Bertrand Alexis

Born in the USA and Coming Home

Bertie Alexis talks about Digital Transformation in the legal profession, an unusually diverse intellectual and social background, and moving back stateside.

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Keiron Hylton
Bruce Taub
20
/
3
5 Minutes

02.01.2021

A talented lawyer who has worked in New York, London, Paris and Qatar for telecommunications clients and traveled all over the world recounts a lifelong fascination with technology and law.  Last year he cut back a little on travel.

WE MET IN 1983 AS 1L'S.  THE WORLD HAS CHANGED A LOT IN THE LAST 37 YEARS.  WHAT IN YOUR VIEW IS THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT CHANGE?

Digital transformation.  I've been able to leave the US and stay connected just as if I were in a New York law firm.  In Paris in the 1990’s I was doing deals in South Africa and China. Before hiring me, my boss asked me "Can you use a computer?". 

YOU'RE HALF SWISS AND HALF HAITIAN.  WHAT'S THAT LIKE?

Still working on it [laughs]. I like both yodeling and Zouk music.  I'm a chameleon - people think I'm Lebanese or Egyptian. 

YOU GOT YOUR MATH DEGREE AT COLUMBIA IN THREE YEARS, THEN SWITCHED TO THE LAW.  WHY THE CHANGE? 

Math and Econ.  I was blessed with parents who obtained scholarships for me at age 12.  In those days you could use AP credits to do college in three years (you can't now).  My parents drove me up to Cambridge one morning in February 1983 so I could talk to HBS Admissions.  I wore my Alexander's [former NYC department store] coat and tried to impress them by saying I had already been accepted to Harvard Law.  The counselor said "The criteria are different over there - it's just pure intelligence" [mutual laughter].  My paternal grandfather was on the Supreme Court in Haiti so the family was pleased when I started law school. 

In retrospect, the advisor meant that there is a work experience requirement at HBS (then two years, now 4-5). I could have used more people mentoring me.  Now if anyone asks, I take the time. A few minutes of advice could change a life. 

YOU'RE HEAD OF LEGAL AND INNOVATION.  ISN'T THAT UNUSUAL? 

In negotiating my title in connection with a recent promotion, I sought recognition and street credibility for work I've been doing for several years, both in my in-house legal practice and advising at the HEC Paris Business School extension in Qatar.  In 1987 I was working in a midsize firm founded by some ex-Cravath partners. We were marking up documents by hand.  I bought an 8086 machine with MS word processing software.  Spellcheck meant I didn't have to worry about typos by legal secretaries.

Yes, it’s unusual, but not contradictory, as you may have been suggesting [chuckles].  Fewer than one in 10 would have both titles, but many General Counsels would have someone working for them playing that role.  The field is changing fast.

YOU ONCE MENTIONED THAT "ACCOUNTING FIRMS MAY EAT LAW FIRMS' LUNCH."  HOW SO?  ISN'T THAT IMPERMISSIBLE? 

The accounting firms recognize that much of legal practice involves people and processes.  You can use the latest content templates to doit once, not two or three times.  Smart legal design with an authority matrix will speed the contract negotiation process for big companies and help small companies grow faster.  A robotic process can compare documents by priority issues and against your plan B. 

In some jurisdictions outside the US, non-lawyers are now allowed to own legal businesses. 

HOW MANY BOARDS ARE YOU ON?

Three.  A Haitian non-profit, Novus Law - a legal services company that applies AI to discovery, and a Swiss startup.  The Haitian non-profit is a medical mission.  On my first trip to the country I visited the church where my father was baptized.  I was 54. 

WHY IS BLOCKCHAIN A BIG DEAL?

Digital transformation of assets, products and services.  Verifiable facts through consensus algorithms.  If we can verify identical data across servers, we can provide decentralized solutions to traditional and legitimate concerns about trust.  Banks first rejected blockchain.  Now they are embracing it.  Now governments are concerned they will lose control of their currencies.  Often we are too quick to anticipate benefits - "two years too fast, in 5 years too slow".  Supply chains will be impacted. 

HOW DID YOU END UP IN QATAR?

I was working in Paris and had lawyers reporting to me in the US, Europe, Russia, and Japan. I co-founded a virtual law firm that was an early step in this continuing theme of lowering legal costs to clients.  Eventually a major client asked me to join them. I love to travel (in the blood; my Swiss-German mother became a governess to be able to travel). 

ANY REGRETS?

No. I'm an optimist. We make decisions and live with their implications. 

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD FOR YOU IN THE NEXT 5-10 YEARS?

I'd like to evolve from a comfortable expat to something more entrepreneurial in Europe or the US.  Hopefully my overseas experience will be helpful to US companies.  My children would like to be closer to the family tribes.  Last year was the first time in 30 years I travelled to fewer than 10 countries in one year.  I can travel digitally. 

SO IN SUMMARY, YOU ARE SWISS/HAITIAN, STUDIED MATH (AND ECON), THEN LAW, YOU WERE RAISED IN THE BRONX AND HAVE LIVED IN PARIS, NOW LIVE IN QATAR AND LIKE SINGAPORE, AND ARE HEAD OF LEGAL AND INNOVATION.  SHOULDN'T THERE BE SOME KIND OF PRIZE FOR THAT ABILITY TO HOLD CONTRARIES TOGETHER? 

[Grins].