Ashurst Advance is emblematic of the direction of travel in the legal sector. While Ashurst can trace its roots back to 1822, the Advance group, which started about six years ago and now numbers 160 people, is in the words of its head, Chris Georgiou, a ‘giant transformation engine’ which is there ‘to drive change in the delivery of legal services’.
Artificial Lawyer caught up with Georgiou and Tara Waters, who is the head of Ashurst Advance Digital, (both pictured above), to find out some more.
First, anyone hearing the brand name will figure it’s got something to do with innovation, but what does Advance actually do? How does the input of its dozens of staff have an impact on the firm and the clients?
Let’s start at the beginning. As Georgiou explained: ‘It was probably born out of the financial crisis (of 2008/9) in some ways. We saw pressure from the banks and other clients to reduce the cost of legal services. There was also some pressure to move away from hourly rates. There was pressure to drive innovation.’
As he put it, they started from humble beginnings and about six years ago really got going. Now they have five main bases: London and Glasgow in the UK, and Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane in Australia. With Glasgow and Brisbane as the main hubs.
Artificial Lawyer noted that few people in the legal market would perhaps know that Brisbane, better known for its beaches and surfing, is a key centre for the future of legal innovation at one of the UK’s oldest and largest law firms. But, it’s another sign of how things have evolved in the last few years.
Georgiou added that Advance is not just some sort of ephemeral department that has a brand name stuck on top of roles people do in other departments. Advance is formally a division of the firm and has a seat on the executive committee of the 1,600-lawyer, £644m ($885m) revenue business.
It has five main pillars that cover: delivery, digital, legal managed services, legal ops consulting, and flexible resourcing. In short, many of the key aspects of modern legal services.
Georgiou noted that what has changed over these six years is the growing importance of the digital capability of the group. And that is indicative of where the whole market is heading, i.e. legal tech is enmeshing itself more and more deeply with new delivery models, while ‘NewLaw’ groups – or what this site would call legal process businesses – are realising they cannot really deliver what they want in terms of efficiency without embracing tech tools that improve the production of legal work and/or help to solve legal needs.
That digital aspect may take shape in terms of experimenting with and implementing new tech inside the firm, or helping a client to onboard a new system for doc creation as part of a legal ops project, or perhaps creating your own tech product and selling it to the clients.
Or, as Georgiou put it: ‘What has changed is the rise of digital and the significance of that inside the NewLaw offering. That aspect is making the most impact and will define the offering in the future.’
This is where Waters, head of Ashurst Advance Digital, comes in, although she immediately mentions Tae Royle, who leads the Ashurst Advance Digital team in Australia and Asia, and ‘was there from the start for Digital’.
‘I Hate The Term Legal Tech’
Then she added: ‘I hate the term ‘legal tech’.’
Why? Her point is that what they are doing is so much more than just about technology, and the results they are looking to achieve are integrated with multiple other aspects. So, just focusing on the tech bit is missing the point. And this is clearly brought out by Advance’s strategic outlook.
‘I want to stop talking about tech. We are already digitally enabled,’ she explained. ‘Tech is seen as a blocker, because of things like security.’
‘We need to get to the point where we are not talking about tech anymore, where we do not see tech working. We instead have real transformation and it’s just part of the DNA of the firm,’ she said.
I.e. the vision is that tech is doing a lot, but it’s totally integrated into everything the firm does and how services are delivered.
One might say that this a learning from the book of the late, great Steve Jobs, whose view was that the experience of technology should be so seamless that you just use it without thinking about it. If you really notice it, if it really sticks out, and using it is an unusual experience, then you’ve failed.
Waters is however ambitious about what can be achieved in the legal sector. ‘One of the reasons I still work at a law firm is because the potential for a Moon Shot [ in terms of transformation ] is there,’ she explained.
‘Some have written off lawyers, but with the right people and leadership it is possible to change things. In five to ten years we will see how far we have come,’ she added and underlined her sense of camaraderie with fellow travellers on the innovation journey: ‘Us and the other law firms, we are all rooting for each other.’
This is inspiring stuff. But, what about the tangibles? Waters provides the example of building their own tools for the use of clients. One tool they have built is to help with clients’ ESG needs – a growing area that she and Georgiou stressed was of genuine concern to the clients and needed addressing.
‘ESG is a puzzle of regulations and it hits clients in different ways. It’s a big problem and they need to be able to extract operational data to be transparent,’ Waters explained.
She noted that before they can add in the legal advice layer from the firm they need to find data related to ESG issues and then ‘pull it out in a useable form’. This also opens the door to consulting input from Advance.
Waters noted that this is exactly where Advance can help. It’s a complex, data-rich challenge, that combines tech solutions, legal advice and experience in legal ops.
‘ESG is top of the list for clients at the moment, and they just want us to take away the problem,’ she added.
For the ESG tool as it stands at the moment they are using no-code automation system BRYTER and also HighQ, along with other tech, she added.
At this point we get into the subject of new delivery models having a sense of belonging to a specific firm. For decades there has been the idea that law firm X has a special way of doing things – and that’s what you are paying for. But, can that apply to something like Advance?
They say: yes.
‘We want to make an Ashurst Advance experience for the clients. We want to assemble things in ways that are unique to us,’ Waters said.
Georgiou added: ‘It’s all about the client experience. That is where you can compete. You are creating a much more beneficial experience for the client and that is where you put your personality [as a firm].’
And this is a really interesting point. We accept that certain firms have special ways of approaching legal advisory challenges, and that is what gives them their premium value to the clients. But….the legal delivery in itself…? Why not that as well?
I.e. law firms will be competing not just on the proprietary capabilities and know-how of the legal advisory teams, but on the way services are delivered – and that stretches across all of Advance’s domains, from digital to legal ops.
The hope then is that clients start to say: ‘I will use X law firm instead of Y law firm, not just because the legal advice may be better, but because the overall experience of how they deliver services, and the associated digital services that are useful to us, are so good and so much more easy to use, that it’s worth making the switch.’
In short, groups such as Ashurst Advance really might change the calculus of a law firm’s value in the eyes of the clients. And that’s a good point to end on.
We talked about plenty more, and Artificial Lawyer will come back to a couple of other subjects in a second article.
Legal Innovators Conference – October 21 and 22 in London
If you found this subject of interest, then come along to the Legal Innovators conference on October 21 and 22 in London. Ashurst Advance will be taking part, and so too will many others who are also working on the transformation of the legal sector.
You can get your tickets here. See you there!