Smooth operations: The Briefing Operational leaders in legal conference 2017 report


Our esteemed Briefing Operational Leaders in Legal conference returned in March 2017 after 18 months roaming the ground for white truffles – and found them we have.

This year we were delighted to welcome Andrew Darwin, chief operating officer at DLA Piper, who put the ‘crap’ of the legal industry in its place in his keynote.

“The role of the COO is very much dependent on your skillset and the aim and model of the firm. Nevertheless, it is important to remember to be Crap – calm, respectful, available, patient,” said Darwin to gales of laughter.

He also outlined the seven hats a COO could potentially wear as put forward by Harvard Business Review – the executor, the change agent, the mentor, the other half, the partner, the heir apparent and the MVP (most valuable player).

Drawing on his own experience, Darwin talked through the arrogance of lawyers and what it takes to be a leader in the legal industry. “The matrix is a web you can get caught in or network to get things done, it all depends on your mindset.”

Take it to heart

Changing mindsets and work habits was on the agenda for our morning speaker, Carol Stubbings, joint global leader, people and organisation at PwC.

“Knowledge is everywhere now,” she said. Firms must learn how to share knowledge and work with the changes in workforce attitude, not against them. “We went from using our hands (farmers) to using our heads (creating business, tech, medicine) and now are using our hearts (saving people, environment),” Stubbings said.

Businesses are seeing the rise of the millennial in the workforce and a drive for more agile working arrangements – and they need to think about that when it comes to clients, too.

There’s a lot of disruption or potential for disruption in the market and firms need to stand ready – Stubbings explained: “If you don’t change, your clients today won’t be your clients tomorrow. Think about how Netflix disrupted Blockbuster. And even how Netflix disrupted itself – from providing DVD rental to streaming.

“The spreadsheet didn’t kill the accountant and the ATM didn’t kill the bank teller. Their roles just changed.” And that law firms have to be ready for the same.

She added that the perspective of those in senior roles in business – millennials are lazy – is unfair. They just want different things. “The same is true of your clients – you don’t want to become irrelevant.”

Power to disrupt

The workforce isn’t the only thing changing. James Sproule, chief economist and director of policy at the Institute of Directors, examined the impact of Brexit and talked us through the five stages of grief for the EU. Well, we were told to use our hearts!

Individuals will have different views at different times, Sproule pointed out. “But build consensus and build confidence, there is no alternative.”

And our keynote panel discussed technological disruptors such as artificial intelligence and automation, with experts from Simmons & Simmons, Hogan Lovells, Cripps, and Weightmans, facilitated by Thomson Reuters. Christina Blacklaws, COO at Cripps, discussed that the work lawyers are doing is changing. Work undertaken by lawyers now will be passed to the lower level or automated.

Stephen Allen, global head of legal service delivery at Hogan Lovells, added: “The rate of acceleration is exponential. Increasingly, technology is able to do things that take us a lot of thought. Just training our lawyer to do more things isn’t going to do anything.”

COO, innovation group, at Simmons & Simmons Ben McGuire agreed: “Firms need to develop a culture of being informed consumers. You don’t need to be experts. And don’t assume a better level of technological awareness just because the younger generation has grown up around it.”

Stuart Whittle, IS and operations director and partner at Weightmans, said: “Don’t be afraid of building the experience of the current workforce and newcomers alike. Where are the experts of the future? And, how do we train them? It can’t just be ‘computer says no’.

“We are seeing loads of technology coming out and approaches we can use to take away the drudge work for lawyers. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be better than what we are doing now.”

On the shores of change

In a choice of streams, delegates could join a fireside chat about nearshoring and offshoring, with insight from Mike Polson, co-head of innovation at Ashurst, and Darren Mitchell, deputy global chief operating officer at Hogan Lovells, facilitated by Briefing’s Richard Brent. 

The two speakers had very different experiences in this area – it just goes to show that what works for one firm may not work for another and how important communication and good leadership is for directing change.

Mitchell at Hogan Lovells said his firm ran a “seed and grow” change instead of a “big bang.” “We had a journey for people to go on to get used to moving and letting people go – a lift and shift of existing roles.

“You don’t want to tilt the balance – we can’t open somewhere where we would struggle to get up and running. And you have to test the market for skills.”

On the other hand, Polson at Ashurst said his firm went for a big bang – not exactly all the change all at once, but at least pain that lasted for less time.

Polson and Mitchell, therefore, also had different tactics for incentivising a strategic move – Polson recommended removing as many barriers, structurally and culturally, as possible before “snowballing.”

Mitchell at Hogan Lovells said for his firm it was a combination of carrot and stick. It’s important to have the firm think of the resource as part of the London team, and if your team doesn’t use them, give them a gentle smack.

“Get people in the mindset – you can’t just tap them on the shoulder with this sort of change,” said Mitchell.

Creating the right culture within the firm for the time when that culture will be extended into new and uncertain areas is a big step, and people need to have the support when needed.

What advice?

After lunch, delegates heard from general counsel from Canon Europe, Johnson Controls (Tyco), Carillion, BT Group, and National Grid. And across the panel the biggest themes were to give straightforward legal advice and to be upfront and practical about fee arrangements.

“Just tell me the advice, I don’t need reports. What is the actual legal advice?” said David Symonds, vice president and regional general counsel EMEA at Tyco (part of Johnson Controls).

Collaboration and communication are key in delivering good, pure and straightforward legal advice at the cost that was scoped. Richard Keenan, chief counsel, major transactions team at BT Group, said: “Firms need to sharpen their pencils – they need to have fixed rate outcomes with good caps, not billable hours. And it needs to be a collaborative effort – the dialogue at the start needs to help us with the process of receiving their legal services.”

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