Gleneagles – thanks for all the snow

This article was first published in Legal IT Insider’s March issue

The overriding theme of Legal Leaders IT Forum in Gleneagles at the end of February was innovation and change, drawing together legal leaders and visionaries to discuss how they are delivering legal services better.

In the first session of the day BT Legal’s UK commercial general counsel Chris Fowler gave an inside view of the radical changes that have transformed the telecoms industry, forcing companies to cut costs and move into adjacent markets as new, asset light, nimble competitors entered the arena.

There are clear parallels with the legal industry and Fowler said: “Some of the alternative legal service providers are providing services which are IT enabled. It’s sticky and they don’t depend on one conversation or one relationship going wrong – those services, when they’re in, effectively they create an operational dependency which needs to be managed.”

He added: “I would love to see more of the people who are in this room on pitches that law firms give BT. At our last monthly management meeting among the BT legal leadership team we probably spent more time talking about technology and the challenges we are having implementing it, than any other topic. There’s huge value that external firms can provide in really bringing to life practically the way in which they’re using technology and then externalising that. Ultimately, it leads to more sticky propositions for law firms.”

Speaking about how to drive through change, particularly technological change, Ashurst’s Glasgow managing partner Mike Polson, who has overseen much of the recent innovation at the firm including a deal to automate its precedents using ContractExpress, said: “This is a great invite from Chris – if you, as an IT Director, help your firm win a bit of work, a major bit of work from one of your priority clients, just think:  how does that change your relationship in the organisation?  You’re suddenly no longer back-of-house support, you’re actually engaged in the front line, helping to bring new solutions to clients and helping to win work.” The other speakers, Matthew Whalley, director of legal risk at EY, formerly at Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) and Claire Debney, former GC for group legal affairs and compliance at RB, both discussed the high profile transformation programmes that they have led.

Herbert Smith Freehills Belfast head Lisa McLaughlin and UK head of legal project management (LPM) Cathy Mattis spoke about the top 10 UK firm’s global alternative services model and sector-leading LPM capability. Mattis, who is one of the best-known figures in the growing LPM market and joined HSF from BLP in 2015, said: “We look at process, we look at project management, we look at data analysis, and technology is the other part of what we do and I am heading up that technology piece.”

Mattis was followed by the inimitable Professor Burkhard Schafer, lecturer in computational legal theory at University of Edinburgh, who defied illness to give an impressive speech in which he warned against returning to the hype surrounding AI in the 80s – referred to by Professor Schafer, accompanied by a photo of snow, as “the long, dark winter of AI.” Having experienced a 20-year period with no interest in AI from legal practitioners, Professor Schafer said there has recently been a “remarkable change.” “I organised a workshop at Jurix in December in Braga about intellectual property law and artificial intelligence – half of the speakers came from practice, and they had developed their own ‘AI systems’, mini AI systems, in their own working environment, but fully aware of the academic discussion.  That sort of interest and activity has simply not happened before,” Professor Schafer said.

The roundtable sessions saw discussions on cybersecurity, transgenerational diversity, privacy and law firm investment in technology. Speaking on the latter topic and echoing Fowler, HSBC’s head of professional services, corporate banking UK, Simon Adcock said: “I would like to see more IT directors. When a firm asks for a loan, there is often not enough clarity as to what the IT strategy is and how that matches up with where the firm wants to be in the next five years.”

The discussions continued into the night, where the weather gods were good enough to provide real snow, luckily enough lasting for a day, not 20 years.

The key themes and highlights of LLIT 2016, including the roundtables, will be explored in more detail in the April Legal IT Insider.