Nigel Stevenson says when he joined the law firm Kensington Swan, the ICT team was very risk averse, working on systems that were very dated.
“The unforeseen reality was that this technical debt was a significant risk to the organisation and was being ignored,” he says.
He says this was compounded by the GFC. The desire to be extremely cost efficient had an effect on the culture and the perception of change, he says.
Stevenson joined the firm in 2016, when business confidence was on the rise. “This provided us a great opportunity to modernise.”
“Over the past couple of years, we have literally jumped forward 10 years in the technology space,” says Stevenson.
“We could now be classed as leaders in the sector for adopting new technology.”
Our transformation took longer than I had hoped because we needed to build a solid foundation in the infrastructure (local and cloud) and desktop space. “The benefit this added was establishing credibility to deliver improvements, before we got to the hard stuff”, he adds.
Kensington Swan is now in the midst of automating legal process and document generation. This project falls into the category of robotic process automation.
“Law firms sell time, in doing so, we provide advice that will protect our clients venturing into new business or solve issues for those with disputes,” says Stevenson.
A large percentage of these engagements are dealt with using documents such as contracts, deeds and letters.
He says the company had invested in macros which automatically filled in information for commonly used documents.
At that time, this was cutting edge, but with modern expectations, it has some shortfalls, says Stevenson.
For example, each document was coded individually, the forms were hard to change and therefore maintenance was costly. Moreover, he says, there was hardly anyone left with Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) skills.
We had a choice, he says. “Do something similar with a generic automation tool or really push the boat out?”
They chose the latter and worked to automate the entire process and integrate their systems.
He says automation is a maturing space but none of the typical COTS offerings provided the breadth of functionality that they needed.
“The solution we chose had to be powerful, highly configurable but simple, it had to be a platform that we could build upon and we needed to have faith in its longevity,” he says.
He says a similar project was started over two years ago but struggled to get momentum. He took up the challenge to get it moving, managed the vendor selection process, and drove the project forward.
The project is being implemented using Agile methodologies, and delivering small bite size blocks of value regularly, he says.
“This is imperative because if we waited until we had completed hundreds of processes before release, we would not be getting the value,” says Stevenson.
“We have focused on specific teams first and have a steering committee in place to ensure that work added to the project backlog will deliver value.”
The project is ongoing and will take some time to get to a critical mass, when it will become BAU.
“Every piece of work we do is different and complex,” he says, on the criticality of the project.
“Because of this we needed to find a way to make it cost effective to automate processes that might only be used 20 times per year and generate large (500 page) complex contracts.
“In comparison, an automation project like digitising the census has one form that’s used by millions of people and a resulting cost model of less than 1c per process run.”
He says they had to ensure the cost of production was appropriate to the value delivered.
He says the team also had to assuage the initial perception that the robots are going to take over the jobs of lawyers.
“A typical question was “what are the junior lawyers going to do if we automate their job?”
“The reality is that this technology will augment the work done by humans to make it more efficient, remove repetition and actually make the work we do more challenging and enjoyable,” he says.
“We have overcome this fear through effective communication, we started with specific teams to produce examples that are demonstrable.”
Secondly, with a small team the product selection process was critical to success. “We sought the needle in a haystack, which was a low code solution that provides a platform for us to build upon.” He says they have found one, which will complement their internal skills with external partners.
Collaboration and influence
Stevenson says while he is the advocate for the introduction of technology within the firm, discretion is needed that technology is not pushed just for the sake of it.
“As CIO you are ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the ICT team and projects,” he says.
“We can’t forget the business in all this, their involvement is critical,” he says.
“I try to make sure that my projects are actually their projects, they are business projects not technology projects.”
He says Kensington Swan has offices in multiple cities, so it is important for him and his team to remain visible, be approachable and authentic.
“To achieve this, I contribute to regular firm wide presentations held in each city, which keeps staff informed on what is coming up. I listen to their feedback and use this to help steer us on the right path.”
“At the end of the day we in ICT are primarily there to ensure that the lawyers can do their job as efficiently as possible,” he says. “Their goals are my goals.”
He has built strong relationships with other members of the management team and wider groups at Kensington Swan. This makes collaboration across the group easier for him and his team.
“My approach is quite simple,” he says. “Start small, build relationships and a track record for successful change, then keep raising the bar.”
“This is very similar to how your mobile phone updates, often but with a small amount of change so you can adapt easily.”
When he first met his ICT team, he told them to be proactive and positive, to own what they do and help drive the organisation forward.
Stevenson said having a small team allowed him to be a mentor and coach as they shifted their mindset to get involved and try new solutions.
Today, he says, the team has already completed many successful changes and conduct themselves with confidence.
“They are coming out of their shells, learning more and contributing to our future plans, so much that I now have to slow them down a bit.”
He shares an interesting story on how they had managed a recent technology change at Kensington Swan.
That was when they decided to remove the phones from everyone’s desks and replace these with headsets and Skype.
“A simple change, right? Well, when someone has been used to having a phone for their entire career they grow quite attached to it.”
“We wanted to implement a hands free telephony, because if you need to hold a phone to your ear, you can’t type.
“If you can’t type, then the natural thing to do is to hand write notes on paper. Those notes than need to be captured, digitally or still on paper, the paper needs to be filed, the file boxes archived etc. We want to remove the phone and reduce the paper.”
He believed in the goal but was not sure about the willingness of the staff and partners to accept the change.
“There was also an element of risk in whether the technology will do what it proposes to. We were shifting floors at the same time so once the phones were gone, there was no turning back,” he says.
“But if you truly believe in something, then back yourself and your team and go for it. It does pay to have plans in place to reduce the risk like appropriate testing and pilot schemes.”
That is what they did, he says. “Now staff would complain if we made them go back to the old phone system.”