Digital transformation and the practice of law

Published on the 24/12/2016 | Written by Donovan Jackson

Digital Transformation_ServiceNow


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Here’s a transformation for you. Instead of scribbled bits of paper into a jar for Christmas suggestions, how about a digital version…

The former sees the ideas turfed into the garbage, soon to be forgotten along with the meat sweats and hangovers of Yuletide. The latter version is easily stashed and referred to whenever convenient.

It’s a trite yet oddly resonant notion which is brought up by Nick Whitehouse, chief digital officer at law firm MinterEllisonRuddWatts. Meeting with iStart at ServiceNow’s recent NowForum in Melbourne, Whitehouse was talking digital transformation and the challenges which face law firms; like other verticals, this is an industry which is staring down disruption. That’s why the MIT-educated Whitehouse was hired some 16 months back – and, he said, if law firms don’t ‘do’ transformation themselves, it will be done to them.

But just what is digital transformation mean for law firms; is it a question of efficiency?

Beyond efficiency
“Well, we are predominantly digital already, using a lot of cloud computing and electronic files and so on, so there is a lot of efficiency,” said Whitehouse (and added that this preceded his joining MinterEllison). “We also have problems with millions of documents and how to find information, so digitisation is great as you can find and share faster.”

Like many other industries, said Whitehouse, the pressure comes from new entrants using technology to disrupt the way of doing the business of law. That goes beyond making paper processes more efficient. “It’s a revolution, much like what’s happening with the banks and fintech, where we see the same sort of things; for example, artificial intelligence to provide legal advice, to automate the filling of forms.”

Transforming and innovating within any industry is bound to have its specific challenges; a common one is that incumbents are less likely to see the necessity to innovate business models which have always worked. Whitehouse said that within the legal fraternity, hierarchy and tradition are inculcated (just how old school the industry is, added Whitehouse, can be seen in recruitment. While some firms go heavily digital in their efforts to impress grads, he said the biggest hit is offering candidates a briefcase and business card. “So it’s ingrained into even those straight out of Uni.”)

Add to that, he said law isn’t known for being an industry into which is easy to sell, certainly not for those who come bearing technology solutions. “That makes transformation so much harder as we are difficult to serve.  It is therefore more likely that transformation will be done to us rather than with us.”

No right or wrong
That’s not something MinterEllison intends to allow to happen (after all, it has a CDO) and Whitehouse said there is abundant opportunity for changing how things are done. “With digital transformation, you’re effectively entering an environment where there is no right and wrong. But at the same time, there is also a lot of inertia: you have the Law Society, the Minister of Justice, you have other law firms and you have client expectations, you have bylaws and councils. Even if a law firm wants to change, it has to do so in an environment where change isn’t necessarily wanted or needed. There may not even be demand from the client.”

That’s lie of the land, he said – and added that in New Zealand, there are judges who are leading the way (perhaps alluding to the recently retired judicial officer who earned the headline Judge David Harvey – the Savile Row suited cyber punk) to change the industry. “It is a sad say when the courts are leading the change; they aren’t exactly known for their agility,” Whitehouse quipped.

Where he sees technology, and transformation, having the broadest impact is on the ‘democratisation’ of access to justice, in much the same way that cloud democratises technology to make the expensive accessible to everyman. “Already we see many things which were until recently only available to big companies, accessible by anyone thanks to cloud technology. We should support that in the legal sector, as we want people to access justice and we want to have it happen efficiently. You don’t want to be held back from the best legal resources because you don’t have the means to access.”

Changing times
What keeps Whitehouse on his toes are things like robotic process automation, machine learning and cognitive computing. Applied to legal services, he said these technologies can do a lot of the things that law clerks today do – such as electronic discovery and other research. “It seems like the risk of this coming in is always ‘five years away, even after another year passes, it’s still ‘five years away’. But, in all seriousness, there is a huge risk that the entire industry will be disrupted, and soon.” In an industry where precedents matter, it just takes one to make it off the airstrip before the rest follow.

However, added Whitehouse, it isn’t as simple as automating research to benefit lawyers and their clients; the very activity of doing the research manually is considered part of the foundation of readying an individual to practice law. Automating it might accelerate the process and remove the drudgery but it could also reduce the ability for trainees to prepare themselves for the big time. “It is potentially a bit of a deck of cards and disruption could have the effect of making them come tumbling down.”

Working digitally
And those ideas for Christmas? “The idea of an electronic suggestion box is probably stupid, but it easily shows the advantages of digital over physical.”

What is of greater effectiveness, he said, is providing the firm with a platform which enables the creation of digital ways of working. He’s doing so with an approach which he described as ‘trimodal IT’. Those modes are to keep the lights on; optimise to gain efficiency and agility; and innovate. “The optimise piece is fundamental and often misrepresented. From an IT perspective, it’s digital transformation by stealth and lays the foundation for platform based innovation, as opposed to bespoke or one-off innovation.”

That approach is broadly supported by ServiceNow’s platform, which is used for the ‘traditional’ purpose of keeping the lights on (Whitehouse said this has enabled a four-fold reduction in service calls), but being as it is a platform, extends to anywhere the business can apply the ‘break/fix’, CMDB and record-keeping concepts familiar to ITSM practitioners.

“To date, that includes visitor management, library management, risk management and governance, catering requests; with a platform for service orchestration, people within the business are able to create applications to make their work more effective and easier. Part of role of CDO is not being about IT, but introducing new concepts into the cultural lexicon of business, and putting in place structures which mean I can step back and let people participate in changing how they work without my input.”

Donovan Jackson travelled to Melbourne as the guest of ServiceNow.

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