Analysis

The most technologically advanced law firms in Britain: 2017-18

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Exclusive: Over 2,000 City trainees and junior lawyers told us how lawtech was affecting their lives on the legal frontline

In a bid to cut through the lawtech hype and build a picture of what is happening on the ground, we asked over 2,000 trainees and junior lawyers at the leading UK corporate law firms for their thoughts on their employers’ embrace of technology.

Were firms’ innovation achievements limited to ensuring that vending machines were updated to accept the new £1 coin, or was the progress so great that the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2017-18 itself could be delegated to robot paralegals?

Alongside ranking firms out of ten for tech-savvy, rookies were also encouraged to provide us with details about how their firms’ investment in technology had been impacting on their daily lives — and we received hundreds of fascinating comments in response (a handful of them are featured below).

Firms were graded A* to D. The following ten scooped an A*. In alphabetical order, they are…

Allen & Overy

The magic circle giant’s ‘MarginMatrix’ digital derivatives compliance system — which it developed in partnership with Deloitte — is widely held to be one of the best examples of legal technological innovation over recent years.

Not only does it actually work, which is by no means a given in a booming lawtech field that now has its fair share of disappointing products, but it has saved Allen & Overy’s clients some serious time and money. According to the firm, it reduces the time of processing a document from three (highly paid) lawyer hours to three minutes.

Inevitably, the gaggle of lawtech start-ups that A&O is housing at its sparkly new ‘Fuse’ innovation space (repurposed former meeting room space on the first floor of the firm’s London office on the edge of Spitalfields Market) won’t all be similarly successful. But the fact that A&O is dabbling in being a tech incubator is significant in itself.

The ‘Fuse’ lawtech start-up incubator at Allen & Overy

The firm’s trainees that we heard from were impressed, noting proudly that their employer is “clearly at the forefront of legal tech and tech developments in the market”. They also remarked on the “excellent quality of the support teams (and the fact they’re 24hr)”, which one said “means I get to focus on legal work almost exclusively”, adding:

“I spend significantly less time typing up comments or running redlines than my friends at other firms.”

But any future applicants hoping for tech utopia should mind too some of the more cynical comments we received. One insider told us: “A&O tries to be forward-thinking with mixed success. I’ve spent many hours on telephone insolvency searches when this new thing called ’email’ gets a guaranteed response in 20 minutes.” While another warned that on occasion “I have been asked to do such basic tasks that I’ve been unsure if they’re joking”. The hope is that in the future such moments encourage rookies to pop down to Fuse to see what the techies can come up with to ease their pain.

Read Allen & Overy’s full firm profile, including The Legal Cheek View and Insider Scorecard.

Bird & Bird

In the early days of the internet, Bird & Bird became one of the first law firms to establish its own website, choosing the quirky domain name twobirds.com way back in 1995. Its core specialism of telecommunications, media and technology (TMT) remain strong, with the firm’s rosy recent financial results reflecting a boom in the sector. Recent work highlights include advising the European Commission and UK government on changes to data protection regulations and acting for Nokia on its patent dispute with Apple.

On the lawtech side, Bird & Bird has perhaps felt less compelled to crow about developments than larger rivals, with the firm less shouty about pilots with AI stat-ups than many in the legal market

But that’s not to say it hasn’t been active. Recently Bird & Bird began working with Palo Alto-based legal software company Intapp, which focuses on data security. It’s this sort of perhaps more carefully thought-through move, allied to the firm’s longstanding expertise in TMT law, that helped it score an A* in the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2017-18.

Bird & Bird trainees tell Legal Cheek that it is “very tech focused” and that it “invests in this and it shows”, particularly in the smaller departments that “tend to be better at giving you responsibility and interesting work”. Beware in Bird & Bird’s larger corporate teams that “admin-type work” continues to be the norm for those starting out with the firm.

Read Bird & Bird’s full firm profile, including The Legal Cheek View and Insider Scorecard.

Bristows

With its smaller teams, Bristows — which takes on ten trainees each year — is not under the same kind of pressure as London’s global megafirms to boost its efficiency through technology. Already, the firm has a pretty lean model advising on the high end intellectual property, life sciences and IT law work in which it specialises.

