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Looking back at the Legal IT Leaders Think Tank

Legal IT Professionals was media partner to Chilli IQ’s Legal IT Leaders Think Tank held at The Grange St Paul’s Hotel in London on 18th and 19th May. Joanna Goodman reports from the event.

The Grange St Paul’s Hotel is obviously the current favourite for legal IT events in London as I attended ILTA INSIGHT here on 27th April, but I am certainly not complaining about spending another day at this elegant and well-equipped venue.

The Legal IT Leaders Think Tank was a smaller event aimed at the decision makers in legal IT. Jenny Katrivesis and her team put together an interesting selection of presentations and discussions addressing major strategic considerations and current hot topics, notably e-discovery, cloud computing, legal process outsourcing as well as sessions led by sponsoring organisations Hubbard One, Mimecast and Elite.

The new normal?
The first day of the conference was chaired by Charles Christian, editor of Legal Technology Insider and The Orange Rag whose opening session ‘Legal Technology & The New Normal’ outlined current challenges and dilemmas for law firm IT directors.

Charles presented a thoughtful analysis of the effect of the recession on legal IT decisions. What will happen to the IT projects firms placed on hold in 2008? Can these be revived, or has the pace of technology development consigned them to the bin? Will we see a seismic change in professional services/law firms post recession?

The answer is clearly yes and no. This year’s hot topic, cloud computing, was only in its infancy in 2008, so for some firms cloud projects are replacing projects that had been planned before the downturn. If law firms have delayed upgrading their infrastructure due to the downturn, it clearly makes sense to opt for the latest version. In 2008 people were talking about Office 2007; now they are looking at Office 2010.

There has been a lot of talk about the Legal Services Act changing the way law firms are run and managed. Charles highlighted some potential new business models:

  • Tesco law – a lot has been written about Tesco law threatening the status quo, but will it really happen?
  • Co-op law – the Co-op has the majority of funeral parlours in the UK, and also offers a probate service, so will more businesses offer legal services to support their other offerings?
  • Virgin law – this relates to branded legal services such as a high-street brand fronting a legal services offering. But as Charles rightly pointed out, a recent survey revealed that very few people recognise law firm brands anyway.
  • Freshfields law – local firms offering a famous law firm brand. This hasn’t been done yet, apparently. Why did Charles pick Freshfields? Because it sounded a lot better than Slaughter law or Overy law, he said!
  • Outsourcing – another hot topic, particularly given CMS Cameron McKenna’s recent decision to outsource its entire back office to Integreon.  Is this the new law firm business model and what processes and systems are required to support it?

Charles asked whether the recession has broken the partnership model. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that many firms now employ professional managers and CEOs. The recession saw downsizing and redundancies to protect partners’ income. So how will firms recruit as the market recovers? How will they incentivise and retain talent? This is a serious consideration for many larger firms, but there are few signs of a serious shift away from the partnership model. Another consideration is how far firms will use technology to become more process oriented in order to avoid employing more people than they need.
The vendor perspective
Charles then moved on to an insightful analysis of IT vendors in the legal space. Here are a few of his observations. As well as acting as a catalyst to unprecedented consolidation in the legal IT market, the recession has enabled some vendors to sort out problematic products. Elite has had time to sort out its PMS; IRIS has developed its strategy. Other vendors have lost position, either because they have taken their eye off the ball or because new and better products have come onto the market. Anyone old enough to remember Wordperfect will appreciate his point!

IT budget constraints have allowed Microsoft to move into new areas; notably Microsoft Dynamics CRM has increased in popularity. Firms are increasingly making the most of SharePoint – if you have a Microsoft Enterprise license you already have SharePoint, so more businesses are exploring its potential. What next for Microsoft? Charles suggested a financial product for the legal sector would shake up the legal IT market! I don’t know whether any Microsoft representatives were in the audience – or are reading this!

Basically, law firms need to invest in the appropriate technology to support an evolving business model. But how can they be certain that they are buying the right technology? Charles compared this dilemma to the early days of the dotcom boom. However, although the legal services environment is indeed changing, law firms appear to be experiencing evolution rather than revolution. Although they have had to react to the recession, lawyers tend to resist significant changes to the way they work and law firm IT directors tend to err on the side of caution.

It’s all about strategy
An excellent presentation by George Kolorkoti, Group Chief Information Officer at Herbert Smith, highlighted the importance of adopting a strategic approach, particularly during difficult times. As a former management consultant, George’s experience of using technology to transform and streamline businesses underpins his strategy for his firm.

George emphasised the importance of developing and implementing a formally approved information systems (IS) strategy. He highlighted the difference between an overall IS and an IT strategy which focuses narrowly on technology, which he sees as simply an enabler.

The partnership model means that a major part of George’s job involves securing agreement on how to invest the partners’ money in the technology that will drive the business forward. The economic downturn, along with the exponential increase in the cost of technology makes it even more important that IT projects are – and should be – subject to rigorous evaluation by a series of different committees. A formal, written strategy means that all relevant interests have the chance to contribute to it and offer feedback.

Notwithstanding George’s commitment to a clearly stated strategy and a formal evaluation process for proposed projects, he does not believe that all projects should necessarily be shelved during a downturn. Indeed, he argues that the right resources can underpin the firm’s market position as it emerges from the recession.

