Executive Insights are a series of discussions with c-suite executives from a range of industries, to learn about their roles and the part that digital transformation plays within their large organisations.
As the Managing Director of Simmons & Simmons Solutions, Ben is responsible for all the non-traditional business lines of the law firm – in other words, he wears the startup hoodie with the corporate trousers. We had the opportunity to pick Ben’s brains about his approach to scaleup technology and digital transformation, and to find out what he thinks about the impact of this annus horribilis, the most horribilus of all the annuses, on the legal sector.
How does digital transformation manifest itself within Simmons & Simmons, and what kind of role does it play?
Well, pretty central, really. The only difference is the difference of focus. We don’t have a vast manufacturing operation, we don’t have a vast call centre operation. We don’t have a lot of areas that traditionally a lot of startups focus on, such as payments and so on. What we do have is a large client base that is expecting more efficient and higher quality outcomes. So, digital transformation at Simmons is focussed on client experience, differentiation of our services, internal optimisation as well, but to a much lesser degree. And also on taking advantage of technology to build new digital products and services, which we’re pretty good at. So essentially our emphasis is on the benefit of digital transformation, more for our client services than it is for our internal optimisation.
What is your approach to bringing digital transformation to your role, but also to your clients?
We have three routes: we support our existing practices in the delivery of their projects applying technology to our client services. Our acquisition of [Simmons] Wavelength (our legal engineering business) is a key enabler here as is our eDiscovery business which is a technology platform based business supporting litigation and investigations. Equally, we help clients apply technology inside their legal departments; that’s sort of a consulting role where we take what they’ve already got, or platforms that they might onboard, and help them transform their legal department, this is an area that Wavelength is very strong in. I suppose the third [route] really is developing our own new digital products and services. For example, in October, we soft-launched the first product that we’ve built from the ground up (it’s quite “startup-esque”). It’s a predictive analytics tool for IP trademark searches. So the routes are, in terms of the clients, either helping them to use it, or using it to improve service or building products, which hopefully they’ll buy.
What is your perspective on engaging with scaleups for this transformation agenda for Simmons & Simmons, but also for your clients?
We introduce scaleups to our clients where they will benefit them, and we do this through swiftscale and other platforms. In addition, scaleups are often useful partners in certain areas. For example, a scaleup business built the underlying software by which we manage our consultants in Adaptive which is our flexible resourcing business. Typically, however, they [scaleups] are more applicable to our clients than us because they tend to be looking for a fairly large market and a big problem and individual law firms don’t really have the scale of problems that these young companies tackle so well. They have big problems for themselves, but not big enough for a scaleup to want to solve.
So, the enterprise technology that we get the most out of is pretty industrial, such as the Microsoft Office 365 suite. Typically, scaleups are looking for introductions into much bigger organisations and so that’s what we can help them do. Occasionally we have an interest in them, but typically their model isn’t really for a firm of 2000 people in 23 offices. One of the things that is useful from engaging with them, though, is it gives us ideas about what is possible, how technology is developing, what the maturity of certain technologies is, and where we can take advantage of it.
How do you typically go about scouting for these third party technology solutions?
A lot of it comes straight to us, we’re pretty much bombarded. My team will probably see between 150 and 200 companies in a year, either by direct curation through swiftscale, but more typically by direct approach or referral through various networks like Legal Geek. That is not an efficient way of meeting companies: it starts as an email, then you’ve got to have a demo, and then there’s a meeting. They don’t really understand what you do… So, curation is one of the reasons I like swiftscale. Curation is very valuable to us because it takes away a lot of that pain. Occasionally, we can then see really interesting companies that we might work with. For example, Glisser, we now use a lot and that is highly applicable to any organisation at any scale.
As we’re entering a post-pandemic environment, so to speak, what are the areas that you believe large organisations should be investing in at the moment in terms of technology?
I don’t think they should move too quickly. If you’ve suddenly rewritten your digital strategy on the back of COVID, I think you’ve gone too fast. My view is that this is going to have a significant effect over the medium term, but not the short term – it will take a long time for the impacts to crystallise. If I was entering startup land right now, I wouldn’t build any company on that basis, at least for the next two or three quarters, to see where people are starting to put their money. There are plenty of opportunities right now to optimise what you’re doing and using, but they shouldn’t take much investment. They’re just behavioural issues, typically. Most of what we needed to operate from home was already there and working, it was just that people weren’t using it. Now they are all using it and think it’s brilliant, and it’s nothing really to do with the technology or an investment in that space.
Interesting areas that I think will develop more and more, not just because of COVID but because of the way the world is evolving, are issues around talent and capturing people’s hearts rather than minds. I think one of the effects that this pandemic will accelerate is a wealth gap between older and younger generations and a realignment of life expectations. I think these issues in regards to people are the most critical ones. There are other issues which are more important in the short term such as Brexit and ESG, especially for regulated entities. Those are all really growth areas for us. But finally, the ability to harness and use data as ever will continue to be a competitive advantage.
What do you think the legal industry will look like in five years from now? Would it have changed a lot from what’s happened?
I think significant change is more likely to be seen over the next 10 years. In the short term I think consolidation will be accelerated in our sector as some firms will probably have struggled with managing their cash flow and it has definitely accelerated some internal projects and investments because people are looking to emerge stronger from the crisis. The sector will be more client focussed and will be more “joined up” technically, things will probably be more efficient over a 5 year time frame but I think much of this would have happened anyway – as I say, significant sector-wide change is likely to be seen on a 10 year horizon and the key drivers will be much broader than the pandemic.