That practice area mix has long seen Bristows target graduates of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) who then convert to law. Many of these STEM graduates also have PhDs. As such, it’s always been a pretty techie sort of place, with data analysis skills co-existing alongside legal expertise.

Nevertheless, some reckon it could be doing more. One insider tells us: “For a law firm dealing with so many tech clients it could have better tech itself, for example a proper CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system rather than Outlook and an automatic way to generate a statement of costs and use AI for document review.”

The interaction between the law and technology is nothing new, as illustrated by this copy of the Patent and Design Act 1907-1942, belonging to former Bristows partner G.B. Cooke

With a good deal of AI expertise within the firm — Bristows’ robotics team recently had a report published for the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence (AI) — expect that to change, if the firm considers that to be in its interests.

Other Bristows rookies note that there are “some neat apps for training diary reviews” and report excitement about the imminent arrival of “new laptops and docks for all fee-earners”. However, there was horror when trainees recently overheard “one partner explaining to another about a ‘new’ app called WhatsApp that he should try”.

Read Bristows’ full firm profile, including The Legal Cheek View and Insider Scorecard.

DWF

A £12 million investment in its IT systems has seen DWF score an A* for tech in the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2017-18, as the effect of the money — allocated since 2014 — begins to be felt among rookie solicitors.

The firm has put together “blended team” that has seen lawyers work alongside technologists in the creation of new software like DWF Draft, a contract automation product. It has also created a buzz through the launch of DWF Ventures, which it dubs “a new ideas incubator”.

With DWF recording some disappointing financial results last year, which saw revenue fall despite continuing international expansion, the firm may have the incentive required to go beyond the hype and use technology to create some genuine efficiencies. It is well positioned to do this in that its core business includes lots of lower value claims and insurance work that is more easily automatable than many practice areas.

Read DWF’s full firm profile, including The Legal Cheek View and Insider Scorecard.

Gowling WLG

According to the Financial Times’ famously fluffy ‘Innovative Lawyers’ report, Gowling WLG “plans to digitise all its practices”. While we are not entirely sure what that means, the firm is clearly doing something right, with its trainees telling us that Gowling is “very tech-savvy” and indicating that the quality of its systems are “fairly good”.

The firm has demonstrated its commitment to technology publicly by appointing a ‘Head of Innovation and Digital’ in 2016, and doing deals with lawtech start-ups such as Loom Analytics. Apparently junior lawyers are “encouraged to contribute innovative ideas to management” as the firm “continues to invest heavily in” new tech products.

However, not everyone is impressed. Insiders tell us that “Worksite is clunky and Online Mentor is an appalling piece of software”, while complaining that too many fee-earners “seem to wear technical illiteracy as a badge of pride”. Legal Cheek spies also report that “a great deal of work [at the junior end of the firm] is very abstract and repetitive”. Another claims: “I have spent about 8 months doing work that is completely automatable.”

Yet Gowling was one of the best scoring firms for tech in this year’s Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2017-18 — which may tell you something about where the wider legal market is when it comes to true progress and innovation.

Read Gowling WLG’s full firm profile, including The Legal Cheek View and Insider Scorecard.

Linklaters

Linklaters “finally got their sh*t together” on the technology front, the firm’s rookies tell us, with “massive strides in the last 12 months… AI, laptops, iPhones, new software”.

The most appreciated of those strides, we understand, are firm-wide upgrades to Surface Pro tablets and Yoga laptops, which come on the back of everyone getting iPhone 6s last year. This “has made it easier to work from home when appropriate”, although an “old” and “annoying” timekeeping system that “looks like it’s from pre-2000” can hinder things at times.

Thankfully, “secretaries are generally great at the tech stuff and IT support are fantastic”.

A host of tie-ups with lawtech start-ups have also been noted. These include Linklaters’ 2016 deal with RAVN, which automates basic legal tasks, alongside a trial with rival AI provider Kira Systems and a tie-up with Eigen Technologies to build a natural language processing tool that helps with the review of contracts.

Noah Waisberg, the co-ounder of Kira Systems, who previously was an associate at Weil Gotshal & Manges, a firm that performed surprisingly disappointingly in the tech category of the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2017-18

But penetration to foot soldier level seems to have been limited. “Lots of things being talked about… I haven’t seen any of them implemented yet,” an insider reports.