As a strategist rather than a technologist, George is well placed to balance the conflicting viewpoints within the firm – ensuring that technophobes understand the process for implementing the right IT tools to support their work, while checking the enthusiasm of the IT team and some partners for the very latest kit. His IS strategy incorporates systems, technology, communication, management and competitive advantage. As a former consultant, George sets great store on measuring the effectiveness of the IS strategy. Last year, he conducted an in-depth online survey followed up by interviews with 70 partners and business heads.

A successful IS strategy, especially in a recession, is therefore about retaining a sense of perspective. It is about maintaining a balance between keeping the lights on and new investment. George emphasised the need to keep investing in order to be prepared for the recovery. He recalled that previously in a difficult market, one financial institution decided to descope in order to save money. This proved disastrous as they dispensed with the very features that would have given them a competitive edge when the market recovered.

Developing and implementing an IS strategy that is an integral part of the firm’s overall business strategy helps to avoid this situation and deliver the firm’s stated strategy. George illustrated this with the analogy of choosing a car. Although he would love a Mercedes SL600 in chrome, what he actually needs is a people mover, so that is what he has! For example, it is not necessarily better to automate all systems and processes. You don’t need a HR system for an office of only ten people.

CIO – Collaboration, Innovation, Opportunity
This topic was explored further in the panel discussion entitled CIO – Collaboration, Innovation, Opportunity. The panel comprised Charles Christian, George Kalorkoti and Jeff Roberts, IT director of Norton Rose. Charles chaired the discussion, while Jeff and George explained their different viewpoints. While they agreed on the importance of collaboration, they had different approaches to innovation. Jeff saw innovation as involving the IT function in finding ways to add value to the business, while George saw technology-based innovation as adding unnecessary risk to the business and preferred to implement a combination of tried and tested products and services.

One interesting issue was using IT to strengthen (establish) links between business development and IT. Jeff restructured Norton Rose’s team so that members of the IT function sit with the department’s biggest internal customers: the corporate communications and business development teams. The idea is to develop client facing services that add value by attracting and retaining business.

The panel agreed on the need to balance commoditised and high-value work and that commoditised legal offerings were still evolving. Innovation too did not have to be dramatic or sudden as innovative products in the legal sector often involve new ways of combining existing offerings. A strong organisational culture is an excellent platform for innovation and maximising new opportunities, particularly those offered by globalisation. The panel agreed that as firms expand geographically, increased standardisation increases clarity and communication and strengthens culture.

Finally, George reminded us that although rapid technological development – and innovation – means that standing still is never an option for law firms, the partnership will be looking for a clear return on their investment in innovative new products and services. Therefore, IT decision makers need to consider the first mover risks when contemplating innovative products and services. Perhaps it’s worth seeing whether they work first...

Electronic Discovery
This is another hot topic for legal technology and has quickly ascended the list of priorities for many firms, in the light of the recent Jackson report, Practice Direction 31.2A and the Draft E-Disclosure Questionnaire under consideration by the Civil Procedure Rule Committee. For a detailed discussion on this and other matters related to e-disclosure, check out Chris Dale of the e-Disclosure Information Project at

In this presentation, Steven Whitaker, Senior Master of The Queen’s Bench division at the Royal Courts of Justice and Browning E. Marean, Senior Counsel & Co-Chair, Electronic Discovery Readiness & Response Group at DLA Piper, discussed developments and challenges from the UK and the USA.

Impressively, the presentation itself was technology enabled! Due to the ash cloud that has closed many of Europe’s airports, Browning was unable to attend the conference in person, so the presentation was delivered using WebEx. It worked very well, apart from questions at the end. These were slightly stilted simply because Browning couldn’t see the audience! More importantly, though, we could see and hear him.

The current issues in e-discovery relate to the exponentially increasing volume of electronically stored information (ESI) and how best to manage an e-disclosure project. So the discussion focused on costs, proportionality, co-operation between counsel and liaison. Applying the appropriate technology as early as possible in the process clearly minimises costs and efforts. Early and effective communication is also critical. Apparently, one judge suggested filming the required ‘meet and confer’ sessions to find out what they achieved.  ‘Lawyers are like exotic particles in physics; when they are observed, their behaviour changes,’ Browning observed.

Looking ahead
In the final session of the day, Ian Goldin presented some interesting predictions for future technology and future risks. Some of these related to the effects of globalisation, increased life expectancy and demographic patterns as well as questions relating to whether and how the internet will (need to) change. This was a fascinating presentation by a brilliant academic, but I expect it will be a while before legal IT directors are considering genetically modified superlawyers… However, this suggestion was an excellent conversation starter for the networking session that followed.

Day two returned to the present with sessions on cloud computing, legal process outsourcing and knowledge management.

This article has covered only a few of the sessions at the Legal IT Leaders Think Tank, but I hope this gives a flavour of Chilli IQ’s interesting and inspirational event. As always, it was good to catch up with some of the leading lights in legal IT from the law firm and vendor perspective.

Joanna Goodman is a London based writer and editor specialising in the legal and business sectors. Her work focuses on strategy, technology, knowledge management, learning and development and communications.


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