Peter Birley, IT Director, Browne Jacobson

Date: 09 Mar 2007


Peter Birley has had a varied career.Starting as an IT Director in the London insurance market he moved into consultancy; did some interim management for StorageTek and later specialised in project management. Hisproject management roles spanned Northern Europe but also international companies before he moved into legal in 2003, joining Eversheds.

Eversheds were striking out on their own with innovative tech’ projects at the time and had decided to get more into project management than IT, so developed ‘project manager’ as a new role which Peter says was perfect for him. He was also made account manager for the real estate team, tasked to be a bridge between property partners and the tech department.

Born in Nottingham, Peter spent many years based in the South of England and London but when a job came up with Browne Jacobson, he thought it was an ideal opportunity to head back to the Midlands. Peter says “I also thought it would get me into IT again and I liked the idea of running my own show.”

Having only been in legal IT a relatively short time, Peter says the big change was moving from a hierarchy of two or three people to a partnership. Although he reports to the managing partner, he effectively took on sixty bosses and personalities overnight. Peter comments “it prove to be difficult at the start. I could see what the problems were and see the way forward but at the end of the day I was just some ‘new guy’. I had to prove myself to bring everyone on side. They had to believe that what I was saying was going to be right for the partnership and not a waste of money or resources.”

In order to gather support he decided to put a three year strategy down on paper. This involved looking at all the departmental business plans and technology wish-lists. He put this in a pot with what the business wanted to achieve; where it was at the time and planned a map of people and systems that
could help them achieve everything. Although this sounds relatively simple, it took Peter six months of hard graft to get everything properly documented. He then had to cost it and align the plan to the business.

Peter says “We’d had a shadow partner who was responsible for working with the IT Director in the past. We changed that concept and came up with an advisory committee which moved responsibility over to one partner in each of our four divisions. This gave partners with individual concerns more say in progress.” It also meant he and his IT staff were less involved with gathering support. Instead the individual advisory committee members took this responsibility. Peter adds “this partnership angle really helped speed up the decision making process. Top tier management in any industry respond better to information from peers.”

Peter believes that although managing technology is essentially the same in law firms as corporates, the one big difference is that one partner can halt an entire project if not happy. He says “this just wouldn’t happen in the corporate world.” Then adds “it really is about people in legal. It’s a people business and at the moment lawyers are being asked to do a lot of things they aren’t comfortable with. It’s not just about law anymore, they are having to get their heads around marketing topics as well as IT, managing staff and firms and the law.”

Of his other work at Browne Jacobson he comments “alongside this strategic IT project, we’d also been looking at business process improvement. Most law firms have generic requirements like ‘get more clients’ and ‘be more efficient’ but it isn’t always easy to know how to do that.”

Peter continues “The only way to do it in my view, was to look at what the business did and how the people were doing it. You have to work out where bottlenecks are and improve them.” Peter started a new venture to nail down the way that every process worked. He then sat down with partners to redesign processes and came up with a ‘to be’ list which showed how things would look when the changes were implemented.

Although this all sounds like a lot of work, Peter says that
business processes and getting them right is one of his real
interests. He says “We’ve been going through this review for a
while to get IT and business processes delivering efficiently. It’s not just about technology but how we did and will do things. For example one of our basic issues was with the way we
were storing documents. We had multiple ways of storing information which were like islands around a mainland.”

To sort out document storage issues Peter implemented Worksite 8 as their common DM system. He confirms “We didn’t have anything at all before this. We were using folders on servers and in their case management system which is Visualfiles solcase.” He says he of the offerings he reviewed “Interwoven Worksite 8 was the best product on the market at the time.”
Browne Jacobson is also adapting their out-of-the-box Visualfiles system with inhouse developers to bring it up to speed with the new business strategy. Peter is impressed with Visualfiles solcase as a product and said “I think its one of the best on the market.”

Another piece of software Browne Jacobson is putting in is BPM. Peter comments “we’ve gone outside of legal. I thought the legal ones were expensive but we wanted a best of breed approach. We looked at using SharePoint but in the end went with AgilePoint by Ascentn which a previous colleague recommended. I was fairly aware of BPM because at StorageTek I’d used TIBCO’s Staffware product which was one of the first really powerful work engines in the market.”

One of the initial things Browne Jacobson did was build an automated tender system. Peter comments “the marketing department were getting bottlenecks, so we’ve built the process to push some of the tendering responsibility to partners. Once this is done then we’ll start to use it for more standard processes.” Peter continues “where you have processes that you want to automate, BPM gives a lot of efficiency. Not only does it move work around but it’s intelligent. You can tell if a member of staff isn’t in, if so the system will move the document to another partner for approval. You can also alert people if something hasn’t happened.” Peter is using Ashton Court consultants to plug the BPM and SharePoint together who
are based in Northampton.

On Peter’s blog he talks about conferences and whether or not they add value. He says although its not a pressing issue he’s been to many where there may be a subject of interest like SharePoint or ITIL and just ended up frustrated with the information on offer. He comments “If I attend a conference I have expectations or need guidance and pointers but I’ve found
little hands on knowledge is available.”

Peter recently attended and was a speaker at Lex2007 in the UK which had two streams, one on technology and one on business. He says the technology side was average (apart from his own
speech of course) but he really enjoyed the business sessions which gave him a real insight into making lawyers more productive. He says “Alan Hodgart, who has been in legal for some years, offered interesting perspective on the lawyers.”
Then adds ” I agreed with his comments that you need to shadow partners to really understand how they work.”