Read Linklaters’ full firm profile, including The Legal Cheek View and Insider Scorecard.

Osborne Clarke

As one of a handful of firms that has been pushing legal innovation before it became cool, Osborne Clarke has found itself ahead of the game as the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ hits the law. And a new research and development budget has been put in place to provide funds for the firm’s IT team to develop new lawtech ideas suggested by anyone within the firm.

OC’s A* score for tech in the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2017-18 suggests that those at the corporate law coalface feel well-supported. One of the firm’s trainees tells us:

“The firm has a massive focus on tech. Our sectors tend to focus on tech, and so it makes sense that those at the top of the firm are tech savvy and this filters down.”

Another slightly more jaded character adds: “Behind many other industries, but better than average relative to other law firms”.

Doubtless it helps that OC counts among its clients Facebook and Amazon, which the firm has been able to get particularly close to via its Silicon Valley office. In particular, it has gone further than most in the legal profession to import less formal technology company working practices into its culture. The firm’s partners are famously down-to-earth and sit among junior lawyers in the firm’s totally open plan layout.

Read Osborne Clarke’s full firm profile, including The Legal Cheek View and Insider Scorecard.

Pinsent Masons

Pinsent Masons has been dabbling in AI for years, and as such now finds itself in the enviable position of being able to build its own software in-house rather than partner with lawtech start-ups in a bid to get new technology going within the business.

Pulling the strings are the firm’s director of knowledge and innovation delivery, David Halliwell, and its head of research and development, Orlando Conetta. The duo were instrumental in the creation and roll out of ‘TermFrame’, an AI-derived tool to “extract, review and analyse key contract risks, and provide actionable risk reports” for the firm’s lawyers and clients.

This cutting edge software hasn’t yet reached all of Pinsents’ trainees and junior lawyers on the frontline, although one rookie did quip to us that “I’m constantly worried I’ll be replaced by some Skynet-AI initiative”. Instead, the most obvious way the firm’s tech savvy manifests itself is in the wider “encouragement and support [given] from all corners to work in a more tech savvy way”.

At this stage, technology “lives within pockets of the business”, another insider tells Legal Cheek, with AI initiatives still “having a way to go”. However, there is an expectation that it will spread quickly as “the buy in from the key stakeholders is there”. In the meantime, Pinsents’ juniors are grateful for small mercies, such as partners printing their own documents (not always the case at law firms), “which is great so the trainees don’t just have their superior’s printing to do”.

They are also crossing their fingers that the unloved standard issue Windows mobile phones will be upgraded to “a more user-friendly device”.

Read Pinsent Masons’ full firm profile, including The Legal Cheek View and Insider Scorecard.

Reed Smith

Reed Smith became one of the earlier movers on AI when it launched a pilot last year with lawtech start-up RAVN. Applying the company’s ‘Applied Cognitive Engine’ to its real estate team’s database of leases, the firm was able speed up the sifting process to identify relevant information. Reed Smith has since revealed plans to roll out AI more widely across the firm.

As part of this strategy it has brought in an innovation manager — Alex Smith joined a year ago from LexisNexis where he had been a senior product developer — and set up an innovation hub at the top of its Broadgate Tower office.

Reed Smith’s Innovation Hub on the 33rd floor of the Broadgate Tower in London

Insiders tell us that “lots of innovation is happening”, although concrete examples of their work with new AI systems is harder to find — probably because the legal profession’s use of such software remains at an early stage. What’s clear is that there is an organisation-wide push to think about the future in a constructive way. Trainees report that they are encouraged to attend frequent sessions designed to encourage them to elicit suggestions for more efficient ways of working. In this area, not yet being “set in your ways” is refreshingly seen as a plus.

Read Reed Smith’s full firm profile, including The Legal Cheek View and Insider Scorecard.

Taylor Wessing

Taylor Wessing’s closeness to the tech scene is such that since 2011 it has been operating in addition to its London HQ a small office out of the Second Home workspace in Shoreditch, East London, while its Cambridge office has seen the firm develop close ties with top academics specialising in legal tech research. It’s no surprise, then, that the firm has been at the forefront of trialling some of the new AI software that has hit the market over the last year. Among others, Taylor Wessing is working with Brainspace, a machine learning platform, for UK litigation analysis. The firm has also been developing its own AI products internally through its ‘TW: navigate’ programme.

