Adopting a three-rung model for technology - an interview with Rob Booth, General Counsel, The Crown Estate

Adopting a three-rung model for technology - an interview with Rob Booth, General Counsel, The Crown Estate

The Crown Estate is an independent commercial business, created by an Act of Parliament, with a diverse and commanding portfolio of UK buildings, shoreline, seabed, forestry, agriculture and common land.  As one can imagine with a portfolio of this nature, there is a significant demand for sophisticated legal advice.  As General Counsel, Rob Booth oversees a modern, progressive and efficient in-house team that is resolved to manage the legal affairs of the corporation in the most effective way possible.  Sophie Gould, Head of In-house at LexisNexis, sits down with Rob and talks about his scientific background, the “three rungs of technology” and the role of that law firms should take as collaborative partners.

Tell us a little bit about your background …

For my undergraduate degree I studied science with a biology focus.  This was a great discipline to learn and I’m a big fan of scientific rigour but, without wishing to sound too grandiose, I couldn’t see how it would allow me to make a big difference in the world.  Law allowed me to do this in a compelling way.  I spent eight happy years as a real estate lawyer with Herbert Smith Freehills in London, including an eye-opening secondment to the New Nuclear Build team at EDF; where I was fortunate enough to be part of some very significant legal work, but also to watch them expand in size at an astonishing rate.

In 2012 I started at The Crown Estate, working in the renewable energy sector.  This was a fantastic experience, drawing the best from my time with HSF and EDF.  Two years later, I moved to Head of Legal, then in January 2016 I made the step up to General Counsel.  Working at The Crown Estate is immensely rewarding and completely absorbing – which was quite surprising to me initially as the property law module on the LPC was a little dry.  In practice, it is far more compelling and rich.

What is your view on the role of technology for in-house legal teams?

Technology can be a very confusing area to engage with, so we try to simplify by adopting a “three-rung” model:

  • Rung 1 – Efficiency: doing things faster
  • Rung 2 – Enablement: doing things better
  • Rung 3 – Fundamental change of the proposition: for example, how tech enabled Airbnb to disrupt the hotel industry.

While we are largely working within the efficiency rung at the moment, we’re starting to trend towards enablement – using data to map how to perform the job better.  There is both art and science in looking at data and I tend to look at it in layers.  The lowest lawyer is essentially a collection of 1s and 0s and the highest layer is genuine insight that will help us to better manage complexity. As technology empowers the capabilities of the lower levels, the importance of human judgement at the very top doesn’t change.  What we program and resolve through algorithms is growing, but there is a line at which the predictable, measurable and programmable environment hits chaos and complexity.  Above that line you need human judgement, creativity and innovation to compete. While this line will trend higher as technology improves, I personally believe that it will never disappear.

Knowledge butterflies

A fundamental benefit of technology is capturing data. At The Crown Estate, we aim to create “knowledge butterflies”: a system where everything we do is captured, augmented with external inputs and then looped back up into the start of the next process; resembling the wings of a butterfly.  It is hard to overstate the importance and value of capturing the data and ensuring this is properly fed back into the system.  It is only when you ensure the proper capture of data, that you can reach insights which introduce a step change into process and performance.

Biggest step changes enabled by tech in the legal space?

When we think about the biggest step changes in legal practice by technology, it’s probably not anything we’d consider as “legaltech”. It’s the benefits legal can take from corporate technology.  For example, we have a partnership with an American company ValueThisSpace (VTS).  VTS own a project management tool for leasing activity. It has data on 10 billion square feet of property around the world which allows us to benchmark against a large group of peers and gain insight from across a much wider property portfolio.

Legal technology doesn’t yet have that benchmark-ability as there isn’t the scale yet – it is still in what you might label “small data”.  Insight against yourself is helpful, but insight against all your peers and the market is far more valuable.

What do you see as the role of law firms?

We spend an enormous amount of time thinking about what role our law firms should take – thinking differently around the value that we can create and capture through our value equation.  As a lean inhouse team (only 5 lawyers), a one percent improvement to my team is nice, but a one percent improvement to our total legal spend is a game-changer.  I was really interested in section 4 of your report, Legal Technology: Looking Past the Hype, as the idea of owning anything in this legal tech space doesn’t bother me; I prefer to partner with law firms to ensure we get solutions to these problems.  I am also agnostic as whether its technology, humanity or process enabled.

We’re focused on how best to partner with firms and how our firms can collaborate.  We have seen some great moments of collaboration between our law firms and we know we can do more than just exchange our money for their legal advice.  We’ve spent a long time mapping the possible arbitrages between us, to most effectively exchange value. Further, any robust system cannot have a single point of failure and this means I need an effective eco-system of legal delivery with multiple collaborating partners.  This also mitigates against portability issues, which is important in any outsourced model.

Read more: Running a successful panel review—an interview with Rob Booth

Innovation in law firms

We also want to motivate innovation in our panel firms – in fact we’re pushing hard in this space. In the LexisNexis report, it’s noted that 75% of inhouse lawyers expect their law firm to use technology and pass on the benefits to me.  I find this view frustrating, if in-house teams view the “benefit” purely as lower costs.  GCs tend to complain that they have a cost-plus buying model but if someone innovates they expect a comparable cost-plus discount.  This could be seen as reinforcing the very model they complain about.  If a law firm innovates, I’m not going to necessarily punish them by taking away the margin they create.  Improvements can be beyond cheaper costs – it can more accurate and better delivery.

What are the practical considerations for legal in-house teams?

I believe you need to start with purpose. What is it that our team does? At a high level, we have a stated purpose within the business. This trickles down immediately into how do you deliver this? Once you know this, you can start to ask what are your key performance drivers?; and what metrics can you use to measure that delivery?  For us, the equation we use to measure our external legal spend is the same model we use to measure our internal performance– using the same value equation creates alignment. Further, the cross-validation is great, and we can start to measure and put some science into which of our external providers is really ticking our boxes.

And collaboration also doesn’t work without purpose. You need to answer the question: what is the problem you’re solving? Once you’ve worked that out you can start to add structure so all the smart people we employ can work together in the most effective way. It’s about bringing the right legal eco-system to a clearly defined problem. In this environment you are no longer just adding value – you’re bringing a competitive advantage by delivering beyond legal expectations.

Watch highlights of the interview with Rob Booth here




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About the author:

Sophie is Head of Learning & Development at F-LEX Legal - an award winning legal tech startup helping law firms and organisations manage a flexible work force and supporting lawyers to make smarter life/work choices. 

As part of her portfolio career Sophie runs various learning and development and networking forums for in-house lawyers and mentors junior lawyers.  These include Flying Solo for small and solo legal teams and Aspire for junior in-house lawyers which she runs for LexisNexis UK.  She also works with schools and organisations to promote social mobility within the legal profession, working with The Social Mobility Business Partnership and Aspiring Solicitors. 

She trained as a lawyer in the City and worked as an in-house lawyer for 10 years including as Head of Legal for Virgin Radio and Ginger Media Group.  

Outside of work she is happily married with three sons and enjoys morning walks along the beach with her two dogs.