For Browne Jacobson the bit of software that is really ticking the box this year is SharePoint, 2007. Peter says “benefits are its going to be the single view window feeding in multiple pieces of information and for customers some exciting new extranets.” He also confirms that they are putting in business intelligence software called RS Interact which has a web view for lawyers to compare and contrast performance.

I wonder about our illustrious friend CRM? Peter comments “we use Interface Interaction which we bought from ResSoft which later became Tikit. We are also looking at Blackberry capability for this which we we’ve got with Interwoven. Fee
earners have fed back to us that they want to bill on the Blackberry, see customer information and update it when they are out and about. We’ve also recently bought Interface ReAction Server from Tikit for mail shots.

As to how marketing and IT get on, Peter says at Browne Jacobson it is a very happy ship. He says “we get on really well. Sarah Hornsby our Marketing Director came from Boots and has proven to be a real star.” He says the head of finance, HR and managing partner also get on well and talk regularly. On the practice management side Browne Jacobson have an older system called FirmWare which Peter says has six years of data in it, indicating it would be some work to upgrade. He says “this isn’t something I plan to change.”

Another piece of software Browne Jacobson is using is something from Whale communications which got bought out by Microsoft in July ’06. Peter comments “That’s gone very well for us for work life balance. It helps lawyers get home to see their families and then logon and finish off work off there, rather than in the office.”

And KM? Peter comments “It isn’t something that excites us as a firm, perhaps to do with our size.” Things that Peter ighlights that will become important for them are “more process orientated software and better ways of communicating with clients.” He also says that ‘push technology’ is an area of
interest. “We are looking at ideas like having our Browne Jacobson button as an update on a client PC so that we can just
fire information over for the user to review when it suits them.” He also thinks instant messaging, VOIP and one to one video conferencing will become more prevalent even if they don’t take over existing ways of working entirely.

I ask about social media and whether wiki’s and blogs are going to move up the demand chart in law firms. Peter says “on my blog a chap mentioned ‘unconferences’ as a way forward. It’s a
format where content is driven by participants. Which is interesting but I think these ideas are unstructured at the
moment and also stop people meeting in person. I suspect it will hold social media back but am sure there will be more
development over time.”

Peter only attends two or three conferences a year and says “I’m very selective but I have been up to the UK conference
Gleneagles”. He isn’t a fan of the popular format that forces IT Directors to sit in front of vendors because he says he often just isn’t interested in what is being sold.

I ask about his dealings with vendors and first ask about using US vendors and whether this is ever problematic. Peter thinks
then says “US vendors are fine with a UK partner but there is a risk if the partner hasn’t fully understood the concept because it means going back and forward with the US.”

He says the worse things with vendors generally are the cold calls commenting “all my staff get inundated and it’s pointless, we just don’t work from cold calls.” He explains “Once we have a requirement we look at suppliers and identify the best of breed companies and approach them. What’s worse is vendors sometimes lie and say they’ve spoken to us when they haven’t. We even had one guy who tried to bully the managing
partner’s secretary into a meeting, suggesting that it was just confirming meeting details. It got referred back to us and we dealt with it.”

Peter does balance this saying “I understand that we need to be aware of new products but we can get this information from shows or by reading the press. Legal isn’t cutting edge so we
aren’t going to miss anything vital.” Peter says Browne Jacobson tend to get twenty to fifty calls a week and they’ve even started coming in from India now. He says “one Indian company was trying to sell us outsourced litigation services.
You tend to get numb to it and I often dread picking up the phone if I can’t see caller identity because it’s not in my nature to be rude.” I ask who the main offenders are and Peter
suggests its back-up and email archive solutions, security companies and general IT companies who want them to buy PC’s.

On a lighter note, Peter has a lot of time for Peter Owen at
Lights-On Consulting who he worked with at Eversheds. He also respects Derek Southall at Wragge & Co and Jeffery Ng at
Beachcrofts. He says he’s shared some similarities with
Jeffery that have proven useful. He has good words for Geoff Hornsby, Sales Director at interwoven and Gareth Thomas, BD
Manager at Tikit. Before finishing off the interview he tips us off on the Gartner legal 100 briefing for top 100 IT Directors coming up next week and also on IBDG a strategy group who hold high level management conferences.

The Gartner day is being held on the thirteenth of March in Richmond and will include discussions on technology, law and networking. Although Peter comments “I’m not entirely sure
Gartner is for us, subscriptions are pretty expensive.” He does add though “but we don’t want to be an island and do need to find out what’s happening in the industry.”

And as to Citywealth legaltech favourite articles “I liked
‘Ladies in legal technology and tried to get my staff here to contribute but they were too shy.”

Browne Jacobson have approximately five hundred staff and turn over thirty million and are placed mid way on the profits per partner charts. The IT spend is 4-5 % of revenue but Peter says
this depends on developments. He comments “Benchmarking at LITIG put us as an average spend with other law firm variables ranging from 3-6%.”

Peter is a member of the LITIG group which talks about legal IT issues. He says of the industry “it’s quite refreshing in legal that although we are all competitors we can share concerns, issues and thoughts. It’s a good group although we sometimes struggle with time commitments to get as many initiatives as we
want underway.” LITIG costs ¬£500 to join.

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