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This article, like many others, was first published exclusively for long-term supporters, 16 hours before everyone else got to read it.

‘Mission to transform practice of law’: Ex-Sequoia GC Sandeep Kapoor’s start-up Algo hits 11 partners, 48 lawyers

The firm’s DNA is heavily tech-based, hoping this will give it an edge in making lawyers (and transactions) more efficient

Algo: 11 partners in a few months
Algo: 11 partners in a few months

Former Sequoia India general counsel (GC) Sandeep Kapoor has quietly expanded a start-up law firm to three offices in 11 partners (of whom three are associate partners) in the space of only three-odd months since opening its doors on 1 August.

Algo Legal’s aims are ambitious, with Kapoor saying, no less: “It’s my mission to transform the practice of law in the next 10 to 15 years.”

Explaining why he had decided to start a law firm after his nine-year stint at Sequoia, he said: “I want to be responsible as a service provider. Technologies can be served only when you control the process end to end.”

And such knowledge would be shared with the entire industry, Kapoor vowed: “We are going to actively help every firm, create a network, share our learning.”

So far, some of that ambition at least has been borne out in its rapid growth and technology back-end put into place.

Algo Legal’s largest office in Bangalore is 6,500 square feet right now and has a total of 55 staff, of whom 48 are fee-earners, including 11 partners; of those two partners are in Delhi, two in Mumbai and the rest in Bangalore.

While the firm is understood to include around 15 lawyers who formerly worked at Themis, Algo’s partnership has clearly drawn from a wider array of (primarily) VC specialist firms and independents (pictured above, left to right, top to bottom):

  • Kapoor, as founder and managing partner,
  • partner Siddharth Manchanda in Mumbai, heading the firm’s transactional advisory practice (formerly a partner at Themis; ILS Pune LLB 2009),
  • partner Vinayak Mishra in Delhi (who had worked as an independent lawyer in early 2019 after having been a principal associate at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas; HNLU Raipur LLB 2008),
  • partner Prashant Kataria in Bangalore (who had been partner at Bangalore private equity boutique Lexygen until July; NLSIU Bangalore LLB 2003),
  • partner Jitender Tanikella in Delhi joined with a team of three (co-founder of TRA Law, who went independent after the split with co-founder Anirudh Rastogi in September 2018; NLIU Bhopal LLB 2006, Columbia LLM 2012),
  • partner Smita Goel, a chartered accountant (not a lawyer) heading Algo’s tax practice in Bangalore (formerly associate director at PwC India),
  • partner Archan Chakraborty (formerly partner at Themis),
  • partner Unnikrishnan Venugopalan, a lawyer and company secretary, heading the corporate secretarial practice at Algo (having previously worked at chipmaker Intel India as company secretary and legal adviser; LLB Bangalore University),
  • associate partner Lalu John Philip in Bangalore, who joined with a team of two (after running a legal tech start-up for a year after having been senior associate at J Sagar Associates (JSA); NLSIU Bangalore 2011),
  • associate partner Prateek Mohapatra in Bangalore (who had joined from K Law, where he was associate partner; RMLNLU 2012), and
  • associate partner Minhaz Lokhandwala (not pictured) in Mumbai (who had joined from Khaitan & Co where he was a principal associate; ILS Pune 2010).

Kapoor said he eventually wanted Algo headcounts to continue growing, though not massively, with an emphasis on efficiencies gained through technology to allow fewer fee-earners to service multiple clients.

Techy back-ends

Algo’s mathematician ex-banker, ex-CEO Nagarkatti
Algo’s mathematician ex-banker, ex-CEO Nagarkatti

Algo also has a number of senior non-lawyer positions as its backbone, said Kapoor: its chief operating officer (COO) is Dhruv Nagarkatti. Before joining Algo he was CEO at LeapStart - a physical education provider to schools - from 2015 to 2018, after two years as head of operations at Bengaluru FC, around two years in the tennis coaching space, and four years at HSBC between 2006 and 2010.

Then, more unusually for most (Indian) law firms, there’s chief innovation officer (CIO) Rasmeet Charya, who had been an advocate at the Delhi high court from 1999 to 2008, worked with legal process outsourcing (LPO) company Mindcrest from until 2010, then co-founded ThemisGroup (which also includes law firm Themis Associates), and in 2016 joined Altisource and then OneDelta Technology Solutions, where she was a strategic advisor. Finally, Algo also has a chief technology officer (CTO).

Algo is a “different and unique story” emerging, noted Kapoor, in part because in “everything we will do, there will be a technology engine behind it, a tool we have built or licensed from third parties”.

Kapoor would not be drawn in great detail yet on some of the exact technology products the firm used, though he said the firm was developing a collaboration platform that promises clients seamless project and workflow management of mandates, while the firm has also started an early-stage legal tech incubation centre that is supporting a centre of online dispute resolution and another entity, which Algo is assisting in “building up an ecosystem”.

As for whether Algo was already able to utilise any gains in efficiency, COO Nagarkatti noted that the firm was “already using contract automation tools to generate contracts, and where we work with funds, we standardise our processes - it is part of our DNA when it comes to processes”.

A large part of that DNA will not just be efficiency, but detailed analytics of exactly what each lawyer is doing and for how long, which will hopefully allow the firm to model how to be more efficient in future. “We have put in the foundation to start collecting data that will give us some insights,” noted Nagarkatti.

Cyborg-lawyer practice profiles

The firm’s main focus, much in line with Kapoor’s and most of the other partners’ background, is on private equity, venture capital and corporate work, though the firm is also assisting clients with finance work, for instance, and “supporting our clients on litigation through our associate networks”, Kapoor said.

That said, it is understood that some areas such as capital markets, for instance, were currently not explicitly on the cards, though service lines would be client-demand driven.

In addition to servicing clients, Algo’s partners will also be expected to strongly interact and improve with technology, including whatever comes out of the incubator or the products that are eventually developed in-house. “We want partners to invest time to ensure the [technology] initiatives take place.”

How grim / bright is the future for tech-aided lawyering?

We asked Nagarkatti, who holds bachelors and masters degrees in mathematics, what kind of maximum efficiencies could be expected from the roll-out of legal technologies in future, but the answer is not so simple. “It’s too early in the day to [establish such figures],” he said. “Even something like a document editing [software] could give you 10% efficiency [boost] - but what does this mean overall? I don’t think anyone has the answer.”

As for whether technology was finally getting into a place where several pundits’ long-predicted ‘death of lawyers’ and the legal profession could become a reality, he said: “Absolutely not. That is something we’re absolutely clear on. Too much has been written about how AI can replace lawyers but technology is there to aid the process. Lawyering will always be an art and [about application of] mind.”

“Where technology comes in, is where it frees up lawyers to do the lawyering.”

On the flipside, and perhaps as a corollary, is it possible that most legal tech is still overhyped and its promises often too lofty, with it never quite getting there? “If [we] had that conviction, I don’t think we would go down that path,” said Nagarkatti. “The reason we are building these tools is because we believe there is value in integrating technology in the entire life cycle of a transaction.”

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