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CIO interview: Dal Virdi, IT director, Shakespeare Martineau
The law firm is increasingly digitising its business and readying its infrastructure for future merger and acquisition activity
Dal Virdi, IT director at law firm Shakespeare Martineau, took an unconventional route into technology management. While some of his contemporaries spent many years striving to get into the CIO role, Virdi became technology chief at a point in his career when it seemed more likely he was going to leave the profession.
Virdi joined Shakespeare Martineau in March 2018 after leading strategy, architecture and engagement at another law firm, Irwin Mitchell. At the time, he was considering retirement, and wasn’t necessarily looking to move into another senior role. But then the opportunity at Shakespeare Martineau came along and everything changed.
“I guess I wasn’t prepared for taking it easy,” he says. “The role, initially, was in business engagement. But the interview for that position was stopped after about 10 minutes and they recognised that I was perhaps over-skilled for that engagement role. They asked me if I’d consider a different role within the firm.”
Shakespeare Martineau’s leadership team didn’t have a suitable vacancy at the time, but they felt Virdi possessed a set of skills that were right for the organisation. He eventually joined in the position of strategic solutions manager. It was an opportunity to see what Virdi offered, and vice versa.
Within three months, the board were talking about Virdi becoming IT director – and by September 2018, he was leading technology for the firm. Three years on and he’s still enjoying the unexpected test of being a CIO.
“Every day brings new challenges, so I do absolutely enjoy it,” he says. “I think the way the firm has grown, its ambitions, and the way that it tries to look after its people and encourages them to do more for the group, mean that it’s a great place to work.”
Shakespeare Martineau is a leading UK law firm, with more than 850 legal experts in offices across the country. The business has an ambitious growth strategy to more than double its size by 2025.
The past decade has seen considerable growth for the firm, which has expanded through a number of acquisitions. The size of the organisation doubled overnight when Shakespeares merged with SGH Martineau in 2015. However, the IT team at the time had not necessarily recognised the impact that this process would have on their systems and data. Virdi saw how his experience could help.
“We’ve gone from an environment that used to have quite significant outages to a service that’s gone at least 200 days without a significant outage”
Dal Virdi, Shakespeare Martineau
“The opportunity was around the fact that their IT landscape was quite backward, given the number of acquisitions they’d taken on and how they’d grown as a business,” he says. “They had a very functional IT team, but they didn’t necessarily know what other opportunities existed to help develop the firm with technology.
“I could see what was ahead of me in terms of making a difference for the firm, and being able to elevate them to where they needed to be in order to be more competitive within the market, and to lay the foundations for what they were aspiring to be moving forward.”
During his three years as technology chief, Virdi has brought a range of people into the organisation, including IT professionals he had worked with in his previous roles. He says Shakespeare Martineau retained a strong family feel, despite its growth, and the board was keen to make the changes to IT that would help the firm move in the right direction.
“Everybody was supporting each other, everybody recognised the need to do things differently and everybody wanted to improve in lots of different ways,” he says. “That family feel and supportive culture makes a real difference and I’ve loved my time at the firm.”
Stiffening the defences
As IT director, Virdi’s primary responsibilities are around the development and management of digital strategy, and technological oversight and governance for all technical solutions across the firm, including IT-related merger and acquisition activities.
He has introduced strong disciplines within the IT organisation during the past few years, such as a focus on change management. Virdi has been able to embed a fresh cultural approach that means the IT team now considers how its work will have a greater impact on business operations, particularly in terms of generating value.
“One of the key streams that we are most proud of is that we’ve gone from an environment that used to have quite significant outages to a service that’s gone at least 200 days without a significant outage, and I think the last outage that we actually had was down to somebody accidentally tripping over a cable that went into one of our Exchange servers,” he says.
Virdi says the IT team has continued to work hard to strengthen the IT security position of the firm. For example, the team worked with consultant PwC to conduct a full maturity assessment of technology across the organisation.
That process helped to show the board how new investment in IT security would help improve the firm’s position, says Virdi. “We’ve had the support over the last couple of years to build a cyber security awareness programme and to create continuous improvement,” he adds.
Dealing with system complexity
The final big area of work during the past three years involves addressing system complexity. Virdi says Shakespeare Martineau’s acquisitions created a fragmented landscape of legacy systems, with limited support and documentation. The IT team encouraged the business to start addressing this issue.
“That was about getting everybody to understand what we needed to do differently,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, we’ve not exposed all of the skeletons – we are still finding things that people didn’t know about. But at least we’re much better placed to have that level of agility, with the knowledge that we have on all the peripheral systems.”
Virdi says one of his most critical decisions has been to overhaul the firm’s IT infrastructure with the introduction of a Nutanix private cloud platform. Virdi says the hyper-converged infrastructure offers the capabilities of a cloud-first strategy combined with the security, performance and compliance needed from an on-premise private cloud solution.
“We’ve emphasised the fact that our internal and external clients are absolutely key,” he says. “We always need to consider the services that we’re delivering, both internally and externally – and we need to keep the firm on its feet. Without the firm operating properly, there’s going to be a big impact on revenues and reputation.”
Managing remote-working challenges
Virdi says overcoming the challenges associated with Covid-19 has provided further evidence of the benefits of technology. The IT team was able to deploy laptops with a full VPN and managed desktop capability. This meant remote employees could still work from home through the applications they traditionally used in an office environment. Virdi says this shift has changed how the organisation perceives flexible working.
“What we’re looking to provide is for people to work in the comfort of their own personal ecosystem,” he says. “So to be able to work securely, but have access to all of their applications from any device that they would choose to use at any point in the working day. Culturally, the firm encourages people to work flexibly – they’re allowed to just do what they need to, when they want to, so that they can balance their work and home lives.”
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This adoption of flexible-working practices is also affecting how the firm views digital transformation. Many of the IT programmes that Virdi and his colleagues are introducing – such as new practice and case management systems – are about supporting an organisational design that is agile and flexible.
“That is absolutely front and centre in terms of our focus as an IT team, and that’s what we’re designing – and we’re looking to deploy the platforms and the frameworks to support that approach before the end of this calendar year,” he says, suggesting that the technology they introduce will help Shakespeare Martineau to absorb any newly acquired firms much more easily than in the past.
“We can onboard some of those mergers, so that they’ve got collaboration capabilities with the rest of the firm, but still allow a level of autonomy. We are also introducing lots of common and shared services that we’ll use across the entire group. We want to give the firm the agility it requires and support the different ways that people will want to operate.”
Creating a competitive advantage
Virdi says his team is focused on helping the firm to stay sensitive to the data it holds. They are working with external partners to create a continual improvement programme that will help the firm move into the digital world in a secure manner.
“That might mean introducing different microservices based on all of the internal capabilities and services that the business delivers as a law firm, and then being able to pick and choose those microservices to create the capabilities that we want to provide to other entities that come into the group,” he says.
Virdi says this expansion process could also see Shakespeare Martineau increasing its remit beyond law. “We need to have that level of autonomy to be able to take on different shapes and sizes of entities that we’re looking to bring into the group to strengthen the cumulative capability of the business,” he says.
Many of the initiatives that the IT team is working through, which include working very closely with Microsoft, are focused on creating what Virdi calls the “digitised platform of the future”. He says the firm’s close working relationship with Microsoft means the IT team gets presented with fresh and pioneering opportunities.
“That helps us to collaborate with them, do things in a different way, but also try to lead the way from a legal perspective,” he says. “That has probably been a personal aspiration for all of us. We don’t just want to be one of the sheep in the flock. We want to be able to do things differently, to introduce advantage to the firm and the group.”