As law firms reinvent their working practices to absorb the impact of Covid-19, their ability to choose and invest wisely in technology has come under greater scrutiny. At a Law Society technology conference Jonathan Rayner hears how practices are faring.
‘Technology starts and ends with people,’ remarks one speaker at the Law Society’s September technology conference, sponsored by cybersecurity consultancy Mitigo. The two-day event is peppered with other similarly challenging assertions from a series of panel discussions. ‘Bringing your own disaster’ is how one speaker characterised using your own devices to work from home. ‘Some people, such as my nan with Zoom, are not confident with technology,’ is the under-statement from another. ‘Rationality and common sense have gone out the window,’ protests one contributor, bemoaning the long hours of combining childcare and professional responsibilities at home. ‘It really is OK not to be completely OK,’ says someone for whom compromise holds no terrors. ‘A 6.15am email from a colleague is acceptable,’ reflects one manager, commenting on how technology has made working from home – with its flexible, but often longer working hours – commonplace. ‘It’s when you get an 11.15pm email from the same colleague that the alarm bells should start ringing.’
Such mixed sentiments highlight the ambivalence with which the legal profession – and the wider world – views technology. It can be a good thing, lawyers mostly agree, but there can also be a downside.
It’s not being negative to prepare for the worst, but to expect the best, because that way you are ready for whatever transpires. You can’t assume that one day you’ll be going back to the office and to the old normal. Because what if you don’t?
Heather Anson, Digital Law
The first panel turns its attention to Building business resilience, a pressing issue in this era of mass redundancies, furloughs and uncertainties around Covid-19 and Brexit. Nonetheless, cybersecurity consultancy Mitigo chief technology officer David Fleming strikes an optimistic note, declaring that managing and senior partners have ‘engaged with the opportunities that technology offers’. Digital Law consultant Heather Anson is more cautious. ‘Some things you just can’t control,’ she says, ‘such as the building being closed so that you can’t get at the massive pile of post that’s growing bigger every day.’
Anson adds: ‘It’s not being negative to prepare for the worst, but to expect the best, because that way you are ready for whatever transpires. You can’t assume, for example, that one day, sooner or later, you’ll be going back to the office and to the old normal. Because what if you don’t?’
Alistair Maiden, legal technology consultancy SYKE chief executive, volunteers that his business was already working in a ‘distributed way’, with much of his time spent on trains and planes. ‘Working digitally from home has become habit,’ he now says. ‘I’ve gone from seeing my kids maybe twice a week to seeing them every day for seven months. I’m not going back on that.’
Are Maiden’s law firm clients embracing the new normal, too? ‘Law firms are probably the worst when it comes to IT literacy,’ he replies, ‘but they are improving.’
What are the biggest risks of moving to remote working? Emma Philpott, chief executive of IASME, the body that works with the government to assess the cybersecurity readiness of smaller UK companies, responds: ‘The risks mostly arise from people not thinking things through. If you use the same device for work that your child uses for play, for instance, then you may be opening the door for criminals.’ Philpott also references the ever-present danger of an unhappy member of staff, whose unhappiness may have been exacerbated by the stress of lockdown or threat of redundancy, and who is looking to get even. ‘But the biggest threat,’ she ends, ‘is simply making a mistake. No malice intended and easily done.’
The Gazette next attends Efficiency – making the most of your existing technology, a panel session that promises improved business processes without the expense of investing in new technology. Legal engineer and BamLegal CEO Catherine Bamford says that many law firms are paying ‘serious licence fees, but are not using their existing technology to do more with less’. She instances firms that pay £250,000 a year in fees for software that one team uses just once a year, whereas every team uses another system that is only £50,000 a year. ‘Don’t be afraid of cancelling contracts,’ urges Bamford. ‘Or maybe you need only 50 licences rather than 1,000 of them.’
EasyJet head of legal operations Helen Lowe observes: ‘Technology starts and ends with people. Bring someone in or send someone out on secondment to learn what can be achieved. Have a conversation with IT. Look on YouTube. Pick up the phone and talk to your software supplier. Don’t be afraid to ask: “Can I do this?”.’ Lowe warns against being dazzled by the exciting new features that the latest software package offers. ‘What do you really want? What value do you want to see? Tell your software supplier. After all, they know their products inside out.’
Sometimes there is a knowledge gap between what the tools can do and what you actually need them to do. Lawyers don’t like to show they don’t understand something, but the world is far too complex for one person to know everything
Christie Guimond, White & Case
Christie Guimond, innovation and engagement manager at international firm White & Case, acknowledges that ‘technology is never going to solve every problem in every area’. She advises: ‘Look around the industry and learn from those people who are doing a good job of tackling the challenges. Also, sometimes there is a knowledge gap between what the tools can do and what you actually need them to do. Lawyers don’t like to show they don’t understand something, but the world is far too complex for one person to know everything. Talk to people.’
Bamford concludes that a firm could bring in an outside specialist to head up the implementation of a technology project, but why not consider using someone who is already in the firm? ‘You don’t necessarily have to choose your best lawyer or the quiet one who can be relied upon to read the manual. Choose the sparkiest one who everyone will follow. That’s the way to make things really take off.’
