“It takes me back 20 years”: Access Legal’s MD talks platformisation and legal tech evolution

Within a market that is experiencing consolidation every day, it’s somehow easy to overlook London-headquartered business management software vendor Access Group, which recently officially launched a dedicated legal division. It shouldn’t be easy: the division has seen its turnover increase to £400m in the past financial year, following acquisitions including DPS Software and Eclipse Software, and it has no intention of stopping there.

For anyone not familiar with Access Group, in 2019 it earned unicorn status having been valued at over £1bn. To give you a sense of the speed of its growth, it was worth £234m in 2015. Much of that has come through snapping up software and solutions providers.

Access Group was best known in the legal sector for its HR system. What’s interesting when you speak to Access Legal’s managing director Doug Sawers is not just his account of the growth of the new legal software division, but his wider perspective on the evolution of legal tech, given – and these are our words not his – that he has seen this all before.

In terms of its growth, The Access Group, which is backed by Hg and TA, now has 35,000 customers and acquires, Sawers says, ‘businesses that are growing, to grow them faster.’

With many if not most UK practices using its HR system, Sawers said the company saw an opportunity to accelerate their success by acquiring products from one place.

Platformisation is a theme that you will have heard talked about many times in Legal IT Insider, and Access is certainly not the only company working towards this model – Hg’s other legal tech investment Litera is another. But Access’s acquisitions of Eclipse and DPS, plus online training, compliance and risk management solution providers Riliance and Socrates, mean it now has 3,500 legal customers in the UK, and is arguably some way along the track. Access Workspace for Legal includes legal case and practice management; legal compliance and learning; people management; financial solutions; payments technology; and CRM.

Long before we called it platformisation, large legal tech companies have snapped up smaller companies as well as rivals, and history tells us that it is hard to do well. The ambition at Access is to continue product lines, provide single sign on, and bring together the data for the benefit of better analytics. It plans to triple in size and Sawers says: “We expect to do that by making it easier to choose more technology from one source. From a single platform; the Access Workspace, where you have a single sign on and access to any of the Access products.”

He adds: “Access Legal can get to the point where much if not all of our customers’ software needs could be served through one point of contact, one log in, because everything is on the same platform. Whether its practice or case management or whatever, we can bring that together and analyse it.”

There is a palpable demand among big law firms in particular for consolidation, with IT heads still having to manage a spaghetti junction of different systems.

What Sawers has to say about platformisation is where his experience of the evolution of HR tech is interesting. He comments: “I was amazed to find that law firms employ developers to develop our systems, which takes me back 20 years. Legal practices are having to be specialist in IT; why would they be leading edge? Why should lawyers have to invest so much in the future of technology? We want to be the company that takes that pain away.”

Another interesting observation is around the number of systems that law firms are battling with, where Sawers says: “In the world I came from before, it was quite common for businesses to have 15 different HR systems and it was someone’s job to bring them together, and the HR director was expected to have an opinion on which to use. Now, one supplier provides all the HR systems.”

He adds: “In those days, some of our clients in the HR space had their own people developing technology in house and today that doesn’t exist. It saves the legal practice having to anticipate developments themselves. We think we’re well placed to see that ahead of the market.”

It has become more feasible to pull data together – Access uses DataHub – with Sawers commenting: “We can bring real time information and analytics.”

Access Legal is very cloud focussed but Sawers says for those on Eclipse, there is no plan to end of life any acquired system. “We have a thing in Access which is ‘no product left behind.’ That said, the SaaS, cloud-based solutions will be so attractive and it will be so easy to move,” he says.

Sawers is certainly saying the right things – legal practices get extremely twitchy over being forced into making tech choices. That being said, it is costly to maintain multiple different systems and these kinds of ambitions by necessity come with a caveat ‘watch this space.’

It is definitely worth watching.

Access Legal is providing software to firms such as Eversheds, Winn Solicitors, Wolferstans, Minster Law, Neves Solicitors LLP and The MAPD Group and if you take a look at our UK top 200 you will be able to see what they are providing.


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