. We’ve started with a project management application for due diligence.
Our due diligence project management application enables deal teams to conduct due diligence up to 33% faster, more securely, and with greater transparency. The application includes workflow features that empower users to:
Create and publish real-time progress reports;
Track diligence progress by party, team or individual;
View all critical issues uncovered in diligence in real-time;
Send clients, stakeholders and supervisors customizable snapshot views of their teams’ overall progress without having them log in to dealWIP;
View the status of every outstanding request with the click of a button;
Collaborate with clients and internal deal team members – and coordinate with the other side – without ever sending an email;
Import and deploy existing diligence request list templates to the dealWIP application in seconds; and
To perform natural language searches of all correspondence and documents on any deal.
We are live internationally and are in the process of on-boarding our first 30 customer organizations. Our early adopters include private equity firms, law firms, enterprise corporate development and legal departments and an international M&A due diligence consultancy.
A lot is said about the connection between technology and innovation. How would you describe the relationship? Do you see them needing one another or is it possible to innovate without technology?
Innovation is about coming up with a new and more effective way of achieving some defined goal. Sometimes innovation comes in the form of a shiny new technology application. Other times it presents as a fundamental or incremental tweak in process or resource allocation. And yet, in other instances, it’s some optimal combination of both.
At the end of the day, an innovation is some impactful improvement that helps us get from point A to point B, faster, less expensively, more safely, or more energy efficiently. Technology is often involved, but it’s far from necessary for real innovation to take place.
What was your biggest misconception about legal innovation before you started innovating?
I thought I had to be a legal expert before I had the right to innovate in my own personal practice. I was so wrong. In fact, it was my relative lack of experience and the absence of fortified assumptions that were critical in helping me see the endless possibilities for the future of legal service delivery.
In the legal industry, practical experience and mastery are hard-won and fundamentally important. But, being a great lawyer and being an impactful legal process innovator are two very different things. They can, but don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.
I’ve learned that innovation is most accessible when we allow ourselves to see old problems with new eyes. You don’t need 30 years of practice to earn new eyes. We can all access that perspective.
What has most surprised you and why about your journey within the legal tech space?
I have been most pleasantly surprised by the level of empathy and camaraderie displayed by many of the legal tech entrepreneurs and professionals that I’ve come to know and admire. This industry is filled with many kind and generous people. It helps that in many ways those of us working on this feel that we are part of a shared and important mission.
Business and innovation can be an unforgiving, zero-sum game sometimes. That’s just the way competition goes. There’s something more enlightened about the atmosphere in the legal tech space today. I think it has something to do with the vastness of the opportunity. There’s enough problem space for all of us to create something lasting and significant. I think that’s what we’re all after. I feel grateful to be a part of it.
To those wanting to start their own legal tech journey, what would be your advice?
1. Ask the right questions, and then listen and observe more than you speak. There are a million available challenges to be solved in this space. When you take the time to ask practitioners and their stakeholders the right questions, they will lead you to what you need to build. The most powerful and loved products are born from a deep and genuine understanding of people and their problems. You gather those critical insights when you humble yourself and listen.
2. Be bold and have a bias for action. Unlike legal practice, legal tech entrepreneurship and innovation is not about endless planning and having all the answers. It’s about bold, efficient and focused experimentation. Don’t be scared to learn by doing. And, remember that every incremental rejection and failure comes with a necessary learning. Take them on-board and iterate your approach hourly.
3. Surround yourself with talented and good people. It’s hard work building a legal tech company (“deal tech,”, in our case). It’s vital to surround yourself with smart, relentless and kind people to build alongside you. As smart as you may be, we all have blindspots and weak links in our chain of talents. Great partners will amplify your efforts and make the journey more joyful.