by Divina Paredes

CIO50 2019 #22: Sarah Thirlwall, MinterEllisonRuddWatts

Mar 28, 2019
Business ContinuityCloud ComputingInnovation

MinterEllisonRuddWatts (MERW) is a top tier New Zealand law firm known for providing clients with excellent legal solutions and innovative advice, says chief digital officer Sarah Thirlwall.

“MERW sees technology as a key enabler in continuing to innovate in the provision of legal services,” says Thirlwall.

Additionally, she explains the organisation took note of how their clients spoke in equal measure about cost pressures and the need to be more cost conscious.

“We wanted to be able to respond by offering new technologies for clients to do more for themselves in-house with the backing of a trusted legal partner.”

Thirlwall explains how innovation at MERW has ramped up over the past two years.

The raft of innovation projects transformed an outdated and unreliable technology service to one that uses economical, modern and flexible cloud based services to enable our firm to lead the way in which technology is changing “the future of professions”, she says.

Thirlwall says today, MERW uses IAAS, a range of managed services (outsourced service centre, active systems monitoring and security operations) and has introduced Skype for business with presence, instant messaging, video and voice conferencing and collaboration.

She notes that NZ courts are becoming more digital with the submission of digital bundles, electronic filing and thus, MERW is introducing iPads for litigators with PDF Expert for rapid access to indexed documents in court.

The organisation is currently migrating to Office 365 and has implemented Microsoft Dynamics for the CRM system.

The innovations were driven by a growing pressure to deliver the best value to clients whilst remaining successful and profitable. Increasingly, publications started to identify AI and other new technologies as a threat to the professions.

MERW wanted to front foot this challenge by understanding better the opportunities this presented to both their clients and internally.

She admits that some of these innovations, have been driven “purely from frustration”.

An example is seen through the time consumption associated with entering complex passwords multiple times a day to liven up the screen, which was eased with the introduction of Windows Hello. This takes facial recognition and biometric technology to log into the work station.

“While this has the ‘awesome’ factor’, it also saves time and the frustration of remembering and entering your password many times a day, without compromising security,” she says.

“It saves a call to the service desk to unlock your account with failed password attempts, this demonstrate that simple can be very effective.”

The transformation programme had three pillars – Stabilise, Optimise and Innovate, she explains.

This recognises the challenge of balancing a desire to innovate whilst understanding the importance of modernising existing platforms and systems and investing in new people capability, explains Thirlwall.

She is confident that the firm made gains as the technology systems were upgraded and better integrated, had more capacity and performed well. Costs started to stabilise as the modern architecture enabled cost effective incremental growth. System usability remains a foundational principle and essential to enable staff to support new ways of working.

She says two lawyers have shifted their roles into business transformation and now work with the business development and legal teams to tap the data from their systems, improve their operational efficiencies and serve their clients better.

Whilst there is nothing particularly unique in each innovation it was the courage of the partners in the firm, in an industry that is traditionally slow to change, to look beyond quick fixes and to invest in a multi-year programme, she says.

Thirlwall notes how as MERW focused on optimising their technology stack for both their internal customers and clients, it looked at how to further tackle the disruption that is impacting its vertical.

The law firm partnered with Goat Ventures and established McCarthy Finch Artificial Intelligence to explore and capitalise on, the application of artificial intelligence (AI) for legal services.

This partnership provides a platform to learn about AI and its application to the law, strengthens the brand as an innovative and progressive firm and provide a financial return.

Its collection of innovations have overall improved productivity by introducing the mobile workplace, collaboration tools, document automation and associated process standardisation. These initiatives in particular are increased staff satisfaction and making it a better place to work, says Thirlwall.

IAAS and outsourcing services have enabled MERW to modernise the architecture whilst controlling costs, providing a better quality of support to users and improving security practices and tooling.

“Introducing Microsoft Dynamics as the basis for our CRM system ensures we are better informed of our clients and can coordinate services, client engagements and market awareness to provide a more comprehensive and value added service overall,” says Thirlwall.

This also provides an excellent platform to enable greater insights into our data for improved decision making and greater level of efficiencies, she adds.

Taking on a digital transformation programme in a traditional industry like law has its inherent set of challenges, and Thirlwall shares some lessons learned.

First, she says, “we had to set the scene for change”.

“Lawyers are inherently risk averse, but the firm understood to stay in business it must evolve and remain competitive in a commercial environment where technology is changing all aspects of the social, economic, political and working lives,” she says.

Buy-in from partners and the executive team started with a strong strategy that used storytelling to capture users’ experiences, the economic impact or lost opportunity of the current state and subsequently what technology was on the landscape and how this could be leveraged to become the firm of choice in NZ, says Thirlwall.

The organisation also opted to implement changes in phases.

She provides regular updates and reports on progress against strategic initiatives to the board, and to the firm’s partners.

The team organises showcases where staff are able to see and touch the new technology or systems ahead of formal introduction and training.

Thirlwall continues to attend divisional team meetings to hear about how people are feeling about technology overall, and any problems that need addressing in context of their work practices.

“These meetings give me an opportunity to introduce what is coming up”, she states.

Critical support

Support for the adoption of new ideas led to the appointment of a dedicated user experience lead and two business transformation leads.

Thirlwall says new capabilities and tools were introduced with on demand and push video training, weekly tech tip emails, a regular schedule of classroom training, process mapping, focus weeks with walk around support. More recently, agile principles have been introduced and the use of visual task boards.

“These are gathering momentum and starting to be adopted beyond IT and throughout the workplace.”

She met with a number of people in the organisation to discuss the strategy, and this included getting together with the previous chief digital officer, Nick Whitehouse, now co-founder and CEO of McCarthy Finch, MERW’s joint venture partnership with AI firm Goat.

Thirlwall notes that upon joining MERW, she received an induction pack which highlighted the concept of ‘Listen, Care, Deliver’.

“What it means is the importance of actively listening to clients, understanding the crux of the problem, the client and the industry and tailoring delivery of services accordingly,” explains Thirlwall.

“This resonated with me fully and through my career I have come to understand the importance of each of these,” says Thirlwall.

She explains that throughout her career, she had to work with different types of people, from a service technician to board chair.

“I have come to understand, if we listen and care, delivery is more likely to be aligned to expectations, people are more likely to want to join your delivery team, teams are more likely to work together to a known and shared goal, and much more likely to put in the effort to overcome barriers to delivery,” she states.

And if there is one thing she would like to add to ‘Listen, Care, Deliver’, it is ‘Learn’.

Thirlwall says while this is fairly obvious, she continually tries to apply lessons learned in her career and life in general.

“Some of these are hard to swallow and have taken a while to understand how I could have done things differently,” she says. “Others have simply been out of my control or influence and understanding this is the lesson in itself.”

“Overall I encourage others – especially when it comes to digital and transformational change – don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. If you get the others right, you can fix just about anything.”