ARIA GRACE LAW- how a unique ethical firm has been able to help start-ups during Covid-19
qLegal Students Miriam Reyes and Marianna Novello had the pleasure of interviewing Puja Modha, commercial lawyer, compliance consultant and partner at Aria Grace Law. Aria Grace Law is an award-winning law firm that has a unique ethical model through which it delivers corporate and commercial legal services.
While start-ups have emerged as one of the main drivers in the creation of job positions as well as economic growth, they have also faced issues in being able to ensure that they are fully compliant with laws and regulations while further scaling their business. This is due to the rapid speed with which they have expanded, especially in respect of start-ups that are in the tech sector and are providing software services. The impact of this is that start-ups have had to start investing time and resources to understanding and ensuring that their businesses are compliant with legal requirements.
qLegal is delighted to have had the opportunity to interview Puja Modha and learn more about Aria Grace Law and how this unique law firm has managed to cope during Covid-19 and support start-up clients.
How does Aria Grace Law differentiate itself in a market where start-ups are in significant need of advice and support?
Puja explained to us that Aria Grace Law’s model is very different to most types of organisations, including traditional law firms, which is appealing to start-ups. She said that the ethical model consists of the following components:
1. Virtual operations — Everyone in the firm operates virtually which means that the firm has very low overheads and does not have to pass those costs down to clients. The firm does not waste any money on City offices or expensive management.
2. Legal excellence — All of the lawyers are highly experienced in their field, so the firm guarantees legal excellence. The majority of the lawyers have between 10–25 years’ experience.
3. Happier lawyers that are paid fairly — Unlike in a traditional City law firm, the lawyers in the firm are paid 90% of the fees which the firm charges out to clients. This means that the lawyers are remunerated fairly for their work (as they are receiving 90% of what they charged out). This means the lawyers are paid a wage that is reflective of their work giving them a further incentive to go the extra mile for their clients.
4. All profits go to charity and good causes — After the firm’s low overheads are paid out, all of its remaining profits are given to charity and good causes. Aria Grace Law only retains 10% of the fees which its lawyers charge out to their clients, and this 10% is used to cover the firm’s overhead and its charitable contributions. In addition, after every deal with a client, the firm plants a tree.
Aria Grace Law’s lawyers are more than just lawyers: they are individuals who easily fit into a start-up’s approach and culture and speak their clients’ language. Start-up clients like the Aria Grace Law ethical model because they are given access to highly experienced lawyers for a reasonable cost and part of the fees that they pay goes to charity and good causes (so there is a really great feel-good factor that plays a part).
Puja explained that as Aria Grace Law is only three years old and is itself agile, relatable and personable, the firm can understand and appreciate how start-ups operate. In addition, since Aria Grace Law was set-up as a virtual firm from its inception, it was not impacted from an operational point of view by Covid-19 and related lockdowns. This detail made the firm immediately accessible for start-ups that needed support and advice during the pandemic.
On your website it states that Aria Grace Law supports more of a “humanist” approach towards all of your clients. How can you provide that through a screen? What additional non-legal help does Aria Grace Law provide to start-ups?
Puja explained that the Aria Grace Law website states that the humanist approach stems from the structure of the model. The Aria Grace Law model is based on sharing values in which it treats clients, lawyers and society within one ecosystem, where if, one does well, every other party in the ecosystem does well. Being “humanist” is about being kind and thinking about all parties and not just one.
Puja further explained that seeing people in-person is not the only way in which to form a positive relationship with others. For example, whilst operating virtually, one can be on camera, manage the style and tone in which advice is communicated and be relatable and connect with clients. She further explained that clients benefit from this ethical model as they are able to connect with their lawyers on both a professional and a personal level.
Aria Grace Law also provides non-legal advice that is vital for start-ups:
1. Commercial and operational advice — The lawyers in the firm are not only equipped to deal with legal issues but are able to provide business and operational advice to the start-ups as well.
2. Other experts — While the firm is best known for its lawyers, Aria Grace Law also has other experts, including risk experts, compliance experts, management consultants, mediators etc. This means that the firm is fully equipped to help the start-up in a variety of areas.
3. Senior management support — The firm is part of a larger professional network that enables them to contact and involve individuals who can support start-ups in a variety of senior management capacities. This includes recommending virtual Chief Financial Officers and Chief Operating Officers who could help the start-up.
4. Cross-referrals — The firm has a diverse client base, and often cross-refers its clients to each other so that they can either work in partnership or sell their services to each other.
What are some of the major issues that your start-up clients have been facing due to new data protection requirements? How has Covid-19 increased the previous thresholds for compliance, if at all?
Puja reported that the major issue that the firm’s start-up clients have with regard to data protection is understanding how to implement the legal requirements in a cost-effective and compliant manner within their business. This is because while they understand its importance, the legal requirements can appear very burdensome for a start-up, and they need support in understanding the framework that they need to put in place.
In light of Brexit, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation 2016/679 (“EU GDPR”) was implemented into the UK by way of a combination of legislation which is collectively known as the “UK GDPR”. However, the UK GDPR has not majorly impacted start-ups because it has nearly the same requirements as the EU GDPR with a few differences and changes due to Brexit.
Puja explained that prior to Covid-19, regulatory action was increasing from data protection supervisory authorities (such as the Information Commissioner’s Office in the UK). While Covid-19 has not slowed down the volume of regulatory action, she explained that data protection supervisory authorities have been more mindful of the impact of Covid-19 on businesses when they have been issuing enforcement notices which include a financial penalty.
Since Covid-19, Aria Grace Law has experienced a high volume of queries from start-up clients needing support with data protection, for the following reasons:
1. Covid-19 made businesses shift to operating virtually — This has meant that there has been more data flowing around in the online ecosystem, and therefore data protection and information security are considerations that start-ups have had to think about more seriously.
2.The nature of the start-ups’ business has dictated that data protection is considered — Start-ups in certain sectors, such as the tech sector, will naturally need to manage more data, and therefore, it is important for these start-ups to get information security and data protection compliance right.
3. The start-ups’ own customers are pushing data protection as a priority — As customers seek to make sure that all of their personal data is protected, they are conducting more due diligence on their third-party suppliers (such as start-ups) to ensure that they adhere to data protection requirements. If start-ups want to develop their customer base, they need to pay attention to information security and data protection.
4. Data subject access requests are pushing data protection to the top of the agenda — When start-ups receive data subject access requests (such as from former employees), they recognise that they need support in complying with the requests, and therefore, with complying fully with all areas of data protection compliance.
Do you think Covid-19 will have a long-term impact on the functioning of start-ups in general? If so, in what area of law in particular?
Puja reported that Covid-19 has accelerated the growth of start-ups. She is a firm believer that innovation is often borne out of necessity, and this appears to have been the case with certain start-ups that the firm has been supporting over the last 18 months. Puja believes that Covid-19 has forced the world to re-think and see different professions and sectors in a different way and also to be more appreciative and kind.
In Puja’s view, Covid-19 will have a long-term impact on the way that start ups operate (i.e., they will be more ethical in general and more sustainable in how they deliver their services). From a legal and compliance point of view, she believes that there will be more work in respect of data protection, anti-slavery and supply chain management (which will be especially important for start-ups that are manufacturing goods).
This article was written by Miriam Reyes and Marianna Novello, students participating in qLegal as part of their Law Masters studies at Queen Mary, University of London.
qLegal provides pro bono legal advice to start-ups and entrepreneurs on intellectual property, data protection, corporate and commercial law. See the qLegal website for more details and to book your appointment now. Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn for regular updates on issues relevant to your business.