CMS Hasche Sigle: The Path to Innovation

Written by: David Curle

January 20, 2022

9 minute read

CMS Hasche Sigle in Berlin is the German Headquarters of the 5,000-lawyer international law firm CMS. CMS has a tech-forward profile and the firm emphasizes the use of technology in solving client problems.

Frederik Leenen is Counsel and Head of Legal Tech for CMS Germany, and he is co-head of the firm’s “Smart Solutions - Legal Tech and Know-How” unit, which combines legal tech, smart operations (alternative sourcing) and knowledge management. He is at the center of the firm’s efforts to introduce innovations in the creation of digital legal tech products, contract automation, AI, project and process management, and alternative sourcing to help clients meet their legal and business objectives.

Leenen laughs when asked how he arrived in his current role: “I think the story about how I got here is pretty much ‘one thing led to another.’” But it’s clear that the role evolved naturally out of his own interests, and the needs of CMS clients, even if it wasn’t fully defined from the beginning.

He began working as a research assistant for a partner in 2008, then moved to a new role involving knowledge management while working on a PhD about computer-aided recognition and Copyright Law. At the time, technology wasn’t being leveraged in KM; it was people-driven and experience-driven, but Leenen was able to apply more technology as he developed new ideas. A protection mechanism for the firm’s template library was one of the first solutions, and then a clause tool where lawyers could save snippets of text and reuse them. He put them in a taxonomy and it became a centralized repository for standard clauses.

Turning to Outside Technology and the Beginnings of a Firm Strategy

As the firm started to recognize the value of their home-grown technology solutions, they also turned to Leenen to watch for external technology providers that could have an impact on client work. For the firm’s transactional work Leenen identified Kira, now part of Litera’s Workflow product family, as a platform that could help with contract analysis, and HighQ as a platform for transactional work.

The acquisition of technology started in a piecemeal fashion, but a broader technology strategy was beginning to take shape. The investments were backed by the firm and led by the COO. “The COO said we need to go in this direction, everyone in the firm is talking about these new tools, and we needed someone to lead the effort.” So by 2015, Leenen was asked to focus on legal tech.

“It was all quite strategic. Law firms are partnerships; they don’t really have one particular boss who decides everything; it’s more of a common mutual decision. But they all decided that they wanted to go in this direction, that they believed in that direction, and gave me the freedom to do what I believed was right.” In the past few years, this has evolved into a much more professionalized approach to rolling out new technology, in terms of measuring opportunities, building business cases, and tracking results.


An additional building block of the CMS approach is the creation of productized legal services for clients. Here the initiative originally came from the business development team, which saw an opportunity to create products that could capture firm knowledge and make it repeatable. Originally this didn’t necessarily mean digital products, but one of the biggest opportunities was a product that helped clients determine whether a worker was a freelancer/independent contractor or an employee. That determination is very important for legal and business reasons in Germany as it is in other countries.

A tool was created with a partner that could gather inputs and make a legal determination. This was before the development of Neota Logic, Bryter, and other expert systems platforms, so the firm built its own expert system. Eventually the group building this and other “productized” services moved into Leenen’s team. “If you want to design really good applications, you need extremely good people - both with respect to their legal capabilities, and their IT capabilities. So we built a little development team.”

Building The Team

Like many others in the legal tech field, Leenen has learned that injecting technology into the legal domain requires people with multidisciplinary skills. He makes a distinction between two different skill sets in the people he recruits for his team - and the different pools of graduates where he looks for them.

He finds the first group among young lawyers who have passed the first of two exams that are required to practice law in Germany. The gap between those two exams can be as long as two years in Berlin, so there is a pool of graduates that are looking for work in that interim, and perhaps looking to stay in Berlin because it is an attractive place to work. This group has strong legal skills: “They are very good at law; I look for the ones with good grades, and I try to catch the ones that also have some form of self-taught coding skills, or even dual studies.” The problem is that he only retains many of those until they’ve passed the second exam, at which point they become more expensive and harder to keep around.

