Stuart Whittle on Law Firm Innovation Without Any Promises

Stuart Whittle is a partner and Director of Innovation at Top 50 UK law firm, Weightmans. He takes an unapologetically pragmatic approach to his work.

‘At the moment we have 40 or 50 ideas at various stages of development. Probably 10% of those will get to a point of being used,’ he told Artificial Lawyer.

For Whittle, the reality of trying to improve the delivery of legal services is that it is always a study in trial and error, in testing, and being very open about what works and what doesn’t.

‘We have a budget for innovation, but I tell the [firm’s management] Board that I cannot say anything will come out the other end,’ he said. And kudos to the firm’s leadership for accepting that.

Whittle is also frank about what kind of resources they have at the firm to do this. He notes that investment in innovation projects, R&D and PoCs amount to less than 1% of turnover – although Weightmans is in good company here, given that this is normal for the industry, and one could argue that the firm, which is based in Liverpool, probably does more innovation work than some others.

They have a team of around seven people who work on these projects, which is a mix of lawyers and legal engineers, in what is a firm of over 1,300 staff in total. But, again, this kind of ratio is par the course in the commercial legal sector.

So, what do they actually do? A large part of the job is helping to test out ideas that filter up from the lawyers, and sometimes ideas that are shaped by input from the clients.

‘We do PoCs and tests to see if we can help the owner of that idea. We try and see if there is a business case for it,’ he explained.

In terms of what kinds of projects turn into products, Whittle said this: ‘It’s a real mix. [In insurance] we have a niche product that deals with credit hire valuations for our Motor department, and we have a catastrophic loss predictive analytics product (link).

‘[And] then similarly across our Litigation, Transaction and Advisory division we have a solution that automates file opening in MatterSphere in conjunction with Kira Systems; to an employment application for a large corporate, which has a large number of managers that we are rolling it out to.’

So, new products are seeing the light of day across the firm, in insurance, in transactional work, and for employment, and both for internal use and directly for client use.

But, Whittle reiterates, although there are many things happening, ‘a relatively small fraction of ideas actually get to something we have: a) built, and in turn b) are used by clients or internally’.

In short, there are no promises that anyone’s bright idea for a new tech-based capability in the firm will become reality, whether this has emanated from the grassroots of the business, or been suggested directly or indirectly by a client.

And this makes sense. We’ve gone from a commercial legal sector where the idea of lawyers making regular suggestions about innovation was rare, to firms now having almost too many potential projects to manage.

For Weightmans the way they solve this triaging challenge is to ask one very straightforward question: what is the business case? I.e. given the cost and human resources needed to make this idea come to operational life – and then maintain it – is it actually going to materially help the business, and by such a margin of improvement that it’s worth following through with?

The key point here is that the firm is very open to experimentation and putting money into studies and PoCs. It is serious about that, as otherwise it wouldn’t have a whole team’s worth of staff – several of whom are not fee earners – working on this stuff.

But, at the same time, there is a cut-off point to the experiments. They have to show a real chance of delivering. If not, then it’s bye-bye. The ideas that do make it all the way through to real world use have been shown to add real value.

This then leads to the next question. Once these new ideas have become part of the firm, perhaps in the shape of a new product, whether homemade, or based around the tech of a vendor, who owns it? Who is responsible for its ongoing operation?

‘This is quite new for us and is an education piece, but the person who owns the product is, essentially, the person who has the idea and has a vested interest in getting the product used either internally or by clients.

‘Our experience is that if we don’t have that, the ideas tend to languish and go nowhere. Many years ago someone told me that in law firms if it isn’t someone’s job, it doesn’t get done and this holds true for product ownership,’ Whittle explained.

He added that they have also started now to hire product managers who will work with the designated product owner. But that is a more recent development.

Where is all of this headed? Whittle described a world where clients are increasingly up to speed on the use of tech to improve delivery. In fact, for some of the firm’s larger clients – which includes plenty of businesses in the insurance sector – part of any engagement is to provide ‘added value’.

In the past, for many law firms ‘added value’ used to mainly mean handing over a couple of your junior associates for free to a client to help them carry the inhouse work burden. It was a way of creating lasting bonds, so firms did it – and still do.

Whittle explained that now added value meant much more, it meant providing tech-based solutions that were outlined in written agreements with clients that can show, month by month, how Weightmans is helping in that area of need.

It can also mean providing training to the inhouse legal team on tech-related issues. In short, the tech and innovation part of the firm is not just an area of experimentation, or even just product development, it’s becoming a key part of the way that the firm wins client tenders. In short, how it keeps making money.

And that leads Artificial Lawyer to ask: do the clients fully understand the questions they are asking these days about tech? In the past one complaint from some law firms was that they were being asked about tech issues in ways that suggested that whoever wrote the RFP didn’t really know what they were looking for.

Whittle affirms that yes, their clients certainly do know what they are looking for. They are asking tough questions on ‘can we do it cheaper, faster, more consistently’, he noted, and then added: ‘That’s to be expected.’

To conclude, the clients are more aware, more informed. And their expectations are changing. In turn this drives forward innovation inside law firms across the market. And that then helps to broaden understanding even more among the clients about what is possible….and so it goes. It’s a virtuous circle that is growing each year.

But, to make sure this increasingly charged feedback loop doesn’t spiral out of control you still need an approach that makes sure your innovation output operates in the real world and provides business value. So it’s back to the beginning: innovation, but without any promises, and that is how Whittle is doing this essential work.