Embracing new ways of doing old things is one of the big challenges the legal industry faces in this new decade, BenevolentAI general counsel Will Scrimshaw tells The Lawyer.

Has the lockdown period created new, more efficient ways of approaching tasks? 

Lockdown has definitely driven more efficient meetings that are typically shorter and more focused than before – I think there is general agreement that there are only so many back-to-back video calls people can stomach in each working day. Having said that, I’m really missing the loss of chance encounters or overheard conversations with colleagues in the office that lead to quick decisions and outcomes that don’t necessarily come from scheduling everything in advance. While video meetings have become more efficient, you need more of them to make up for the lack of face-to-face interaction.

Will Scrimshaw
Will Scrimshaw

How do you ensure that the legal function keeps apace with the ways of working in an AI business and embraces the use of tech within day to day tasks?

As a legal team we have spent a lot of time looking at which software and tools used by the business can be repurposed or incorporated into our own workflows so the business is already familiar with how they work and can easily use them when interacting with us. Tech is most effective when viewed as a means-to-an-end rather than a panacea. All in-house legal teams face similar challenges in doing more-with-less and still providing a fast and efficient service to their internal clients. Technology can really help with process improvements (for example via “front-door” ticketing systems for clients to use to contact you with enquiries and requests for assistance) and in minimising time spent on high-volume low-value repeat work.  Technology (and AI) for its own sake is unlikely to really make much meaningful difference to client service.  I have found that often the simplest technological solutions drive the biggest improvements in client service (for example embedding a really good contract management system with the company so that key contracts can be found and searched through easily and renewed or amended within appropriate timeframes).

Is it easier to build a legal team in a company with no legacy constraints?

I certainly think it’s more fun, but it’s probably actually just different rather than easier.  You benefit from not having existing structures or processes in place which you might otherwise have to work with or change outright, and from a general receptiveness and open-mindedness around how things could be done.  You also get to tailor the skills and resource of the team to the needs of the business as it grows and changes over time.  At the same time, you have to build a team reputation from scratch and show clear value-add in all you do on a daily basis. What may seem to be valuable and worthwhile to you, can often be viewed completely differently by your clients.

What are the top 3 challenges facing legal teams in this new decade?

I would say that for in-house legal teams, it’s ensuring that finite resource (both internal and external) is spent in the most impactful manner possible – this isn’t a new challenge but will become ever more important as we emerge from lockdown into a period of considerable economic uncertainty.  Another challenge will be ensuring that we effectively embrace new ways of doing old things as we look to redefine working practices and rely on an ever-wider array of supporting technologies.  Lastly, embracing data to show and enhance the value a legal team can bring to an organisation will become the expectation. Legal teams that can use data to show where their strengths and weaknesses lie will be much more successful than those that rely solely on more subjective traditional measures of success.

What would be the title of your autobiography and why?

There is a series of children’s books by the author Dick Cate which have a fictional superhero character called “The Incredible Willie Scrimshaw”.  This random coincidence seems too good an opportunity to pass up, so I would (with Dick’s permission of course!) borrow from that title.  It’s an open question as to how much irony the reader of this eventual autobiography might need to deploy when reading the published end result!