Comment: The transformational effect of small changes

By Max Cole, barrister and co-founder of Autto
Digital transformation – nothing short of “harnessing the power of digital technology to rethink every aspect of the organisation” (according to McKinsey) – is the hottest of hot topics. Recently, the government launched a grant competition – Transforming Accountancy, Insurance and Legal Services (TAILS) – aimed at digital transformation in the professional services arena. As one of the winners of this competition, my company, Autto, has been awarded a £395K grant to evolve our platform to deliver the next generation in office automation in the legal sector, as well to conduct further research, in partnership with the University of Exeter, into the barriers to lawtech adoption.
Our grant, alongside the other projects backed by the scheme, are all part of the Government’s modern Industrial Strategy, which commits to “placing the UK at the forefront of the sectors and technologies of the future.” The TAILS initiative is run by Innovate UK with £12 million of Government funding to “develop AI and data enabled products and services within accountancy, insurance and legal services.”
This grant signifies the importance which the government attaches to legal and other professional services within the UK economy, and highlights the scope for technical innovation in the lawtech sector.
Transformation = technology?
 The changes in the legal sector in the past few years are well documented – increased client demands, pressure for fixed-fee pricing and increased competition from new business models and new entrants to the legal services market.  These challenges are drivers of business transformation with technology front and centre.
Hot on the heels of the TAILS competition, the Law Society recently published its Lawtech Adoption Research paper.  Overall, this comes to the conclusion that “Lawtech is not yet fundamentally transforming the provision of law”.  It points to a number of equally well documented barriers to adoption which mean that lawtech adoption lags behind technology in other areas:  finetch, regtech and so on.
Those barriers include legacy systems (which in our experience often don’t play easily with modern software), the deep affection for the billable hour charging model (which remains the standard model and is at odds with efficiency savings), and security concerns, particularly around cloud-based services.
Additionally, evangelists for change (often younger, digitally native employees) struggle with getting the support of key decision makers. This is an absolute must as the business has to adopt a mindset to innovate which must start at the top. Without this support any project is unlikely to get off the ground.
The scale of the solutions available can also be a barrier. Think ‘transformation’ and the words ‘large-scale’, ‘expensive’ and ‘risky’ spring to mind.  However, this needn’t be the case. Change, even at a micro level, can deliver significant benefits to businesses of all sizes.
What does our experience tell us?
Autto’s experience after many, many meetings, client demos and feedback sessions is that technology is useful (and has a transformative effect) when applied to carefully scoped out and well understood problems. Adopting technology without fully and clearly understanding what it is going to solve is a hiding to nothing.  Or worse, because the technology gets the blame. The starting point for any programme of transformation is to look at one problem in isolation and fully assess the nature of the issue, addressing how you might make things better.  Only once the problem is fully understood can a solution – technical or not – be found.
The projects that we have worked on with our clients have had the best outcome when they have taken this approach.  Our customers come to us, and to our platform, when they have an understanding of the processes involved in their business and are looking to drive efficiencies through automation.
But gaining an understanding of your business isn’t the only roadblock on the path to transformation.
Why bigger isn’t always better
 Some of the best programmes of change come from implementing a series of small actions that deliver constant and incremental benefits.  These small changes can save time, save money and free up resources to invest in new opportunities. They can also make for a happier workforce. So, start small and build.
So, here are some tips on transformation gleaned from our experience:
 – Keep it simple – sometimes a small change and a seemingly quick fix can have a big impact. It can also help build momentum towards greater change.
 – Make time – the best transformations come from a place of understanding. You can’t gain that understanding if you don’t make time for thinking and collaborating. Set up innovation teams, look at giving staff ‘innovation days’ to rethink existing practices – ultimately champion the notion that innovation can come from anywhere and from anyone.
 – Remember that innovation doesn’t start and end with IT – in the world of lawtech there is an assumption that when you talk about innovation and transformation, you are talking about tech. This might be the case, but it may also be as simple as re-engineering an existing process without involving technology at all.
 – Know your clients – set aside time to understand your clients and their procedures. Are there changes you could make that would better meet their needs and dovetail with their existing processes?  It’s often a simple change in reporting or process that eliminates a big pain point for clients.
All in all, it remains an exciting time to be in lawtech. The Government’s funding shows investment opportunities are high and, on balance, I’d say that law firms are keen to evolve. The journey to transformation is not going to happen overnight but progress is being made daily.  By taking a considered approach to change and concentrating on simplifying practices through small, incremental steps, the UK legal industry will be well placed to drive innovation within the professional services arena.
You can see Max Cole’s LinkedIn profile here: