Shifting sands: What it takes to be a successful IT director in a changing legal world

The IT director role has always been high risk, high reward but with technology increasingly a real differentiator between law firms and their competition, the stakes have never been higher.
Associate editor Caroline Hill spoke to a number of high profile IT directors to get their views on what it takes to reach the top job, the keys to success, pitfalls, occasional war story and how the role – and the expectations around it – are evolving.
Running the technology function of a multi-million pound law firm has always been a high pressure job, with the successes and failures well known within the industry, even if they are not often well-documented.
Bearing much of the responsibility for the financial, billing and client relationship systems that represent the life blood of highly lucrative and often cut-throat law firms, IT directors have traditionally been held to account for signing off on the right ‘nuts and bolts’, at the right price, with the backing of a diverse partnership.
In itself no insignificant task, the demands and expectations of the role are increasing, or at least evolving, as clients, guided by pricing pressures in their own sectors, demand better value; greater efficiency; more collaborative working methods; and instant, mobile solutions. At Linklaters, CIO Matt Peers (pictured), who until May this year held the same role at Big Four accountant Deloitte for the UK and Switzerland, told the Legal IT Insider: “Clients are wising up to the fact that as a provider you need to recognise the commercial pressures they are under.”

CIOs more than ever must be in tune with the business and its drivers – including regulatory challenges and seemingly unstoppable internationalisation – and hires such as Peers or Herbert Smith Freehills’ interim head of architecture Stephen Andrews, who joined from Bupa, show an increased emphasis on business acumen.
There have always been high level hires from outside the sector: Peers’ respected recently-retired predecessor Sue Hall started out at Accenture before being headhunted to the role of IT director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Baker & McKenzie in 2002, then becoming Linklaters director of information, systems and strategy in October 2008. But Hall said: “The CIO is becoming much more about how you use technology for the benefit of the business,” adding: “I spent a lot of time driving costs down and was not so focussed on the productivity of fee-earners. Now it’s incumbent on IT to make the business as efficient as possible.”
CIOs more than ever are having to innovate, horizon watch, lead and take new risks as new technology floods the legal market. All this while marrying new opportunities with the risk appetite of a challenging and largely unforgiving professional services environment, which is itself slow-moving and inherently risk averse.
Putting the client first
Much of the recent technological innovation within law firms has been client driven, with CIOs expected to be at the vanguard of finding ways to deliver more efficient and collaborative working practices.
Examples of client innovation include DWF’s newly-launched flexible services arm underpinned by document automation and process mapping, while at Osborne Clarke a dedicated innovation team works closely with the technology function and the firm’s clients to design and build solutions for clients.
At Pinsent Masons, putting clients at the heart of the business led to the roll out of SmartDelivery, which provides clients with an online life cycle from instruction to engagement; legal process management; and automated document assembly as well as giving clients continual access to financial and business management information. IT director Colin Smith said: “As CIO one of the priorities is to create that differential – what makes clients stay with a law firm?”
SmartDelivery has been instrumental in the firm being instructed under an exclusive retainer by Balfour Beatty and E.ON, with other deals said to be “bubbling under the surface.”
The top 20 UK firm is currently looking at fully adapting those solutions for the mobile world and Smith observed: “Clients want to use those services on a variety of mobile devices,” adding: “It gives us another string to our bow.”
Peers adds: “Clients are now asking for change and we have to respond. You used to go to the client and get their requirements and execute them but now there is a lot more client participation and round-the-table collaboration, which requires a different skillset. It’s an example of how computing is able to replace or influence and change some of the more traditional legal processes by asking ‘how can we serve clients differently?’”
Beyond the nuts and bolts
While the client’s needs are key, facilitating the firm’s wider strategic objectives and pre-empting the internal needs of the partnership are equally as important. Smith says: “The CIO needs to be a business person who understands the business requirements rather than just the nuts and bolts – how can it enable the business strategy. You need to be visionary and to know the business and our customers.”
