The Innovators: Sabina Bickelmann, General Counsel, icebreaker

LawFest organiser Andrew King continues a series of interviews with key legal professionals with their innovation and technology stories.

Tell us about yourself?

I am Sabina Bickelmann, and I’ve recently joined Icebreaker as General Counsel and am stoked to be part of such an iconic NZ company which is part of global movement striving to create a healthier and more sustainable future for our species and the planet.

I’ve always sought out as many different experiences and opportunities as possible. When I finished Uni with law degree in hand, I went straight to London where I worked for a US law firm before starting a graduate position in Sydney at DLA Piper (which was Phillips Fox back then). Prior to Icebreaker, I worked in the Cayman Islands and Auckland in private practice and at Pfizer and most recently led the legal function for nearly four years as general counsel and company secretary at Vend, a NZ headquartered global tech company.

What does legal innovation mean to you?

Innovation is about implementing something new or different that is useful or delivers value in some way. Creativity, which is the ability to come up with novel ideas, is the seed of legal innovation, but unless it is activated and scaled, it is just still an idea and not innovation.

Legal innovation doesn’t always need to be disruptive or breakthrough, it is just as important to have a pipeline of small innovative ideas. For me, some of the best innovations are the simple ones where you slap you hand on the table and go “duh, why didn’t I think about doing it that way before!”.

What role does technology play in innovation?

Innovation and technology are not the same thing. Technology can be used to implement innovation, but the technology itself doesn’t always produce innovation. There are a few instances where technology is simply used to meet the status quo. However, in the majority of instances technology drives innovation by allowing us to do more with less, improving our organisations and lives in the process. Just look at how we are working and living our lives today.

What developments do you see in how legal services are delivered?

The demand for legal tech will continue to increase. There is so much cool legal tech out there, it’s really a no brainer. In-house legal functions will continue to implement new technology to automate routine processes. The use of analytics will extend beyond managing legal costs into predicting areas of risk and exposure before issues arise. I doubt we will see robots replacing humans in the legal department, but machine learning will increasingly be applied to legal tasks.

External legal providers will continue to respond to demands from legal teams for disruptive offerings that assist in managing cost and add value. I’ve experienced first-hand the benefits of subscription-based fee models which have provided me with predictable spend, as well as “crowd sourced” legal advice enabling access to high quality, specialist advice at a fraction of the cost. The demand for virtual GC/in-house legal on demand services will continue to rise, driven by “new law” firms responding to demands for flexible resources provided by highly experienced in-house lawyers seeking to live and work differently.

What opportunities has legal innovation brought you?

I’ve been really lucky to have worked for companies where innovation and technology are part of the DNA. As a lawyer working in those environments, the internal culture of continually seeking to improve things including trying out new software tools quickly rubs off. It has been awesome to feel empowered to try new things, find out that they don’t work, and then pull the plug without fear or shame.

From a technology perspective, I’ve implemented plenty of technology solutions in a number of areas including to streamline workflows and approvals, create documents, automate record keeping and manage signatures, audits and notifications. However, to be honest, some of the best in-house legal innovations I’ve been involved with have not utilised technology, and instead are the result of great execution of a really simple idea that makes things better for the legal team and the business. For example, creating a new framework for the legal team to determine the level of legal input or rigour required around a decision based on Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ “one-way/two-way door” strategy.

Legal innovation has obviously created efficiencies which have freed up me and others in my team to focus on higher value, more strategic work. In many cases legal innovation has removed pain points for the business, deleted legal work the team doesn’t enjoy and driven overall engagement.

What are some of your tips to start innovating or developing an innovative mindset?

Working in start-ups has taught me to not be satisfied only with making improvements. Instead, to strive to understand the source of a problem and continually ask “how would we approach this problem if there was no solution in the first place?”.

I think a great place to start is to pick a clear focus. Perhaps start by thinking about the processes or tasks that personally annoy you and that you really want to change. That’s the “why” for innovation.
Give yourself (and your team) the time and space to think. Google encourages its staff to spend 20% of their time on side projects, which is why it is one of the most innovative companies in the world.

This might sound obvious or patronising, but stop staring at your computer screen and sitting at your desk. Personally, I do my best creative thinking when I am being active and outdoors. Walking meetings and strong coffee in diverse environments are great cognitive enhancers!

You could take a formal course or read up on the internet on systematic methods of innovation where you can learn about idea management, idea selection and pipeline development. Innovation is essentially another competency which can be learned along with, for example, leadership.

As well as being a competency, I think innovation is a state of mind—it is an attitude and a culture. It helps to surround yourself with people who come from diverse backgrounds and challenge you to not just accept the status quo.

Post Covid, what impact do you see in how legal services will be delivered?

During lockdown, many lawyers who have previously feared technology suddenly found themselves seeing it as a lifeline to their survival. The realisation that technology is not to be feared will accelerate the pace for technology uptake in the profession which will in turn impact on how legal services will be delivered.

We’ve proved that working entirely through google hangouts and collaboratively through cloud-based tools such as google docs is not only possible, but manageable long term (and pretty bloody awesome!). As a result, there will be more remote working which will enable in-house legal teams and external legal providers to achieve better work life balance and do more of the things they love, which in turn will increase engagement and productivity (and a reduction in emissions from less commuting!).

I’m also hopeful that as a result of the lockdown, we have all become more conscious consumers. In-house legal teams will more than ever seek out external legal providers who can demonstrate a fair and inclusive culture (including gender equality) and a strong commitment to the environment.

Why is it important for legal professionals to continue to learn about legal innovation and leveraging technology?

At a minimum, we need to continue to innovate and leverage technology to stay relevant. We are in a time of unprecedented change. What may have helped the organisations we support be successful in the past could potentially cause that organisation to fail in the future. Just as companies need to change and grow, their in-house lawyers and external providers need to do so also.

As lawyers we need to support our businesses to confidently adopt technology at pace. We can do that by embracing the technology tools of our customers, trying out our own new tools and upskilling generally in the areas of privacy and cyber security.

Andrew King is the founder of Legal Innovate ( He helps lawyers and organisations successfully innovate through leveraging technology to help improve the way they deliver legal services Legal Innovate includes LawFest (, LegalTech Hub ( and E-Discovery Consulting (

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