Exclusive: Farrer & Co to move to Azure – here’s the roadmap

Farrer & Co LLP has selected digital transformation consultancy SystemsUp to help it move to a secure Microsoft Azure hybrid cloud platform and a desktop environment based on Office 365 and Windows 10, we can reveal. IT director Neil Davison and SystemsUp managing director Nick Martin talked to us about the process that they have engaged in so far and the two-year road map ahead.
The top 60 UK law firm led by IT director Neil Davison (pictured) last year reached an unusual point where its IT infrastructure and systems from servers to phones needed replacing. Davison told the Orange Rag: “We knew we were approaching a point where everything needed replacing, which meant we would be a greenfield site. Myself and deputy Andy Beech started thinking about what wanted to do. We did a lot of due diligence and spoke to a lot of people, including Nick from SystemsUp and Dell, which was involved in the due diligence process.”
Davison spoke to firms including Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer about its move to Azure and commissioned Dell to conduct an architectural vision assessment that included interviews with Farrers’ IT steering committee and board. Long before instructing SystemsUp on the transformation piece, Davison worked with Martin “on what the options were” and spoke to a lot of Azure customers about “the current state of the market and pros and cons.”
Davison says: “We had a strong feeling that Azure would be the right thing for us and the due diligence confirmed that – including speaking to Dell and Nick. Frankly, it’s a lot easier to sell an Azure Microsoft solution into a law firm than somebody known for selling books. There’s so much on the Microsoft website in terms of compliance and GDPR and all the things we care about from a regulatory point of view.”
Step One
Davison instructed SystemsUp around three months ago after going out to tender with four or five companies and Davison says: “That was really about understanding their experience to lead us through it. This is completely new to us and many in the legal market and this was about finding the right company to take this forward and demonstrate real experience.The move to a secure Azure hybrid cloud platform and next generation desktop environment based on Office 365 and Windows 10 will take two years under the agreed roadmap, with the first step already complete: moving Farrers’ network infrastructure from Cisco to Extreme Networks. Martin says: “One of the first areas of change is likely to be a productivity increase and people often don’t pay enough attention to the network piece. If you don’t pay enough attention, the cloud will be choked. A key thing that Farrer & Co has done is to get the foundations in place. All the foundations are in place so that in 2018/9 we can implement a different and more agile way of working.
Step Two
Phase two is the move to Azure and Farrer and SystemsUp have just completed the due diligence and information gathering stage within the firm and are about to move into the first phase of assessment and pilot
Under that phase the firm will move Exchange online. Davison says: “We have a hard deadline in that our disaster recovery site shuts down in March and we want all our core systems replicated by then, including getting Active Directory into Azure and putting Exchange online.
SystemsUp is working on the putting the new desktop build in by the first quarter of 2018.
Farrer is moving to an infrastructure as a service model and it will be lifting up all of its core systems, including Aderant, and moving them into Azure. While Farrer will still be responsible for managing its operating systems and applications, including patching, Davison says: “If you take away the investment in hardware and the teams needed to manage that, it will free us up to do much more strategic work.
Step Three
The third phase of the project is the desktop piece and Davison says: “That’s where we transform how they work. We’re already looking at new build Windows 10 Office 2016 desktop next year and we’re looking at new hardware.” That includes Surface Pros among “other options.” The firm will be using Skype for Business as part of Office 365.
Farrer already uses SIP telephone in the cloud so can readily transfer those numbers to Microsoft. 
Barriers to cloud – the client
One of the major barriers to cloud for law firms – and one that we have been closely documenting at Ashurst – is how to be sure that in moving to the cloud you can still satisfy client RFPs and questions around security.
Davison says: “We’ve all got cloud services already. All of us have used Mimecast for years. All of our emails have been in the cloud for 10+ years: how have you been answering those tenders? All of use Mimecast for archiving our emails and have been for around 10-15 years.”
Farrer & Co adopted NetDocuments cloud-based document management system in 2013 and Davison adds: “I don’t think our clients are surprised we use cloud-based services – everybody does. Legal is a bit behind but every industry uses cloud services. The worst we see in a tender is where the client requires us to complete a security questionnaire. In our case the client sends the questionnaire to NetDocuments and our experience is that it never stops us winning any work.
“With something like Azure, the security is so much higher than we could ever achieve – Microsoft spends around $1bn dollars a year and there have been no issues over past few years. They hire a team to attack and defend their own platform: we couldn’t hope to compete with that.”
While many law firms are still yet to entertain a shift of their core systems to the cloud, Martin points out that in the public sector, around 80% of documents and apps in Parliament are on Azure. Highways England is moving to the cloud and the Ministry of Justice is migrating to Azure and Amazon Web Services. HMRC has moved almost completely to AWS, while the Courts & Tribunals Service has embarked on a major cloud project. Martin says: “We may get to the situation where the justice system runs on the cloud but law firms do not.”
Due diligence is key
While Farrer & Co has had a cloud-first strategy since 2013, Davison says the jump to this next level and board sign off is down to the due diligence process and research involved
“Our IT steering committee is largely made up of partners from around the business and we got them involved first and then the management board. What really gave extra credibility to the final report and recommendation was that we had done so much due diligence and used experts in the cloud and used a recognised corporate like Dell, which could equally have been seen on the other side of the table: Dell is one of the biggest providers of infrastructure but even they are looking at cloud and having their architecture vision assessment showed we’d done a lot of work around it.”
He adds: “SystemsUp offered in depth understanding of Azure. Nobody gave us more confidence in the breadth and depth of their knowledge and the quality of their people.”
Dedicating a team to the project
The two-year time frame may seem ambitious but Farrers has dedicated a 3.5 person team to the project. Davison says: “SystemsUp is putting a team onto it and things are moving swiftly. There’s an awful lots of information gathered and finalised and in the next phase we’ll really start to move forward. I’m confident that we’ll be finished inside of the two years.”
Martin adds: “One of the things that is really important is that Neil and the team made the decision early on to make sure they had a team available. Where projects often fail is that people try to juggle all sorts of things: it’s about getting the right people aligned for the job.”
According to Davison, the board has been fully supportive of dedicating this resource to the project and he says: “We said ‘if we dedicate people to this we will be able to do it quickly.’ A lot of projects over the next few years are queued up and the firm wants us to do this quickly so we can then start to deliver other projects.”
Farrer will be working with Intapp on rolling out Intapp Open, among other projects.
Staff cuts?
In terms of whether there will be cuts to the IT team once it doesn’t have to manage its own hardware, Davison says: “This was never about getting rid of people but putting them on a project where they will add value. Some of the people who were twiddling knobs and buttons can be involved in delivering projects that really add value. We can use those people in a much better way, which is great for them and they will be learning new skills. We are putting people through Azure apprenticeships.”
He adds: “The firm is completely on board: if anything we’ll be increasing the size of the team.”
Martin adds: “It’s very important to understand that if you go to the cloud it’s not a cost saving. Your investment has to increase because you’re working at a faster pace with integrated technology and while you avoid the costs of a data centre, your people have to be skilled up to exploit the opportunities. If you treat it as a cost saving exercise it’s sure to fail. Remember, it’s the platform on which your entire business runs.”
For Farrer & Co, the cost of moving to Azure and transforming the desktop is cost neutral in terms of what it would have cost to replace its infrastructure on premises. But he says: “This way gives us longevity. We already have a lot of client projects planned and partners are asking about apps and how we can share our systems directly. It opens new doors and ways of working with clients.”
Rationalisation ahead
The focus from now will not be more software but rationalising the software the firm has and ensuring fee-earners use more existing functionality. Davison says: “Over the years we have given lawyers more software and we’ve ended up with a software sprawl on our PCs. We’re looking at rationalising that down and keeping the bits we need and trying to use 90% rather than 40%.”
He adds: “Where the is duplication or overlap in Office 365 we will look to rationalise that, but we will do so carefully with our partners.”
With many CIOs beginning their cloud journey, and many doing so with trepidation, Martin concludes: “The process and change management is much more important than the technology. That’s where the team at Farrer got their act together, whereas a lot of traditional law firms don’t have a clear strategy.”