On the sofa with Ian Churchill, CEO of BigHand

BigHand’s new chief executive started life as an accountant at KPMG and joined BigHand in 2015 from business process outsourcing giant Capita, where he ran a series of public sector software businesses and was responsible for Capita’s schools’ business, providing software solutions to 22,000 schools across the UK. Legal IT Insider caught up with him to get his first impressions of the legal sector – its similarities and differences to the public sector – and what his strategy is going forward.
One of the things that attracted me to BigHand was the culture. You obviously have a series of impressions before you join but those have been borne out in the last five to six months since I’ve been here. It’s a very young company and culture but very client focussed and has a close understanding of the client.
I loved it at Capita but you get to the stage where you say ‘I’ve done all this before.’ This was a fresh opportunity.
The legal sector is going through massive change – there’s a lot of pressure on efficiency and margins and that manifests itself differently in the public sector, but again they are organisations undergoing a massive amount of change.
The way outsourcing works is that you think about solving the problem differently; basically somebody looking in from the outside, bringing a fresh perspective. It’s about redefining the problem and sometimes other people are better at doing aspects of your business than you are. That’s something we’ve seen in the public sector that has parallels with the legal sector.
In the public sector their drivers are different to a commercial organisation. There’s a far more tangible focus on financial outcomes within the sector than there was within the public sector. Whenever you had a conversation in the public sector there is a very high degree of social conscience. If you look at the sector as a whole, whether in social care health, or social housing, there’s a very strong drive for cost efficiencies but it’s always rubbing up against the fact that they’re trying to support the more needy in society. And so those two are always strongly in conflict. Some people say there is more change resistance in legal but I would say there is less change resistance. You don’t have the same level of social conscience conflict.
The level of competition in the industry, as I understand it, has increased significantly. The people that embrace change will be the long term winners. One of the things we’re thinking about is the Millennials; a group of people that really embrace technology. The war for talent is strong in the legal sector and those that embrace change will have competitive advantage in the long term.
Technological innovation is a continuing theme and as a technology company we need to be at the centre of that.
Startups are very nimble and create stuff quickly, that’s within their DNA. Once you get to running a bigger business you start to lose that. Hopefully we’re somewhere in the middle.
One of the things I really don’t want to lose is innovation within the business. Our engagement with clients helps and then it’s a question of not stifling it and giving it visibility. It’s not difficult to give it visibility in an organisation of 150 people. Across the company people dial in every fortnight to see what’s been done in development. We have a development organisation in California and they share what they’ve been doing as well, so that everybody in the organisation has sight of it.
We’re growing the business relatively strongly in North America and continuing to focus on that. A couple of years ago we released our BigHand Professional product focussed on smaller firms, which is a market we’ve not been able to access previously. We’re incredibly excited by that opportunity and that product line is growing very strongly. We’re looking at managed growth. I don’t see the business doubling in size in the next year. There are opportunities and we can access those organically.
If there are developers who’ve got to an idea first that we can use our customer reach to take to market, that could be quite attractive to us as an acquisition opportunity. With acquisitions, you look at the balance of the acquisition cost against the cost and time it would take to enter the market competitively, it is about accelerating access to opportunities.
The thing with acquiring businesses is that it has to make sense for both parties. And sometimes you can’t get that alignment.
Anything we acquire will be something that we really understand because, again, it’s easy to buy businesses that don’t have a strategic fit and then regret it forever.  This is about making some sensible decisions that grow BigHand sensibly.
One of the things that really surprised me positively when I went to our business in California, which had been acquired for about 18 months at the time, in my first week with the company, it felt like BigHand, which is a real credit to the people that have been involved with that.
You have to be careful and sensitive with how you treat software. Having worked for a long time with software entrepreneurs, who have literally been in their bedroom and have coded something from scratch, it is like their child.  The product is the result of somebody’s hard labour, and therefore you have to be very sensitive with the integration of the product and the integration of the development community associated with that product.
One of things that’s been talked about a lot is the future of dictation in legal and I think that’s an interesting point. We’re not seeing any decline in dictation and one of the interesting trends is that voice is starting to be used more widely. If you think about things like Siri, people have started to use it more widely and there’s some fairly strong and eminent research saying that voice is simplifying how we interact with technology in our everyday lives. Ease of use is so critical.
This article first appeared in the May Legal IT Insider, to  register for your free monthly copy click here.