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Workplace Technology - from vision to reality
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Technology, change and the future legal workplace

In an increasingly competitive landscape, the legal sector is on the precipice of a brave new world.

Legal practices are looking to create engaging and innovative working environments to attract the next generation of talent and fuel future growth. Thus, in a sector famed for its professionalism, stability and consistency of approach, the challenge of embracing change is fast becoming the order of the day. Many firms recognise that change is around the corner, but are in the throes of agonising over what form this change will take and what tools and technologies and working practices will fuel this transformation.

What is driving this state of flux?

To begin with, the commercial real estate marketplace has become much more expensive, especially in city centres like London.  

Steve Jarvis, Commercial Director at Cordless Consultants explains: “Legal firms in particular are now facing significant financial forces and global competitive pressures, meaning that running prime legal space at sub 50% occupancy is no longer a viable option in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Outcome or fixed price based billings further exacerbate the need for legal teams to find new ways of leveraging resource within the practice, working in multi-disciplinary teams across the organisation to quickly deliver creative and effective outputs.”

Legal firms are also looking to keep pace with environmental changes within their clients’ businesses. The changing demographics of our workforce are bringing changes in learning styles and technological applications, and the future workplace must address these needs. Indeed the sector is realising that investment in technology in the workplace can enable law firms to deliver a superior service faster and at the lower cost now demanded, with a flexible approach.

Despite some resistance to change from the traditionalists, collaboration is now vital for law firms to remain innovative. The departments in legal firms cannot afford to sit in separate business silos with cross-interaction between the practice areas a critical part of this.

Agile working has been talked about for a long time within the legal sector, though it is only now that we are finally starting to see true agile working starting to permeate the legal community.

Nigel Miller, MD of Cordless Consultants adds: “The level of agile adoption varies between companies – for example, at the top of the agile working scale, no one in the organisation will own a desk. The general move towards more flexible and open plan working is definitely a trend that is starting to be adopted in some practices, dependent on the business culture and considering the compliance issues and concerns surrounding the security of client data in this sector.”

In a survey of the sector cited by Raconteur in November 2015, 38 per cent of respondents said their firms are already moving away from desktops towards laptop technology and 17 per cent said their firms are considering such a shift – which will significantly increase mobility within the office.

Law firms are recognising that workplace technology is a key enabler of innovation. We are seeing a clear move towards newer and more sophisticated IT and AV technologies that enhance client relationship management as well as the user and visitor experience within a workplace.

Nigel elaborates: “Room booking systems, space management, guest management, knowledge and document management are all examples of technologies Cordless Consultants is helping to implement within legal firms. Enhanced mobility and wireless technology is on the up, improving access to the network from tablets and smart devices. Unified Communications is now becoming accepted as de facto, connecting multiple systems to provide a more seamless communication experience. Video conferencing is now viewed as a primary communication method – both internally and externally.  Some practices are also ‘federating’ their Unified Communications with key clients, so that communication with key contacts can work externally with certain clients, just as it does internally.”

Simon Barnard, Senior Consultant at Cordless Consultants states:“Our legal clients recognise that the traditional modes of working need to change and new communication technologies are seen as a key enabler of such change. Yes, Video Conferencing and Unified Communications are going to make it easier to communicate with people, whilst the use of touch screen devices for marking up documents is going to become default. Digital and mobile technologies will improve the user experience. However, this transformation goes much deeper than the technologies deployed. Successful change relies on addressing the cultural elements, working practices and behaviours in the workplace.”

Another interesting trend to watch in this sector is the commoditisation of the legal process – driving the adoption of off-shore resources, (ro)bots and artificial intelligence technologies. With the advent of big data, data itself is becoming smarter, helping to automate legal search. Sorting electronically through documents, e-mails and other material can save significant lawyer time, also reducing the amount of face-to-face client time required in the legal process.

Are legal firms generally looking to save space in the workplace?

Looking at the utilisation of costly floor space in the workplace, the debate on the use of office space is a hot topic.

To save space, law firms have traditionally focused on moving back office functions to other locations, cities or countries.  For example Allen and Overy and Herbert Smith Freehills moved back office operations to Belfast to free up prime real estate; Ashurst has made a similar move in Glasgow; whilst Linklaters moved its IT functions to Colchester.  This reduces real estate costs and leaves the primary space focused on client interaction and front of house delivery. The drawbacks however, can be that recruitment in diverse places is more challenging and the company culture can become fragmented. There can also be increased facilities management costs in managing multiple sites.

