How has technology changed the legal profession for IT directors?

How has technology changed the legal profession for IT directors?

As technology continues to change the face of the legal industry, Nathan Hayes, IT director at Osborne Clarke and Dan Wright, partner at Osborne Clarke, Jonathan Gater, joint managing partner at Blandy & Blandy who is also responsible for IT at the firm, and Matt Torrens, managing director at SproutIT, look at how technology has changed the roles of IT directors over the past few years.


Technology is changing the face of the legal industry. Established roles such as knowledge managers, IT directors and of course fee earners themselves have all been impacted in many ways. Beyond that, we are seeing the emergence of entirely new roles such as legal project managers or teams of paralegals who are no longer focused on directly supporting fee earners but are instead working on technology products built in-house. In some cases law firms are going from just selling services to actually selling technology products.

In light of all these changes, how do some of the more established members of legal teams see their roles changing? What are experienced professionals doing (or what should they be doing) to keep up to speed? Are new entrants to their professions realistic about what their futures are likely to entail and are they arriving properly equipped to perform these roles in this changing world?

The changing role of IT directors

According to Nathan Hayes of Osborne Clarke, one of the changes experienced by IT directors is that they are having to work increasingly closely with fee earners: ‘Those of us who have been in the legal market for some time know how difficult it can be to change lawyers working practices.

Over the past few years I believe we have seen a paradigm shift and both law firms and lawyers are not only much more open to these changes, but are now actively driving those changes and looking to technology to help achieve that. That has created a significant change in the role of IT Directors with a need for them to work much more closely with their firm’s lawyers to develop technology solutions to directly meet clients’ developing needs and expectations.’

Dan Wright at Osborne Clarke expands on this view regarding the increased role of law firm IT departments in client-focused work: ‘technology has enabled us to re-engineer what law firms do to deliver what clients want. Historically, it was important [for IT departments] to provide stable IT infrastructure as the architecture for the business to operate on’ but now firms need to consider leveraging the IT platforms they have built for themselves ‘to enable clients to make use of the technology as well. So it’s no longer all about building IT systems for internal use by lawyers, but also about sharing and building tools for clients. He believes that ‘as an industry we need to look beyond our historic roles’ and that ‘IT [professionals] and lawyers are working together more closely to find better ways of doing things.’

Hayes says that external IT providers are becoming much more important: ‘The rapid development of managed services and cloud based solutions which have been tailored to the needs of law firms has also driven a change in the IT director role. There is much more of a focus on partnering with and managing external providers to deliver IT services and less emphasis on building an internal team to operate a firm’s IT arrangements.’

In terms of external IT providers, Matt Torrens of SproutIT is very well placed to comment, and he has concerns that, although technology is being adopted, funding for IT is still a bone of contention: ‘Technology has accelerated, in general, very quickly over the past five years. The desire to use and benefit from these technologies has not been matched by a willingness to fund them.

It’s a significant challenge to meet the demands of a business and, critically, to ensure that the integrity of the firm and the safety of the client data is fully protected, without adequate financial buy-in.’ He thinks that firms need to pay more heed to security risks: ‘Cyber-crime is the ‘new normal’ and now the most common offence in the UK. Its inclusion in the calculation of the national crime rate would see the overall rate soar by 40% (Office for National Statistics).

UK Legal walked into the era of the internet when it was a fluffy cloud, manned by pixies and powered by angel dust. The internet has since evolved into a truly worldwide resource that often wants to rip the heart out of a business. Regrettably, cyber-awareness, mitigation, threat protection or resilience have not evolved adequately within the Legal landscape. That disparity creates the very clear and present threat – bluntly, UK Legal must stop disregarding security risks and/or pretending that they somehow do not apply to them.’

Hayes echoes this need to focus on security: ‘Keeping the firm and its clients’ data secure is paramount and yet a firm’s ability to achieve that is coming under increasing pressure. The increase in complexity of law firm IT systems for numerous reasons including a higher utilisation of cloud based services, combined with the increased information security threats that are being signposted even in mainstream media are a few of the main drivers behind that. If that was not enough to focus the mind, at the same time firms are seeing an increase in the reputational impact of information security breaches, again played out in the mainstream media at the same time as both governmental and regulatory penalties for such breaches are being increased significantly. It is for these reasons that Information Security should be a key focus for IT directors.’

Hayes says that increased consolidation and an international outlook is another growing challenge for IT directors: ‘The inevitable consolidation of the legal market and the drive for internationalisation to retain/gain access to higher value clients and more profitable cross boarder work has also seen a significant change in the role of the legal IT director. Having to take account of multiple different countries, their different languages, cultures and regulatory arrangements have combined to added a whole new degree of complexity to their work. This requires more effective leadership capabilities and better skills around diplomacy and negotiation especially when you take into account that many international law firms have structured themselves as Swiss Vereins.’

