Adiós, good riddance, and thank you 2020

It has been a year like no other, and we’ll all be glad to see the back of 2020, which has brought everything from anxiety to tragedy and, for the lucky ones, a whole lot of boredom to boot. But from a tech perspective, for the legal sector, 2020 was just the kick up the arse needed to shift from out of date working practices to true, albeit forced, digitisation. It has accelerated change programmes from month and years to days and weeks, with exhausted IT teams now more than ever before given the credibility they deserve. And despite everything that COVID-19 has thrown at the legal market, the biggest law firms globally are still doing well thanks to either existing agile working practices or their ability to quickly execute on their business continuity plan. It is a huge testament to their resilience, at a time when businesses across the globe struggle to survive.

For the last Orange Rag of 2020, we spoke to seven CIOs from UK top 100 and EMEA law firms about the challenges and highlights of the year, and what their newly revised priorities are for next year. We’ll be doing the same for the US and APAC in the new year.

Everyone has a story, whether it’s managing the transition from a single site firm to working in a dispersed way; or starting a new job during COVID and having to get to know colleagues remotely; or having to implement or roll out a new core system.

It makes for fascinating reading and we are grateful to everyone who has shared their thoughts, experiences, and learning with us. You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s a toss-up as to whether Microsoft Teams or Zoom is the winner of tech of the year. eSignatures – particularly DocuSign – also come out as a strong contender.

What will next year look like? No doubt from a COVID perspective it will initially be a case of more of the same. But there is going to be a huge law firm focus in 2021 on how to make a hybrid world sing, and that includes better tech-enabled conference rooms and collaboration spaces. Premises will in many cases be downsized where leases allow. But making smarter use of the space firms have and ensuring that people’s time in the office is coordinated and valuable is going to be among the top priorities. Andrew Brammer, IT and shared services director at Allen & Overy tells us: “In the past year the technology has changed, and in the future, so will the way we use real estate. Yes, you’ll come to the office for specific reasons, not just to do your job, and the office will be tailored for whatever those reasons are.”

Andrew Powell, CIO of Macfarlanes adds: “There will inevitably be a move towards hot desking and smaller office premises across the sector, but knowledge workers have offices for a reason, and we need to look carefully at how tasks, knowledge sharing, and collaboration are carried out in a hybrid environment with far more working from home.”

It will be important to maintain a focus on what the client wants and needs. At Howard Kennedy, IT director Tony McKenna tells us how the ways the firm is helping clients is changing as they support the need for a COVID-compliant workspace. And Abby Ewen, IT director at Browne Jacobson warns against assuming we know what the client wants, commenting: “I was speaking to a client a few weeks ago who completed a deal recently and said if it hadn’t been for lockdown, they wouldn’t have got here this quickly. There was none of the usual ‘I can’t make this week’ or someone’s train got cancelled. It happened seamlessly because it was virtual. It’s really important that we don’t assume we have to go back to the office because the clients want it.”

In terms of the tech-trends and to-do lists for 2021, collaboration is on the top of the pile. At Fieldfisher, IT director Mabel Harvey is rolling out Teams as a managed service and there has been a massive flight over the year to Teams for telephony and chat, with many looking at how to extend that but nervous of opening up the Wild West. Cripps Pemberton Greenish CIO Jo Owen sums it up when she says of Teams: “That’s probably my technology of choice in terms of what we couldn’t have done without – we’re probably all a bit video conferenced out, but I couldn’t have done it without it.”

What is interesting is that video conferencing is opening up far better ways of communicating – having overcome an allergic reaction to the weekly Zoom quiz, lawyers are realising that it is often far easier to speak to clients and groups in a video chat. Francesc Muñoz, CIO at Cuatrecasas says: “What was amazing and is my tool of the year is Zoom. Digital signatures also saved a lot of issues but Zoom connected us to the teams, clients and families. Senior partners say they are seeing their clients more than ever before.”

To read all of their stories in full, see the November/December Orange Rag.