Mirroring clients: Why Herbert Smith Freehills has launched a legal operations function

Herbert Smith Freehills has launched a global legal operations function, bringing together the firm’s legal project management, pricing, legal process improvement, innovation and automation teams in a single division. The new unit will work to better deploy technology and innovation to provide more effective and efficient services to clients.

“What is changing is that we have people deployed around the firm, across all our main geographies and practice groups, that are looking at how we can deploy innovation and technology more effectively,” says Ian Gilbert, formerly head of pricing at the top 10 UK firm, who took the helm of the legal operations function earlier this year. “It is about how we can better understand our clients’ needs and better understand what their clients’ needs are as well.”

The new legal operations function mirrors equivalent functions within clients’ in-house legal teams that have exponentially grown in response to the need to cut costs and increase efficiency. The US leads the field, accounting for 78% of directors of legal operations (the UK account for 4%) according to research by the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium.

“Clients are already organising themselves internally with legal operations units and we felt we needed to be able to operate on a par with them,” says HSF CEO Mark Rigotti.

“If we don’t, the conversation becomes more difficult because we are not lining up similar people, with similar interests and similar backgrounds and there is a real risk you get dissonance, and that we don’t actually understand what clients are telling us.”

The legal operations function will work alongside HSF’s existing alternative legal services hubs, not delivering legal services itself, but ensuring that delivery is effective. “For example, we are quite often brought in by clients that have a particular issue,” says Gilbert. “We have the capability to understand that client’s problems, design services and bring in technology, but the work itself will be delivered by the hubs.”

Rigotti cites a longstanding client who was recently facing issues around contracts being executed by the company’s sales force, where the legal team were unable to manage the risk within those contracts. General Counsel turned to the firm for a solution.

“We suggested that they turn from legal advice to process,” Rigotti says. “We worked out a way with our team in Belfast, for technology to look at a large number of contracts and effectively squeeze the risk out. The outcome was a happier client, but the icing on the cake was that their insurance premiums dropped because they had found a way of managing risk that they hadn’t thought of before.”

Gilbert will lead a team of 50 people globally across Hong Kong, London, Melbourne and Sydney. The firm is agnostic as to whether those individuals have legal, commercial of technology backgrounds, he said. “We have a whole range of skills and it is about trying to deploy those skills around the different needs we have in the business. Previously, many of these people were in narrower roles, such as project management or pricing. Now we are looking more holistically at legal services delivery.”

There has been a real surge in interest from clients wanting to hear about the firm’s own experiences with technology and processes, according to Gilbert. “My sense is that clients are slightly overwhelmed by the number of suppliers in the market and the numbers of products out there. They are really trying to leverage our experience of working with different providers and different technologies, and, in particular, how to deploy them.”

The global team will work with clients to assess and analyse the issues they are facing and develop bespoke solutions accordingly. It will focus on helping clients in areas such as improving service delivery and developing collaborative working through the use of new technologies; identifying alternative resourcing options; applying innovative methods to solving issues; and leveraging data analytics and insights.

By Amy Carroll