The return of the hooded claw

29 03 2010

At an LPO conference last week, a fairly routine question came from the audience about data security concerns. What was more interesting was the reply from the LPO provider. The speaker was a former partner at a major US firm, and went on a (good natured) rant about how secure the offshore operations were when compared to the extremely lax information security regime in his former law firm, and how to compare the two was laughable.

Client data: where is it safest?

Thinking about this, one of the fundamental differences between the way the two organisations (a law firm and an outsourcing provider) deal with security seems to me to be the extremely high level of trust within the law firm environment. In many firms there are very limited physical and logical controls on access to client information, especially when compared to the much more rigorous environments in offshore data and process centres. Most lawyers can dip onto the system and pull up documents on the firm’s clients without any questions being raised. There are no checks to see what staff are taking home in their bags in the evening, and pretty limited controls on what can be accessed and copied in the office. While law firms are often paranoid about data security in terms of third parties getting in to their network, internal controls are not implemented to the same levels. In the information security world, the model could be described as “crunchy on the outside, soft in the middle”.

The interesting thing about this, is that by and large, the model has worked pretty well to date. Security breaches are few and far between, and much of this can be attributed to the integrity and professionalism of the lawyers. Precedent documents often follow lawyers from firm to firm, the odd email goes astray and perhaps conversations are overheard on a train, but nothing major has hit the headlines. That said, I do still believe that information security is an issue law firms need to take seriously, and while the lawyers may resist more stringent internal controls, the inconvenience these processes may cause far outweighs the damage a serious information security breach could cause.

During my time in private practice, information security was an area of particular interest. As part of my practice, I qualified as a BS7799 (now ISO 27001) information security auditor. Afterwards I went through a campaign educating my colleagues on the importance of information security by sending emails from their unattended PCs to my email account, with some spurious content (for example, “Mark, I promise to make you a cup of tea every morning for the next month”) , and signed by “the hooded claw”. As the weeks rolled by, my “education campaign” began to wane, but my colleagues were much more careful about locking their screens when away from their desk.

So, beware the hooded claw. If you are thinking of sending data offshore, rigorous due diligence on security is absolutely critical, but it might also be worth considering how secure your data is onshore too.

Could it be magic?

24 03 2010

A short post today departing from my usual ramblings, but I couldn’t help but share my delight with the latest version of Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software. As Snoop Dog might say, it’s the shiznit! When I entered the profession back in ’97, the majority of senior lawyers I worked with were never far from their hand held dictaphones, and most viewed a keyboard with suspicion (and having seen some of them prod at the keyboard with glacial speed, I understood why!).

Hunter peckers your time is up

Being relatively keyboard literate, I never bothered much with the whole dictating to a secretary approach, preferring to take control of my own documents. Speech recognition software was beginning to raise its head above the parapet, but it probably wasn’t until around the year 2000 when I first got to use Dragon. It wasn’t great, and required a lot of training to get any sort of accuracy, but I did persist with it, using it mainly for those really long attendance notes of meetings (as a junior outsourcing and technology lawyer, I’d often join 12+ hour negotiation meetings).  As I moved firms and then went in-house, I  probably had a gap of two or three years before I used Dragon again (around 2006), and found it had improved slightly in that it needed less training, but had a similar level of accuracy. I used it sporadically until around 2008 when I moved into a commercial role.

Fate then dropped the latest version (v10.1) on my doormat this week, as part of the Amazon Vine program (where Amazon send stuff to prolific customers to review) and I have be absolutely blown away by how good it is. It requires virtually no training, and the level of accuracy is incredible. I’ve used it for meeting notes and parts of a business plan so far, and it’s just brilliant. Now my experience may not be typical in that I had pretty realistic expectations and also I know how to dictate clearly, but at the same time, for anybody who does a lot of typing, it must be worth a go.

I’m not sure what exactly they’ve done to the little elves in the PC who hear the words and then type them onto the screen for me, but whatever it is, it’s worked!

That’s a really, er, interesting idea……

16 03 2010

Product development remains a concept that’s alien to many law firms. Firstly, the idea of highly tailored legal services being associated with something as, well, crude, as a “product” is just plain wrong. Secondly, the firms just deliver what the clients want, so that’s really a type of product development, right? Unfortunately there’s a world of difference between this approach, and actually spotting a market need, creating a service to meet that need, testing it, pricing it, crafting and communicating a value proposition, and then (horror of horrors) actually proactively selling it.

I thought the lightbulb was supposed to go on when we have a good idea?

Don’t get me wrong, some firms are very good at this, but they are still in the minority. When the credit crunch rolled round, most of my in-house peers knew that a restructuring was on the cards (and once the depth of the recession became clear, it was often a fairly severe one that was required). This often involved external counsel for specialist advice, and particularly support for the HR teams. Why, I wondered to myself, hasn’t a firm packaged up a nice, client friendly offer to help with this? Something a little different from hourly rate employment advice; maybe a slicker process, maybe different presentation, maybe a faster resolution, maybe priced more attractively; ideally all with proof points of the value that was captured, nicely wrapped up, and differentiated from the competition. But nobody did.

