How panel firms and in-house teams can use IT to collaborate; and risk-managing social media.

Corporate legal departments want to get closer to their external legal advisers, in terms of sharing data and knowledge, tighter IT integration and greater collaboration with and between panel firms.

It has almost become general practice for firms to share knowledge and knowhow with clients. This adds value because many large organisations have relatively small legal teams and do not invest in knowledge resources to the same extent as their external firms.

As law firms differentiate themselves in the market by specialist knowledge which might include industry/sector expertise and in-depth understanding of client processes and preferences, how do they manage tighter integration with other firms? Do they need to draw a line between collaboration and competition? How much can they share without giving away their competitive advantage, as their collaborative partner on one panel could be their competition on another?

Firms regularly give clients online access to matter and billing information, and self-service guidance and advice. This has extended from portals and extranets to apps. For example, south-west firm Stephens Scown created apps to give commercial and residential property clients real-time, self-service, mobile access to their documents and billing information.

As Stephens Scown is regularly instructed by corporate and commercial clients on a range of legal issues – including commercial, employment and property matters – IT director Dean Mostert developed a client dashboard, accessed via an online portal, to give senior corporate management a bird’s-eye view of all their company’s legal matters, including real-time financials and work in progress. This does not include access to documents, but these can be accessed via the app.

Shared systems

In-house legal departments are also investing in financial management tools and systems to derive best value from external providers of legal and other services. And they want to realise the advantages of requiring collaboration between their panel firms, particularly around IT systems. Abby Ewen, IT director at BLM, observes that this does not always come naturally for law firms, which operate in a competitive and sometimes confrontational business environment.

BLM has been working with a major insurer and its other panel firms on a groundbreaking project involving full IT integration with its Guidewire claims management system. Ewen explains: ‘We added an integration layer so that new instructions automatically run through our matter inception process, and our finance and billing system, into our case management system. Various activities trigger automatic, real-time updates from our case management system back into the clients’ system, for example updating a reserve or requesting a payment.

‘We used Intapp software and an integration partner to create a template for integration which we co-developed with DAC Beachcroft. We also set up a HighQ Collaborate site where the panel firms and the client can post questions and flag up risks. We organised regular conference calls to help the panel firms and the integrator work together in an agile way.’

The practical benefits to the client of managing the project in this collaborative way are obvious in terms of communicating with all their panel firms simultaneously. IT integration boosts efficiency by automating the interface between systems and processes, eliminating re-keying and minimising human error. Information around matters, billing and work in progress includes all required fields and is presented in real time and in the right format.

David Aird, IT director at DAC Beachcroft, explains that the client required its panel firms to integrate their systems into Guidewire so that all instructions, billing and status updates were managed electronically in real-time: ‘The level of collaboration on developing the integration layer was limited by the fact that we had different internal systems, but we were still able to share some of the development costs. Technical and operational benefits include more efficient processes and, in theory, standardised billing should reduce lock-up time, enabling panel firms to get paid more quickly.’

At Weightmans, which is on the same panel, IS and operations director Stuart Whittle says that although it was a logistical challenge to arrange a 20-person conference call, this was an effective way to manage a complex project. ‘Everyone received the same information at the same time so we were aware of all the questions and issues,’ he says, adding that the integration project is a natural extension of the cooperation between panel firms on legal issues, where each firm brings particular capabilities and expertise.

Ewen flags up another advantage – scalability: ‘Because the client has switched to an industry-standard system that has been purchased by other large insurers and we have developed a template integration layer that sits between our systems and theirs, we have created a productised resource that can be adapted to other client relationships.’

Aird says the biggest challenge is striking the right balance between standardisation and tailoring services to individual clients’ requirements: ‘Particularly in IT, the more bespoke the services are, the more expensive they become. So it will be harder for us to produce a scalable service if the insurance companies tailor Guidewire to their own business needs than if they deploy the standard system.’

Whittle reiterates that the systems integration piece involved significant extra work for panel firms’ internal IT teams. In order to implement collaborative integration, they each had to align multiple systems and platforms with the client’s system. However, there are also benefits in terms of cementing the client relationship – it is much harder for the client to shift firms, having established such tight integration. Working together on a groundbreaking project also enhanced the working relationship between the panel firms.

Aird explains that this type of collaboration between panel firms and their client does not raise regulatory or competitive issues: ‘We don’t have access to each other’s systems or the information that feeds into Guidewire.’

‘We share non-client-related policies, but we never share any commercial information,’ Ewen says. ‘However, regulatory issues will kick in if we look at leveraging the data in these systems, for example by benchmarking clients against their peers. While we can anonymise data, there are data protection issues around the guarantees that our clients – the insurance companies – have given their clients regarding how their data is shared and used.’

Aird sees the Guidewire project as a springboard for law firms to learn from each other while cementing client relationships: ‘Many of our clients are looking for a robust, holistic service from their suppliers, including law firms, even in the same competitive environment. At our partners’ meeting last year, public sector clients suggested that law firms should work together more holistically. And following our collaboration with BLM, I have been exploring the idea of working with other law firms to potentially share management information.’

No regrets?

Law firms rarely position social media and brand personality as critical success factors, but Milton Keynes law firm Baker Small was relatively unknown until June, when managing director Mark Small posted a series of tweets gloating about defeating claims by parents of children with special educational needs (SEN). These were unpleasant and badly judged, given that Baker Small was representing local authorities.

Parents of SEN children drew Baker Small’s tweets to the attention of the local and education press and the story hit the national media. Even when Baker Small made a public apology and deleted its Twitter account, media coverage escalated and within a few days Baker Small lost instructions and retainers that had been worth over £1m in business because its public sector clients did not wish to be associated with its contaminated brand.

The issue is brand communication. The Baker Small tweets were nasty – but frankly, I have had worse. What made this different were that the offending tweets were posted in public on behalf of an identifiable, professional brand which was destroyed by a few sentences that one individual posted on its official Twitter feed. This is relevant to any form of communication across social media and other technology platforms, including instant messaging (IM) and group chats on corporate platforms.

Although many organisations require employees to sign a social media policy, as the variety of platforms increases the potential for communication to compromise the business expands and the monitoring challenge grows exponentially.

One solution is to monitor communication before it leaves the organisation. Winton Labs demo day featured artificial intelligence (AI) start-up SafeScribe ( which promises: ‘Never again write something you’ll regret’. SafeScribe is a subscription-based software that uses AI and natural language processing to read messages in real-time – as users type them – and once installed it works across all platforms and operating systems because it is linked to keyboard activity. If someone writes an email or tweet that looks inappropriate, a pop-up box appears, saying: ‘Is it OK to write that at work?’ Or if they are posting on an internal messaging forum: ‘Your boss may read that!’

Co-founder and CEO Matt Clarke explains that SafeScribe was inspired by working in an investment bank, where staff are constantly under pressure and every so often an inappropriate email or IM hits the press, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Its first clients were banks and financial institutions.

But SafeScribe is not just for banks, or for potentially damaging communication. Because administrators can adjust the settings to flag up particular words or phrases, it can also help to manage reputational risk by keeping external communications on message – for example, to remind employees not to tweet or email about sensitive news items relating to the business, its clients or its competitors.

SafeScribe operates in real-time and does not save any of the messages it monitors. Although it recognises context, it may not pick up every colloquialism or nuance, so users and administrators can override it because there will be false positives – and different relationships – to take into account. But it provides organisations with exactly what social media policies encourage people to do – to think before they send.