Many firms are utilising third party services and at Osborne Clarke, which has an ongoing relationship with Integreon despite ending its wholesale back office outsourcing deal in 2013, IT director Nathan Hayes said: “We are moving away from managing our own kit to utilising infrastructure as a service and third parties to manage the network. We can spend more time on change management and project management.”
At DLA Piper, much can be gleaned from the fact that chief information officer Daniel Pollick has also been given the title of ‘director of business infrastructure.’
“I’m responsible for changing the way we deliver business processes,” he says. “IT directors should be taking responsibility for the successful use of technology in the business.”
DLA is mid-way through automating the firm’s recruitment process and Pollick says: “I’m actually accountable for the ‘before and after’ picture of how we operate that business process.”
Achieving that status requires the trust and buy-in of the business, which means talking to partners in business language. Pollick says: “If you talk like a techie about tech for tech’s sake then you will treated as that person.
“If an IT person is seen as part of the lubricant of the firm, enabling the infrastructure to manage and analyse the firm’s finances, enhance its performance and enter new markets you will become the ‘go-to’ person for business change and you will deliver IT in a different way.”
Nick Woolf, a partner at executive search firm Sainty, Hird & Partners who has placed numerous high profile IT directors including Hall into Linklaters and more recently Stuart Walters into Olswang says: “They have to be able to talk to the business in a clear way and understand the pressures and stresses. If the business is expanding, its IT needs to be scalable and the IT director needs to understand what the business needs and what’s out there.”
That is something that Smith would attest to after Pinsents only this summer launched an office in Australia.
The new agile working Australia office is entirely wireless and uses a local co-location centre. It will be used as a template to roll out across Pinsent Masons’ other offices across Asia Pacific and Europe, including the UK, as the IT team creates a more distributed, less centralised view of how it provides services.
For Smith keeping up with the pace of change is key. “The decision to open was taken literally three to four months ago,” he says. “Law firms tend to be very risk averse but you have to take controlled risks.”
Embracing risk and driving change
Pollick takes this theme one step further, commenting: “It’s not just taking ideas to the business but showing leadership – risk taking.” When the 3,981-lawyer firm replaced its printers, Pollick took the opportunity to roll out Ricoh’s high end multifunction devices with an integrated software solution to deliver cloud printing, meaning anyone can connect to a printer immediately regardless of which office they’re in by using an access pass.
Pollick says: I’m convinced that if we took that to the business as a standalone proposition it would have met a lot of resistance. But we did it as part of a wider IT-led technology replacement and after initial change shock it has delighted people and saved us a lot of money.”
Pollick and his team has been similarly proactive when it comes to mobile apps that have not been requested by the business. “It’s our job to lead our business in technology innovation. Our mobile app strategy is a good example. Partners can now approve bills and access our document management system from their mobile devices,” he says.
Other initiatives have included the roll out of ‘Skype for enterprise’ system Lync and internal ‘Twitter for enterprise’ called Grapevine.
Smith says: “Everyone says the CIO must have great communication skills but that’s no good if you don’t understand new technology – you need to be constantly horizon watching.”
Pollick adds: “AI is just coming to the stage where law firms should be looking at it and it’s my responsibility to be leading that discussion, not waiting for the managing partner to hear about it at a conference.”
Understanding the business can also mean asking it challenging questions. With the uptick in regulatory requirements requiring global systems to be in place, Hayes said: “You’ve got to challenge people’s interpretation of the guidance – a very small tweak can have a massive impact on the IT.”
And instead of looking ‘up and down the line’ within the legal sector, many CIOs are looking outside at, for example, the engineering sector, which leads the field in collaborative working
Peers, who has been brought in to effect change within Linklaters, says: “The legal industry is ripe for looking at what other organisations are doing in other sectors.”
War stories and pitfalls
Of course, CIOs have to tread that fine line between the right kind of risk taking and overstepping the mark – in the case of one particular national firm IT director by signing off a significant new investment without gaining sign off.