Jonathan Gater of Blandy & Blandy, who crosses the fee-earner and IT management divide, believes that changing technology has improved collaboration and client management: ‘Technology has facilitated much better collaboration both within and between teams, using centralised document storage, etc… [and it has] improved client relationship management – the partner with responsibility for the client relationship has access to see exactly what is happening on matters he/she might not have a direct involvement with.’

He notes that online information is helping offices go paperless and improving client awareness: ‘The availability and easy accessibility (and quality) of information online has increased the pace with which we are able to deal with issues... no more flicking through the paper copy of the recognised text on a particular subject. Clients are generally better informed before they consult us.’

What's the future of law firm IT?

Going forward, Hayes says that law firms should consider how technology can change delivery models, possibly using AI: ‘To stay ahead of the curve law firms need to not only deliver technologies that enable law firms to change their working practices to more efficient models, but also to identify and introduce technologies that have the potential to redefine the way in which we deliver our legal services.

Those technologies will no doubt range from the introduction of more Legal Project Management capabilities through more business process and document automation to the introduction of AI based technologies.’

He also says that IT will become a defining factor in attracting new talent: ‘With the increasingly intense competition to attract and retain the very best people from right across the diverse range of available talent, it is becoming even more important for law firms to focus on providing an Agile Working environment. Whilst continuing to provide the very best technology in this area is important the real focus of this should be on collaborating with the firm’s lawyers to develop new agile working practices, incorporating that thinking into new working spaces and providing the firm’s people with the training and coaching to enable them to get the most of the technology available to them.’

Torrens notes the importance of law firms to be flexible and how IT can help in this regard: ‘With the financial pressures that are present, particularly in some parts of Legal, the industry needs to adapt in order to become agile. Firms that are able to react effectively both to market pressures and opportunities, are more likely to flourish.

Technology, particularly Cloud, offers flexibility to firms who encounter fluctuating workloads and headcounts. The ability to turn services on and off as required, the adoption of a just-in-time approach to technology resources and the comfort of always-available resources will allow firms to stay profitable during slower market conditions and to quickly take advantage of sudden market improvement, or temporary opportunities. ‘

Wright argues that one of the big revolutions in the legal industry could revolve around offering new technologically based services to clients: ‘We’ve built IT tools which are internal, to allow our lawyers to become more efficient through the use of technology in certain circumstances. But there’s also an external element where it’s about talking to clients and finding out what they actually want and how they would like to receive services to enable them to run their business. We can then design services and systems to allow clients and third parties to take advantage of the tools. We’re now offering products which clients would never have expected to receive from their lawyers. We’re trying to support them operationally—not just legally.’

He also says that legal technology should be ‘built with the legal knowledge ingrained.’ As for AI ‘I think we should focus on augmented intelligence rather than artificial intelligence. Some of what has been badged at AI technology is essentially very advanced analytical software which can be used to execute part of an exercise, enabling human lawyers to be presented with much better data than they had been in the past. Rather than thinking of replacing lawyers with robots, we look at how we can bring together man and machine.’

For Gater, although technology is ramping up efficiency in law firms, client relationships are still key: ‘Our focus is still on building strong personal relationships with our clients. We are trying to use the IT to provide a very efficient service in the background to support those relationships, freeing up lawyer time to spend on existing and new relationships.’

Do new recruits have the skills they need and are they prepared for the changing profession?

According to Hayes, whether or not new recruits are well equipped depends on their sector-specific experience: ‘I think it depends where those new and aspiring entrants are coming from. If from other markets, then they tend to be very well equipped in terms of business management, something that law firms are crying out for as they are being forced to develop much a much more rigorous approach to how they manage their businesses.

However inevitably perhaps these people are not well equipped to understand both how law firms operate and more importantly how to navigate their structure well, often leading to high degrees of frustration! On the flip side new and aspiring entrants coming from within law firms tend to lack good business management expertise and experience and for them having some exposure to a corporate environment is becoming more and more important to success.’

Wright notes an increased technical aptitude in new entrants: ‘In terms of staff joining the firm, there are an increasing number of new entrants to the profession – at least on the fee earner side – that are coming in with a technological aptitude that we hadn’t been seeing previously. We have more of a challenge in terms of converting some of our existing fee earners to using technological tools. However, the tools we are using now are so much more intuitive and so much easier to use than some of the platforms people have had to engage with historically, that people are becoming better at using technology.’

Gater agrees that new entrants are more technically skilled but bespoke systems still require training: ‘In terms of IT skills they are generally reasonably competent and have clearly had experience of using legal research tools. As they are familiar with IT in a wider context they do not seem to have too much difficulty picking up the systems we use within the office. We do, however, put quite a lot of effort into an induction process that involves extensive training on our internal IT systems.’

Interviewed by Alex Heshmaty.

The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.

First published on Lexis®PSL.

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