The second option is to use current space more efficiently by using activity based and flexible working.  When done well, this can be a fantastic solution in providing collaboration and can enhance the working environment of a law firm. However, careful consideration needs to be paid to confidentiality and levels of interruption / distraction - ensuring that the technology implemented fully supports its working environment. “Activity based networking is not just hot-desking” says Nigel. “It means creating the right space to do the right work, at the right time, hence being able to save space and increase the utilisation of space, saving money and improving collaboration and staff facilities.”

Steve accentuates: “Implementing new technology does not always automatically deliver benefit, there should be significant focus on driving the people and cultural side of the technology change. With a properly designed change programme to build new technology into BAU, risk of failure can be mitigated and technology ROI can be exploited.”

A third option to solve the space issue is to use a managed serviced office facility on an exclusive basis – providing a private touchdown area. This is a fast and local solution to the space issue. However, the risks to this can include the increased complexity of managing dispersed operations and maintaining clarity of corporate brand and culture.

Whilst hot desking, agile working, cloud computing, remote working, outsourcing and virtual working are often billed as solutions for the future workplace; legal firms must undertake careful consideration before adopting them as part of any workplace transformation.

Agile working requires flexible network connectivity and suitable touchdown and meeting spaces. Processes and procedures should be put in place to consider noise and confidentiality management, so that private legal matters can be dealt with accordingly.

The use of a private cloud solution can work well for security conscious legal firms and can reduce the amount of user technology on premise. The key with any cloud agreement is the Service Level Agreement that is put in place with the cloud or offsite service provider. The agreements need to be legally robust and suitable for the business.

The challenge with remote working is to integrate remote working tools comprehensively into the central system. Maintenance of contact between people within the workforce is imperative. Management by outcome and not by sight or presence is a key skill that must be developed. Isolation is a risk and without human contact, people can feel cut off, so it is important to make sure that they feel a part of the company culture and not just a brain at the end of a wire. The confidentiality and security of remote information is also a huge consideration for legal firms to make sure that they meet their duty of care to clients. By implementing suitable controls around data management, storage and handling, security concerns can be addressed.

An outsourced IT service can improve the speed and reliability of communications. This is because an external service will usually put the IT on a high bandwidth connection, so the business will not be solely reliant on the limitations of the connection into the physical workplace. The importance of getting the right Service Level Agreement in place is imperative to any outsourced contract.  Before any outsourcing is put in place, firms must make sure they have company processes and procedures well-structured and documented, so that any new outsourcing agreement can be focused on and well-aligned with company requirements.

Any organisation with dispersed or virtual operations will require careful and consistent management of technology policies – especially around BYOD. Company culture is another important area to manage – with consistent employee reward, progression and retention schemes in place.

How popular are such trends with employees?

Legal employees are becoming more accepting of trends around more open styles of working in order for their organisations to stay competitive in the current climate.

Steve comments: “With any organisation change, it is important to take people on the change journey so that they realise the benefits of change for themselves. If changes are perceived as purely cost driven, then people will see the new situation as being inferior to the previous environment, so change programmes must be implemented with the right evidence, the right sponsors and the right communication to the workforce.”

MinterEllison in Australia is an example of a progressive law firm that has put in place a modern and flexible workplace with open plan working supported by collaborative technology. The 9000m2 tenancy is running at just 1:14m2 per person.

It’s a brave new world.

In the legal sector; speed, innovation and collaboration are cornerstones of the successful delivery of competitive services. This means that the reliance on the right blend of in-house and outsourced IT and AV services is greater than ever.

Whilst legal firms will continue to remain true to their roots with a commitment to delivery of a first class output to clients, they must find ways to modernise their practices to maintain an attractive market proposition.

One thing that the savvy legal organisations are getting right is that they are looking to IT to drive their property strategy from the outset, not the other way around. The right technology approach is fundamental to success - underpinning a future-proof workplace environment. Good control of IT makes legal firms master of their own destinies – giving them the ability and flexibility to deliver and develop in line with their clients’ changing worlds. 

To talk to Cordless about technology in the future workplace say:

Date: Wed, 22 Jun 2016 11:31:44 +0100 GMT

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