Big law, small law, new law, old law… it’s bigger than that

Big law, small law, new law, old law.... it's bigger than that

Guest Post by Ben Wightwick

Firstly, thank you to Brian for inviting me to write a guest post as part of the Legal IT curve series. I was asked to contribute to provide the perspective of a legal IT vendor. Before I start, I must clarify that I am blending my vendor hat with one that has just under 10 years experience in an IT department at a “big law” firm in London. HighQ, the company I now work for, has been selling “cloud” and progressive enterprise cloud collaboration tools and solutions to law firms for the last decade.

First of all I’d like to say that I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t matter what type of law firm you work for or how you classify it. It’s bigger than that. I think all firms, businesses and organisations inside and outside of the legal vertical face very similar challenges. On the flip side of that same coin, all organisations have the same opportunities. These challenges and opportunities come at a time when technology is changing and influencing our personal lives while leaving a bitter taste within the enterprise. Not 10 years ago it was only within the enterprise that we had access the latest software and devices. It was the enterprise where we saw the most innovation. This has changed forever – you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. I now have access to more innovation in my pocket via my smartphone than most enterprise software applications. Enterprise software has become stale, and this is not unique to legal.

According to Ray Wang of Constellation Research, “in the shift toward dominating digital disruption, CIOs can only move as fast as their organization’s DNA will allow while driving transformation.” When we review that statement and apply it to a law firm dynamic we come up against the single most important factor in the law firm technology debate: law firms are and always will be risk averse. As Ray puts it, it’s in their DNA. Just look at the technology adoption lifecycle which quotes five phases of adopters:

Innovators – – Early Adopters – – Early Majority – – Late Majority – – Laggards

In almost all instances, law firms will be in the Late Majority or Laggard phases of technology adoption. This is because many or most are resistant to change as written by Larry Bridgesmith. There are of course, people, teams and entire firms outside of these two categories but by and large it’s an accurate assessment.  A risk averse stance will, in my mind, delay law firms (large and small) from progressing and moving forward. It could mean they miss opportunities and expose themselves to greater long term risks associated with survival.

Law firms need to be more agile. Whilst some manage this, the majority have focused on infrastructure and keeping the lights on while doing little to influence or transform the business. There have obviously been reasons for this. Many CIOs’ budgets have been cut in the last five years, even in “big law”. Arguably this has prevented innovation or an attempt at early mainstream adoption of technologies, ultimately firms have had to make do. There has been a wide spread consolidation of the market in the form of mergers and experiments with outsourcing. This all contributes to a lack of tangible forward motion in technological advancement.

Of course there are great examples of law firms using technology to drive efficiency and productivity. Those firms who are looking at technology as an enabler are making the charge forward. Those who are driving forward look at their assets and assess each based on what they can do today and on their potential to deliver in the future. This is all common sense, but many either don’t have the time to focus on it or focus on other more “important” things. Law firms of any size need technology to be simple and scalable. When you talk about adoption you should be aiming for limited IT involvement or training. This, I feel, is the primary role of the future CIO.

Currently there are, broadly speaking, four types of CIOs: Chief Integration Officer; Chief Innovation Officer; Chief Infrastructure Officer and Chief Intelligence Officer. All CIOs will fall into one of these main camps. Many will be more than competent in the rest, but they each have a natural alignment. Many in legal are not able to focus on innovation for reasons given above, but the future needs of the workforce will ultimately become a priority. Gartner talks about the transition from CIO to Chief Digital Officer (CDO) and predicts that 25% of organisations will create such a role. I can see this being a long way off within legal but very valid, the merging of roles and perception of the traditional functions in a law firm. The current CIO role will primarily be keeping the lights on and the CDO will be more strategic, aligned with revenue and client success and retention.

In my opinion it doesn’t depend on your business model or your size. Of course it might be easier to be more agile in a smaller more nimble firm but it also depends on whether your management team see technology as an enabler not a cost centre. It also depends on whether they can see beyond legal technology, and whether they value the human network of the organisation and want to allow it to thrive.

So what is the current state of play in legal IT in “big law”?  Investment in technology within law firms up to around 2008/9 was largely internally focused. Focused on the business. There are rafts of legal specific applications from practice management systems to document management platforms and search tools. Almost all the Top 200 law firms have something or other in the majority of the categories (as seen in the LegalIT Insider Top 200 UK charts). But what this chart doesn’t tell us is how well are these products adopted? How well are they aligned to business processes? Has benefits realisation been a core part of project delivery? Are lawyers using them or are they bypassing them? Has business services requirements been included? How much shadow IT is being used? These are all questions to which many will have similar answers, I bet.

Taking risks is an important part of running a business. You will always fail. It’s amazing how quickly you can recover and learn from those failures and jump back on the horse if you are prepared to fail. I was at a legal marketing conference last week where the keynote speaker was Kat Cole and she talked about failure, taking risks, making hard decisions for the survival and ultimate success of her business Cinnabon.

Law firms are going to have to take some risks, this is inevitable.  Many are under pressure from the wider market, changes in business structures, and client demands. Not exploring other ways of doing things because “we’ve always done it like this and look where it’s got us” is almost negligent. It doesn’t matter whether you categorise these factors affecting your business as challenges or opportunities or both. People, teams and firms need to realise they aren’t just delivering “tech”, they are potentially delivering a change enabler. It’s important to understand and focus on the impact of technology on the business and its employees (not just lawyers) and provide just as much emphasis on the people using the technology.  The day this happens, we’ll be moving in the right direction.

Technology with a focus on the human network is the key, which allow greater innovation and enable wide change. A digitally proficient workforce (not millenials), the right culture and open approach to risk and innovation will drive the new ways of working.

Law firms like many other organisations are risk averse and are resistant to change, this resistance to change is ultimately a risk in itself to which some may not survive. Each firm has to focus on it’s people and is in control of it’s own ability to change and adapt. It’s up to them.

Ben Wightwick
Ben Wightwick

About the Guest Blogger: Ben Wightwick is an experienced technology professional and consultant with over 10 years legal, social and content publishing technology solutions experience.

Ben is client focused and enjoys working closely with clients and colleagues to ensure the successful delivery of technology solutions which help clients derive the most value from their investment in HighQ software.

Ben has many different roles and is involved in many areas of the business including; writing, speaking, consulting, marketing, social media presence, defining strategy and other areas of general business improvement.

Ben’s primary role however is “Product director” of HighQ Publisher. This includes managing all aspects of the product from; managing new and existing clients, designing new functionality, project implementations and innovation for the future of the platform.

Main Picture Credit: Iain Mackay

NB: This post is part of a series of blog posts on the Legal IT curve. See also:-


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