Chi Hoang, VP of Engineering at Ontra, talks about his vision, shared values, and his plans to scale during a period of exponential growth.
Ontra employee spotlight: Bridget Deiters, managing director, UK
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Bridget Deiters was Ontra’s lone flagbearer in Europe when she joined the company as a managing director in late 2018. Since then, the company’s presence in London, which Deiters also calls home, has grown many times over as it helps global and European asset managers streamline the volumes of documents bracketing their investing operations in and around the region.
Deiters began practising corporate law in 2011 at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP in New York City. In 2013, her expertise in capital markets law took her to London for three years before she returned to the U.S. in 2016 to join Kirkland & Ellis LLP.
During the countless hours she spent on high-stakes corporate transactions in those years, she realized two things: technology could fundamentally change the practice of law, and both she and the practice of law itself could best evolve with the room to do so.
“When I was at law firms I craved more technology solutions to provide data-based insights, to automate some repetitive tasks, and to improve overall efficiency, but I often found resistance,” she said. “Through a program at Kirkland that focused on finding career paths outside of the traditional partner or in-house counsel paths, I learned that I could do my best work with a big, blank canvas on which to experiment.”
Deiters sat down to discuss how Ontra’s product and engineering teams along with its network of experienced lawyer partners use that freedom to innovate and help some of the world’s largest, most sophisticated companies spend less time managing routine documents and more time on their most important, highest-value work.
You began your career doing the kind of work that you now help customers streamline. Tell us about that experience.
Two main challenges emerged from a massive volume of work that fell into two buckets. One was routine contracts like NDAs. I spent a portion of my earliest years as a lawyer doing routine documents like NDAs, but I had little guidance or supervision on that work. I also didn’t have the experience to put that work into context. They took a lot of time, I was inexperienced, and the clients were paying large sums for this work. At one point in my career I was seconded to a client and saw how legal services were consumed, and the factors that most affected client satisfaction. It became apparent very quickly that there had to be a better way to distribute legal work that was efficient and valuable for both the clients and the law firms themselves.
Using an outside resource like a firm can be very expensive. On the other hand, doing it in-house seems less costly, but you really don’t have the time or expertise for it. That’s where Ontra fits in. We give these companies the ability to handle this critical high-volume work at a manageable cost with the confidence that it’s being done well.
The second area where I saw a large volume of repetitive work came in the reviewing of fund documents and side letters for private equity clients. I would spend hours, often in the middle of the night, creating massive spreadsheets filled with precedent comparison information from multiple 300-page documents. Our newest product, Insight, has a native redlining feature that does this automatically and helps our customers avoid the costs of these huge analyses. Having this resource allows the legal teams negotiating these highly bespoke, complex documents to focus on the nuances of the agreement to secure the best possible outcomes.
The asset management industry seems to be hitting new records almost weekly. What trends are you seeing across Europe?
We’re seeing the same heightened levels of activity that you’re seeing in the United States and the rest of the world. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of activity in credit, which we can tell by the sheer number of NDAs we’re processing. There’s a certain urgency in the marketplace given the extraordinarily high levels of dry powder and people are busier than ever. There’s a sense of “spend it or lose it.” What we don’t know, and what could determine what the coming months and years look like, is what percentage of those acquisitions will reach completion.
In EMEA, we also focus on the nuances of all of the different jurisdictions here. Each one has its own unique legal, regulatory, and market considerations that both we and our lawyer partners are constantly working to stay in tune with. At the same time, it’s always important that we are culturally aware and sensitive to the differences in negotiating styles, business standards, and how business relationships are built. We spend a lot of time ensuring that our lawyer partners are professionals with experience operating in this transnational space.
You’ve also written a handful of articles on how technology can help close the gender pay gap in the legal industry. Can you tell us more?
Everyone knows or might assume that the legal industry is highly structured and resistant to change. However, in recent years we’ve seen a growing body of evidence that shows noncritical industry practices – a disproportionate focus on recruitment over retention, traditional gender roles with respect to dependent care, and inflexible career ladders that ignore social trends – are exacerbating the wage gap.
In recent years, women working at one of the UK’s 10 largest legal firms were being paid on average 43 percent less than men. The rigid structure of the partner track at traditional law firms is one factor that makes the gender pay gap difficult to close. Without any change, law firms will continue to struggle to bridge a gap that will widen as women disproportionately leave the firm in pursuit of balance.
Regardless of the scope and speed of that change, the legal industry is also rapidly remaking itself thanks to legal technology companies and alternative legal service providers. These organizations are pioneering new business and labor models that are overcoming many of the longstanding issues challenging the legal industry. Today, we’re seeing experienced attorneys with the unparalleled freedom to work when, where, and how they want for organizations that are better positioned to ensure equitable compensation and career growth.
One thing that’s critical to all of this, and that has been important to me during my time here, is the ability to have a conversation about these issues in a public forum. I’m really proud to work for a company that gives me the platform to do so while also investing in issues that matter. I’m proud of our Dollar a Document program, the freedom we give our lawyer partners to build a practice and a life of their choosing, and our culture of inclusivity for so many talented people from so many walks of life. Our vision as a company is to help people find the freedom to focus on what’s most important to them, and all of those efforts combined help make that vision a reality.
Bridget Deiters is a managing director at Ontra. Prior to Ontra, Bridget practiced corporate and capital markets law at Kirkland & Ellis and Cravath. She holds a J.D. from Georgetown and a B.A. from Yale. In her spare time, Bridget enjoys cooking, arts and crafts, and country walks with her dog.
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