What has all this meant for trainees? Well, for one thing, a high proportion of quality work, with the firm’s A* in tech in the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2017-18 matched by its A* for quality of work. That’s not to say that the firm’s rookies don’t do some grunt work (work “varies seat to seat”, we are told, with admin tasks far from a thing of the past). But the direct trainee opportunities afforded by the firm’s engagement with the tech space — such as advising start-ups at Second Home and potentially gaining useful future clients in the process — has helped foster optimism about Taylor Wessing’s positioning at a time of change for the legal profession.

As one on-message trainee told us: “Tech is a big driver for the company moving forward.”

Read Taylor Wessing’s full firm profile, including The Legal Cheek View and Insider Scorecard.

How firms outside the top ten scored for tech in the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey

Firms listed in alphabetical order

Looking beyond the ten firms which scored A*s, a further ten scored As, 20 got a B, 19 were graded C and two managed a lowly D.

A

Addleshaw Goddard, Berwin Leighton Paisner, Clifford Chance, Hogan Lovells, Ince & Co, Kirkland & Ellis, Latham & Watkins, Mills & Reeve, Mishcon de Reya, RPC.

B

Baker McKenzie, Bond Dickinson, Burges Salmon, CMS, DAC Beachcroft, Dentons, Eversheds Sutherland, Fieldfisher, Forsters, Herbert Smith Freehills, Howard Kennedy, Norton Rose Fulbright, PwC, Ropes & Gray, Simmons & Simmons, Slaughter and May, Squire Patton Boggs, Trowers & Hamlins, Watson Farley & Williams, White & Case.

C

Ashurst, Browne Jacobson, Charles Russell Speechlys, Clyde & Co, Dechert, DLA Piper, Freshfields, Hill Dickinson, Irwin Mitchell, Jones Day, K&L Gates, Macfarlanes, Mayer Brown, Shearman & Sterling, Shoosmiths, TLT, Travers Smith, Walker Morris, Withers.

D

Stephenson Harwood, Weil Gotshal & Manges

Peruse all of the firm’s new 2017-18 survey scorecards — including training, quality of work, tech and much more — via the Legal Cheek Firms Most List 2017-18.

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9 Comments

Harry

This is really useful research thank you

Tech is law firms is something students feel pushed to research/understand mainly for interviews and group exercises/ but I wonder how many actually understand the topic

Anonymous

“I have been asked to do such basic tasks that I’ve been unsure if they’re joking.”

Here lies the problem: millennials and their sense of entitlement. Lower their expectations and wages, and you have the solution to law firms’ profitability problem.

Anonymous

While firms are paying up to £50,000 to those fresh out of university, and trotting out their talks at universities about how ground breaking and cutting edge their work is, it’s not surprising that some graduates are disappointed with the reality.

Some millennials do need to lower their expectation, but firms also need to be more realistic in the information they give out.

Anonymous

I.T. Investment tends to be in the bulk volume work and fraud. The rest is minimal in terms of helping fee earners outside of these areas.

Trainee

We have great technology. Yesterday when I dropped off at my desk after my standard 36 hour shift my supervisor used an electric cattle prod on me instead of a cane.

Anonymous

You lucky, lucky fellow…!

Anonymous

Why do I still have to complete monthly MI on all my files using different systems when my firm has “invested” so much in I.T.?

Anonymous

because your firm bought piecemeal software over the years. First came payroll admin system from the ADP contract. Then the travel management from the Thomas Cook contract. Then the medical reimbursements from the Insurance contract.

Then your firm merged with another that had the other systems. And you both merged with a third firm.

Now you need to keep financial data for a few years and audit data for 10 years and so you cant just toss everything out and start a fresh. So to bring in a one-stop-shop solution you’ll need an ERM (sap etc) software, an integration consultancy (IBM, infosys etc) and it’ll take a year or two and more money than your firm spends on Partner salaries.

So they bite the bullet….and let you work a few extra hours each week doing mindless data entry

Anonymous

Wonder how bad the fallout will be on all of this when Bitcoin inevitably crashes a few months from now. AI world full of the same charlatans flogging ICOs and ‘blockchain’ software. This won’t end well.

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