The next challenges for law firms that do “get” product development, is to keep the process client focussed. It’s all too tempting to base the service ideas on what the lawyers think the clients need, rather than what they actually need. Most clients love to talk about their business, and using those lawyerly skill investigating business problems rather than legal ones (when the clock is ticking) is, in my experience, always time well spent. A great read on this subject is Tuned-in by Stull Myers and Scott, and explains why it’s easy not to keep the client at the forefront of the product development process (and how to remedy that).

Finally, the last little nugget to chew over (watch your teeth), is the fact that good product development requires innovation, and I believe personally that the flip side of this is that it will involve failure, something lawyers generally don’t like to talk about. I don’t necessarily advocate the “fail big, fail often” approach of some innovation gurus, but I do think it’s important not to be scared to experiment, and to learn the lessons when failure does raise its poorly groomed head.

Test your lawyer with a moment of truth

11 03 2010

In the commercial world, cries of distress can often be heard. From corporate counsel, from HR directors, from CEOs. Every now and then, a big, bad and most of all URGENT problem arises. Maybe it’s a really important client contract going wrong, and somebody mentioned litigation. Maybe the IT team have found porn on the MD’s laptop. Maybe news of a top secret M&A deal has leaked and reached the market. Maybe one of the senior management team has been detained at an airport overseas for political reasons.

Sometimes when you need a lawyer, you REALLY need a lawyer

These are the moments of truth for law firms. When reputations, jobs and companies are on the line, this is the time to perform. And perform well. These moments can cement a relationship like no other. A law firm can spend a fortune wining and dining to impress clients and make them feel special, but if they don’t perform when it counts, then it’s money down the proverbial drain (which in the current climate is not a smart move). For the law firms that major on relationship management, even the strongest relationships  can be harmed in these situations. On the flip side, get it right, and I won’t say you have a client for life, but you will have made a major deposit in the trust bank account.

The challenge with these situations is that they might in some way be outside the usual scope of the relationship. It maybe a different work type, a different person in the client organisation calling, an unusual time or simply a bigger piece of work than usual. The question the law firm has to answer, is whether their operational model can deal with these requests effectively.

Often it’s not the legal advice that is difficult. If the call comes in out of hours, will it reach the right person in time? If it needs a different skill set, can the account partner get the internal resources allocated in time? If the firm needs external support (a forensic accountant for example), does the law firm have the relationships in place. If the key contact person is tied up, can the incoming message be effectively prioritised by someone else in the firm. If matters need escalating (either within the firm or within the client) can the law firm facilitate this?

Scenario planning is used often in the strategy departments of companies to ask the question “what happens if”, and to start analysing the implications of different scenarios on current plans. While a full scale planning exercise may not be necessary, asking the question “what happens if” and then discussing possible outcomes within the firm and indeed with clients can be helpful for lawyers. It’s a skill lawyers are good at, and a question they often ask clients when advising, but one that’s not often applied to day to day activity.

To finish on a positive note, the law firms I used during my time in-house did step up to the plate, and that’s one of the key reasons why I continue to recommend them long after I last instructed them.

The joy of simplicity

1 03 2010

Looking back over my last few posts, I’ve noticed a worrying theme. They are getting longer. To me, that’s not a good sign. From my early days as a lawyer, I was always a fan of eliminating complexity. Wherever possible, I liked to draft documents in “plain English”, and read a number of books alongside the practical learning I was doing in my day to day work. That said, I always thought there was more scope for the profession as a whole to make our output more accessible (which doesn’t mean dumbing down).

Simplicity; does your drafting look like this?

Moving in-house, the need for simplicity became  more apparent. Seeing the legal process first hand as a relatively small (but important!) cog in the overall commercial picture (whether client contracts, M&A or employment law), the various professionals working with lawyers want their support fast. If clients, whether internal or external, have to go back to their advisor and clarify the advice, this adds a delay into the process as well as reducing client satisfaction.

Simplicity is not limited to the content of the advice either. The presentation of the content can also be over-engineered. Documents with definitions scattered all over the place, random attachments, horrendous fonts and formatting; these all make the advice more complex than it needs to be.

The challenge of course, is that sometimes, complexity is easier for the lawyer. For example, starting drafting with a favourite document that has a style favoured by another client, and then focusing on the changes to the content rather than the overall output and client experience. Another common time-saver (that often happens unconsciously) is using a particular style of drafting because it is easier for the lawyer (who may have been using it for years)  and requires less thought than drafting in language that will delight (yes delight) the client.

The challenge is compounded, because lawyers are often very precious about their drafting (hands up, I fall into this category) and making suggestions for improvement to anyone other than a very junior lawyer are about as welcome as suggestions to improve dress sense or love-making technique.

So, taking my own advice I’ll stop there and keep it simple.  For those of you interested in the presentation side of this topic, the book Impact by Jon Moon is well worth a read.