The second day of the conference starts with Agility: Smaller firms – technology and your business. The two panellists, we learn, work for two contrasting firms. Mark Kiteley is a director of Bournemouth commercial firm Rawlins Davy, which was founded in 1830. ‘Most staff worked in our office prior to lockdown, but since then have made the big switch to working from home,’ says Kiteley. Many partners, he continues, enjoyed the ‘splendid isolation’ of working undisturbed, but now work two days in the office, two days at home, with the fifth day reserved for circumstances as they arise. Kiteley explains: ‘You want senior staff in the office because juniors are best supervised by watching and learning from their more experienced colleagues. A laptop is no substitute.’
Gary Gallen, on the other hand, founded rradar in 2012, a litigation practice that on its website promises a fusion of ‘first class legal advice and representation with the latest technology’. Its business model has always revolved around flexible working, with, at any one time, some one-third of all staff ‘on the road’ in clients’ offices. ‘I’ve recruited people online that I still haven’t met in the flesh,’ Gallen reports. He agrees with Kiteley that people working in the office remains important for the future health of the firm. ‘Otherwise trainees miss out on conversations about precedents and best practice,’ he believes. ‘And even senior staff, who are happy to be seeing more of their families, miss the interaction with colleagues.’
National cyber security centre
An incisive presentation on the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) affects risk-averse solicitors watching the conference in one of two distinct ways. They either sleep soundly that night, reassured that seasoned professionals are fighting their corner. Or they despair at the inevitability of their firm joining the 46% of all UK businesses, according to the NCSC, that suffered ‘at least one (data) breach or (cyber) attack over the last year’.
The presentation is delivered by the enigmatic Karen J, whose anonymised surname and lack of job title remind us that the NCSC is part of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the hush-hush organisation that provides signals and other intelligence to government and the armed forces.
The centre’s website should be required reading for all lawyers. Its 2018 report on the legal sector, for instance, highlights the danger posed to firms by phishing (fraudulent emails purporting to be from reputable companies, including sometimes your own firm, in order to persuade you to reveal confidential information, such as passwords and credit card numbers); data breaches; ransomware (malicious software that blocks access to your computer until you pay a sum of money); and supply chain compromise (where, perhaps, you pay a fraudster’s forged invoice in the mistaken belief that the fraudster is your normal, trusted supplier).
The website is not, however, all doom and gloom. Its advice on passwords is to choose three random words – Karen J instances helicopter, elephant, orange – but never something which a little research could uncover, such as a spouse’s birthday or a pet’s name. And never, ever qwerty123456.
And then there are the invaluable Cyber Essentials, a range of measures that firms can implement themselves – it is a free service – that make it difficult for cyber criminals to exploit internet vulnerabilities. There is also Exercise in a Box, a choice of simulated cyber-attacks that allow you to test and practise how you would counter a genuine attack.
The conference closes with Health and Wellbeing – The impact of technology. The discussion centres on the often unacknowledged, yet corrosive effect of mental ill health on individuals’ lives and the businesses for which they work.
David Beeney, who left behind a successful career in newspaper publishing to start Breaking the Silence, a consultancy that aims to change attitudes to mental illness, says that the stigma surrounding disclosing a mental health issue is a ‘blind spot across the entire legal profession’. Beeney continues: ‘The problem for alpha-male lawyers is confessing to any weakness. I told one group of senior lawyers that they need to treat one another with kindness and be unafraid to share their own vulnerabilities. Whereupon the senior partner stood up and told us that he was in therapy. It created an I Am Spartacus moment, with others getting to their feet and divulging similar problems they had experienced in the past.’
Birkbeck University of London occupational and organisational psychologist professor Almuth McDowall observes that the law attracts conscientious professionals with high expectations of themselves. ‘But the higher you aspire, the heavier you fall.’ Commenting on the current Covid-19 restrictions, she says: ‘The one big rule in managing change is communication, communication, communication. But the recent changes the profession has had to make have all been rushed. Digital communication is never as good as face-to-face collaboration.’ McDowall concludes: ‘You need to give yourself slack time during the day to assimilate all the changes, but the job description that includes slack time has yet to be written.’
Leadership and adaptability coach Helen Gazzi turns her attention to colleagues who, seeming uncharacteristically withdrawn, may be showing early signs of poor mental health. ‘Every individual is a whole world. Try and get into that world by a one-to-one phone call, perhaps, that explains to individuals just why they are required to do things. Otherwise the transition from always being on people’s backs to being digitally absent is too abrupt.’ She adds: ‘The nature of technology is that it moves on quickly. But how do we shape our behaviour around it? Is it sufficient just occasionally to turn off our phones or attend fewer online meetings? It’s still too early to tell.’
Peter Wright, Law Society policy and regulatory affairs committee chair and managing director of Yorkshire firm Digital Law, chaired all the panel discussions. The online conference, sponsored by cyber security consultancy Mitigo, took place on 22 and 23 September 2020.
For more information on the Law Society’s LawTech work, click here.