Shoosmiths partner Tony Randle in conversation with The Lawyer editor Catrin Griffiths
Catrin Griffiths: The experiences we all had in 2020 aren’t going away. In the first lockdown there was a sense of adrenaline, when we were metaphorically or literally baking sourdough and getting to grips with the novelty of the situation. But going into 2021 things are much grimmer, and business can now feel much more gruelling. So there’s a big question here: how do GCs keep the legal team joined up, and keep their energy and purpose alive?
Tony Randle: I reckon we’ll now spend 50 per cent of our lives working virtually, while before any lockdowns 90 per cent was all about being sat at our desks in the office. So we’re into remote working for the long haul. There are two aspects to it. One huge aspect is how do you keep your team feeling like they are still part of a cohesive whole? But there’s also the logistical aspect of how you manage the team, allocate work and know what everyone is doing. Obviously, there are generic tools that help, such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom. But when everybody is sitting at home, what on earth replaces the organisational osmosis?
And that affects in-house legal teams just as much as law firms. It’s not just a challenge for the in-house legal team to keep joined up with each other; it’s also a challenge for them to keep joined up with their internal clients as well.
The impact of technology during the lockdowns, and how that’s going to echo in the months and years ahead, is a big agenda for GCs. Indeed, it’s a massive agenda item for the C-suite generally as they plan to build back better. We lawyers can’t lag behind anymore. The catalyst we’ve all been through means that technology is going to play a huge part in how GCs reimagine their futures along with the rest of their organisations.
Catrin: Obviously, you’re talking about matter-tracking, and that will tell you what people are doing but it won’t necessarily tell you how they’re doing it.
Tony: In private practice we can monitor hours recorded and fees billed, but the vast majority of in-house legal teams don’t record time and don’t bill their internal clients. So how do GCs monitor how effectively their people are working? It’s a huge challenge. For example, during the lockdowns those teams that had a matter-tracking system could present objective data on exactly how many matters were being opened and closed compared to before, and whether those matters were still being closed on time and within budgets. They could even capture internal client satisfaction automatically. It was a game-changer.
Catrin: That’s all very well, but there’s an obvious caveat, isn’t there? It comes down to budget for tech and the ability of in-house legal teams to persuade the CFO that this is worth investing in.
Tony: There are very, very few matter-tracking systems. It’s an obvious gap in the market. The big US tech firms have been selling e-billing systems to big corporates and tracking systems to go along with them. It needs a lot of installation, it’s very expensive, and often takes two years to implement.
Now, contrast that with a solution we have developed that you can buy on its own and you don’t have to install on your system because it’s all browser-based. And it’s designed by lawyers specifically for in-house lawyers, not for the rest of the business. GCs are all too often disappointed about the level of innovation that their panel law firms are bringing to them. But law firms need to turbocharge bringing this sort of innovation to their clients because, as Kenny Robertson of Nat West eloquently put it to me recently, “businesses need to make decisions based on objective data, rather than folklore”. Some leaders are guessing what’s happening within their in-house legal teams, but they haven’t actually got the data. That is no longer good enough.
Catrin: And the past year has made all lawyers – private practice or in-house – more tech-savvy. There’s a development opportunity there.
Tony: Absolutely! You and I both know that too many lawyers hate change: we’re pessimistic, we don’t like to change, we’ve really got to be persuaded to adopt new tech, kicking and screaming. But that all changes if you can offer lawyers a better life as a result. You can work at home, you can go and walk the dog whenever you want, you can pick up the kids from school. Now is the opportunity to introduce tech to the in-house legal team and get it adopted enthusiastically and far more easily than before.
Another benefit it can bring is data-capturing. We lawyers have been missing a huge trick. OK, so we do our work, and every time we review a contract or we sign up a lease or we buy or sell a company, we put an agreement in place. Then it just goes into a drawer. Now, what if, by adopting new technology, not only can we draft quicker, review contracts in minutes, and get to signature much faster, but also, automatically, in the background, we can capture key data? Suddenly lawyers and their clients get visibility of commercial positions and trends: stuff they never knew before. It gives GCs and the C-Suite more transparency of what’s really going on, how risk profiles are looking and how they can be improved. The value of data capture is massive, and if you’re not capturing it, you’re missing a big opportunity.
Catrin: It’s a really good question about actual use of data and it’s something that is very close to our heart as journalists at The Lawyer! We ask questions for a living. The question is, how do you train yourself or your team to imaginatively ask questions about data?
Tony: It’s a great point, a key point. I think we can reasonably expect that more data analysts will be entering law firms and large in-house legal teams.
Catrin: And in-house lawyers are used to working with people with many skills within their business (not just lawyers) every day of the week. So, in a sense, they should have an advantage: for example they know there’s a really smart intern floating around in the business who can see connections and patterns among the data.
Tony: You’re right, we need to bring more skill-sets into the practice of law, because the practice of law now includes data capture, the practice of law now includes data analysis, the practice of law now is how on earth do you negotiate sat behind a computer screen rather than sitting in a room and reading faces? It’s a more demanding job, and therefore you’re going to need more skills than ever to do it properly. I think that’s really exciting for our profession.
And technology will also mean we lawyers can offer even better service to our clients. We work with some incredibly forward-thinking GCs. The head of legal and compliance at Scania, Sarah Holford, has taken our matter-tracking system and completely revolutionized the interface between her internal clients and her team, so it’s all automated for them. Sarah’s clients can just send an email instruction on an automated form, it comes into her matter tracking system, she allocates it out, the internal client gets automated emails acknowledging the instruction (confirming who’s dealing with it) and they get updates automatically. And what she’s found is that the level of human engagement has increased. Now that’s counterintuitive! You’d think that by automating the system more, that connection becomes more efficient but also more remote. On the contrary, because her internal clients can see that the legal team are ‘on it’, they’re now coming to her team more than they would’ve done before and that’s exactly what she wants. Because her job is to manage risk and keep things consistent. She’s achieved exactly that because she’s gained the confidence of the internal client. She’s a true partner to the business. Sarah has also told me how having such an efficient system has now given her a great platform within the business to propose other new ideas with confidence and on a highly informed basis. I can see lots of other GCs wanting to follow suit.