Law firms are rife with politics and CIOs who lose the will of the partnership can find it hard to win back. Smith says: “When I started I thought everyone would naturally be supportive and everyone would pull in the same direction but that’s not always the case.”
On one occasion Smith relied on external consultants to introduce a solution that wasn’t yet stable and says he “didn’t keep enough of a watchful eye.
“All the good work you do can be undermined,” he says.
A certain degree of failure is to be expected as is fatigue at attempting to reconcile the multiple and often conflicting needs of different jurisdictions.
Hall (pictured below) said: “If you operate in a lot of disparate countries they have different aspirations in different markets. Everyone has to be taken with you, it can be very fatiguing.”
sue hall pic
At Baker & McKenzie, Hall had to travel a significant amount at a time when she also had two small children. She recalls attempting to persuade one local managing partner to spend £300 on a fire safe to protect the top 10 firm’s tapes. “It took loads of time when he had just spent £17,000 on a new table for the conference room,” Hall recalls.
Hall’s push to roll out SAP at Bakers finally came to fruition in December 2014, six years after her departure.
However she warns: “The key thing is that in any legal organisation with lots of stakeholders it’s important they are dealt with in an equal way. It’s easy to look at certain geographies and say they are ‘difficult’ – the challenge is not to do the cry wolf thing in reverse. If you look under the cover in general they are right, and the thing I’ve learned is not to dismiss feedback from a difficult group because often there are things they are right about.” She adds: “The key is not to dismiss them – but don’t spend too much time either!”
Finding a balance is a recurring theme, as CIOs must find ways to excite and engage the partnership without over-promising and under-delivering.
Peers says: “I could sit down and describe a wonderful world of automation but if the IT function over-promises it just frustrates the stakeholders.”
Good ol’ fashioned relationships
Despite changes to the lead IT role and the environment around it, learning how to build relationships and navigate the complexities of the partnership model remains core to the success of any CIO. Woolf says: “In professional services support has a higher bar than in other sectors: it’s like a concierge service. If the printers don’t work you have to drop everything to help that partner regardless of the fact you are in the middle of something extremely important.”
Hall adds: “A level of polish is expected.”
Relationships are a constant that saw Hall rise through the ranks at Accenture to head its IT function. “Having built reasonably senior relationships my boss asked me to become director of IT,” she says.
Peers also attributes his rise up the ranks to relationship building. Pre-Deloitte, at the turn of the century, he became finance director for the IT division of Carphone Warehouse Europe, gradually taking on more of an IT role, including looking at IT security and setting up a new data centre, until he ended up running the department.
Peers says: “Lots of people in Carphone saw me as someone they could trust. When I was talking about IT they would think I was an honourable individual.”
He adds: “Partnership is about relationships, about making sure everybody feels they have a voice before a decision is made. It doesn’t need to take any longer, it’s about how you sell it. I will talk to an individual as I’m getting their sign off and ask who else I need to talk to.”
Success also comes down to relationships and management of the IT team itself. Smith, who runs an extended team of around 100 people from support to project management to business analysts and app developers, says: “You need to empower the team so you can focus on business strategy and innovation. The key is to surround yourself with good people.”
For those aspiring to reach the top job, not becoming pigeonholed is key. Woolf says: “When people are transitioning they might know first line support but IT directors must know about everything from telephones to different systems and have been involved in closing and implementing systems to be considered for the role.
“It’s very difficult for number twos to take the top job if they are just implementers. They may not want the top role but some people get very siloed.”
Management experience is a prerequisite and Woolf adds: “A lot of people say ‘I manage a team’ but IT departments are often quite large and managing a team on a project is not the same as telling someone they are fired, giving them a verbal warning or telling them that they are not getting a pay rise.”
The CIO role and expectations around it are undoubtedly changing, and arguably becoming far more complex, but some things remain reassuringly constant.