Another group of recruits are graduates of economic law (“Wirtschaftsrecht”) studies. The students taking that course of studies have a broader perspective, and the degree is often combined with studies such as IT. “These are typically the ones I want to hold on to for a long time.” He describes the law graduates - with their emphasis on the perfection of legal analysis, as being quite good for the legal aspects of a product, but they are less able to come up with a solution that makes economic sense. The economic law graduates, on the other hand, make better business decisions, and understand time frames and business models.

Technology Adoption

How does CMS encourage the use of technology among the firm’s lawyers? Again, there are several groupings of people.

“Ten percent of our lawyers will adopt everything, because they like to use tech and they are crazy about tech; they’ll say, ‘just give me the tool, I’m going to test it. I’ll tell you afterwards if I like it.’ We always start with those enthusiasts.”

A second group of 30-40 percent of lawyers who can be persuaded to use technology, but who need a little push. “You usually need to get the first 10% on stage to say, ‘I used this and it helped me - you should try it!’” It’s a people business, he notes. “You can make the perfect manual. You can put it right in front of them on the Internet. You can advertise it as much as you like. It won’t stick unless someone, a friend or a colleague, one of their own, tells them, ‘Hey, it’s working. You should try too.’ And so we’re really trying always to get those first people to tell the others.”

Those two groups make up about half of the population. The second half is more challenging. 20-25 percent of those, he believes, will never be reached - and he doesn’t worry too much about them, there is plenty to do without them. But the rest of that second half does respond to one thing: when the push to adopt technology comes from clients. Sometimes a client will hear of some innovations that others at the firm are using, and say “that sounds efficient - can’t we use that?” And that’s when those lawyers come to Leenen for help - because the client is the driver.


Leenen characterizes the firm’s approach to legal tech as “ground up” rather than “top down.” Leadership support comes not through centralized decision making, but rather through encouragement of a certain culture of experimentation. “We’re much more about running a pilot, having some success, telling everyone about the success, getting people to voluntarily adopt the tools.

One characteristic that really helps the firm, Leenen believes, is that it’s a very collegial and social firm, relative to other firms. There is a focus on relationships and long-term thinking that engenders an openness for legal tech solutions.

As an early adopter of the Kira platform, CMS has a history of using machine learning techniques to enhance the process of document review. “What I like most about Kira from the very beginning is that it is very intuitive. It’s not a tool that only specialists use, but is really something I would want at least the tech-oriented people in the firm to use. And I know how few times they actually have to use the tool in order to apply it to whatever they need to solve. It was very intuitive software, especially compared to other competitors.”

Eventually a small team was building out custom smart fields designed to extract German-language contract terms. Smart fields are the machine learning models that allow Kira to identify and extract contract terms and clauses from legal documents. A project involving the review of 46,000 documents was so large that CMS realized it could only be done with machine learning. Over time, as the team built up its set of German-language smart fields, CMS realized that this was an asset that could be shared and leveraged by other organizations.

As a result, under an agreement with CMS, Kira is now offering 88 German-language smart fields as built-in fields for all subscribers. The fields have all been trained by CMS Hasche Sigle; this is a unique collaboration that demonstrates the power of extending legal knowledge by embedding it in machine learning tools.

For Leenen, the decision to build and share the German smart fields was a natural extension of the firm’s collaboration with Kira Systems (now part of the Litera family), and sharing its expertise with other firms establishes the use of machine learning as a standard practice in this type of legal work. “It should be standard now, and it should be widely used because it is helping our clients even if they’re not working with us.”

One lesson that Leenen took from his early engagement with Kira was to ignore the hype that was especially prevalent a few years ago - the idea that AI was going to take over the legal industry and eliminate lawyers.

“It’s not replacing a lawyer. It’s just making lawyers in certain situations 10, 20, 30% more efficient - and that’s going to be enough to beat your competitor, so it is something you’ve got to address. Some partners ask, ‘Is it replacing me?’ And if the answer is no, it’s not replacing them, then they just stick to how they worked before. I believe that’s a mistake. Over time, they will gradually get less and less of the work because their clients will just turn to competitors who use technology to make themselves more efficient.”

As for CMS Hasche Sigle, after five years using the software, the firm recently signed on for another four. Leenen is optimistic on the future of machine learning at CMS.

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