ICYMI: Osborne Clarke to build software engineering team in “new chapter” for tech

As first published in the latest Orange Rag, in what is being described as a new chapter for technology at Osborne Clarke, the UK top 100 law firm is to build a sizeable software engineering team, saying that the pure ‘buy’ approach to technology is no longer sufficient to achieve and retain a competitive advantage.

OC in April hired Anthony Kay as head of IT software engineering, tasked with building a team of five to six people in year one, with the intention to build the team out further. The roles will include full stack developers and UX designers, in what is hoped will be a fully rounded set of skills. Kay has worked as a senior contract software developer at Deloitte, Allen & Overy and Chambers and Partners.

Speaking to Legal IT Insider about the new team, OC’s IT director Nathan Hayes said: “We are forming a new chapter for technology at Osborne Clarke. Until recently we have taken a buy approach in terms of our IT strategy. There are lots of great IT vendors now, in fact more than you can shake a stick at if you include start-ups, and industry consolidation is helping to mature those businesses and their offerings. But the rate of change means that a ‘buy’ strategy alone no longer meets our requirements, as technology becomes a more important and pervasive part of what law firms deliver.”

He adds: “Technology is increasingly critical to success. It used to be supporting tech and there was little competitive advantage to be had but that is changing, and if you are leveraging your own technology, you can deliver and retain competitive advantage to your business. This is coming about because of the sea change in law firms and the minds of lawyers: they are much more attuned to the value that technology can deliver in terms of developing practices and opening up new revenue streams and new service lines – there is a real opportunity here.”

The arrival of Kay and the new team will mean a new balance between buy and build that Hayes says opens up all sorts of possibilities, commenting: “There are lots of vendors providing great technology but there are gaps and some technology is not meeting our needs, so having the capacity and capability to plug those gaps and build a competitive edge is great.”

How far the team goes depends on how much work they have, and Hayes is reluctant to put a final number on it saying: “We are going through the three-year plan now.”

One area of focus will be integration work and Hayes says: “The integrations from vendors are pretty poor in some cases and we will be making sure that we are able to leverage our common data model so that data can flow around the business and to clients, and we are able to surface the information we need.”

However, he adds: “The real opportunity is how we engage with each other and our clients and in developing out our collaboration platform: we are increasingly moving away from email to online platforms and databases, which allows us to start trapping data, and visualising and exposing data.”

OC has built its collaboration platform 1.0 which is based on HighQ and is now starting to build 2.0. While Hayes says no decision has been made as to the tech at the core of the platform, the proof of concept is being run in Microsoft Teams. The firm is rolling out Microsoft 0365 and in the process of moving to Exchange Online and Hayes says: “We are going through an evaluation process: do we move to an enterprise stack or continue with legal technology to build the platform at its core?”

OC is about 20% through rolling out O365 and has an E5 licence, with Hayes commenting: “I can’t see any law firm going with anything less because of the compliance tools.”

The firm has had a very extensive Teams roll out including building a matter management system that forms the basis of the POC for Collaboration 2.0. Hayes says: “Yes of course we had the telephone and conferencing bit done in about a month after Covid, but the collaboration side is the fascinating bit, and using Teams sites we have done a heck of a lot of work around that.”

Around six months ago Osborne Clarke formed a consulting group, which includes IT trainers, business analysts, project managers and legal tech managers who are lawyers, who together with the knowledge group are helping to develop matter plans and bake in best practice, with Hayes observing: “The consulting group is spending a lot of time with the business and engaging directly with legal teams to understand what the problem statements are.”

Hayes says: “There are two ways of delivering a legal service: managing it in terms of case and then matter. Very simply, case is about high volume, and matter about high value and you need the capability to do both of those two work types. As law firms we do case well, but matter is a different beast and that is what we are going after. We are building in the appropriate tasks to deliver matters more efficiently.”

One partner recently codified an entire matter in Teams Planner and Hayes said: “The partners know about Teams because Microsoft is doing a wonderful job of promoting it.”

The growth of a software team goes against the train of thought that law firms ought to be left to focus on practising law, not becoming developers themselves but Hayes says: “Then you are entirely at the mercy of third parties and only able to deploy the technology that’s available to others. Technology to date has enabled law firms to be able to operate better than they would have, but now it’s about adding and retaining competitive advantage and you can’t always do that with other people’s tech as it’s harder to protect your IP.”