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CIO interview: Chris White, Clyde & Co
Clyde & Co’s CIO talks about the growing importance of IT in law firms and how to push the power of digital transformation
Chris White chats over coffee in Clyde & Co’s head office in London. The purpose-built facility in one of London’s smartest office blocks, the St Botholph Building, is the fulcrum of a fast-growing legal practice.
Clyde & Co has grown through acquisition and new office launches, and technology has played a crucial role in the expansion, with more to come.
“As the demands of our clients change, we need to globalise,” he says. “I don’t underestimate the challenges ahead, but this firm has seen significant growth in each of the past 10 years. We’re well placed to take advantage of the changes that are occurring in the legal marketplace.”
White is able to draw on a broad range of experiences as he helps take Clyde & Co forwards. After seven years as CIO of legal firm Ashurst, White spent a few years in consultancy and interim IT leadership positions. These placements included roles at technology firm Mimecast, the Merchant Navy Officer’s Pension Fund (MNOPF) and legal firm Kennedy’s. White joined Clyde & Co in June 2013, initially in an interim capacity, where he helped establish the firm’s IT strategy.
“The legal sector was going through a huge amount of structural change, which continues to this day,” he says. “The market is polarising into two groups – a global elite that services major businesses, and a second group that services mid-market and smaller clients. Clyde & Co recognised it wanted to join the global elite, but it also knew that success would require a significant transformation.”
Taking up the mantle for change
White was approached for the role by a recruitment consultant. He researched the opportunity and appreciated the scale of change required at the firm. “I was hugely impressed with the organisation, its ambitions, its energy and its entrepreneurial spirit,” says White. “I spoke to the chief executive and I knew I wanted to be part of the business.”
He spent his initial 18-month contract running through a four-stage process to put plans in place for future change. White says the process is one he has used in previous interim transformation roles. The four stages were as follows: assessing and analysing; creating a vision of “what good looks like” for the business; building skilled capacity to deliver change; and detailing the strategy and creating a roadmap.
During this period of analysis and strategy, the firm continued to grow. Clyde & Co now runs more than 50 offices globally. The commitment to IT transformation also grew commensurately through White’s interim commitment. Such was the scope of the challenge that he assumed the full-time global CIO role in December 2015.
“I was excited by what I saw and I knew I could contribute more,” says White. “There’s a huge amount still to be done. But I’d go as far as to say it’s the most enjoyable role I’ve held during my career.” A key part of his enjoyment relates to how the business is run. White has held IT positions at a range of different law firms, and says Clyde & Co is more like a company than a practice with partners.
A chief executive with business experience leads the firm. The CEO and executive team run the firm on behalf of the lawyers. White says the approach represents a key differentiator. “It’s one of the main reasons we’re successful,” he says. “Lots of other law firms are now looking at our strategy and they are beginning to realise that using seasoned business professionals works.”
Pushing the power of digital transformation
As senior executives began analysing the fast-growing business, it was recognised that other areas of the organisation would need to be transformed. White was asked to use his four-stage approach to change two other distinct areas of the firm – the business acceptance unit and litigation support.
The business acceptance unit forms an integral element of the firm’s approach to risk and compliance. Professionals in the unit check for potential conflicts of interest in new work. They also ensure compliance with legislation and cover other key concerns, such as anti-money laundering. White’s role has been to make the unit ready for global business.
He has helped switch the unit from a UK nine-to-five operation to a team ready to work across time zones, with a specialist outpost in each region around the world. White has also introduced a global approach in litigation support, where specialist workers in the firm manage aspects of e-discovery, from the gathering of documentation in a forensically sound manner, through to disclosure and inspection.
His accomplishments across business acceptance and litigation support, added to his continuing work on IT transformation, have helped the organisation understand the potential power of great leadership in digital technology. “Too many law firms still see IT as a cost, rather than as an enabler,” he says. “Perhaps my biggest achievement has been helping the firm understand the positive contribution that technology can make to the business.”
Clyde & Co ran a conference for more than 400 partners around the globe recently, where one of the key themes during the event was the use of technology to help transform and modernise legal operations. “IT is viewed with such importance across the firm now,” says White. “Everyone believes the success of the business is directly related to the use of technology.”
Adding value through advanced technologies
IT will continue to drive change in the business, particularly when it comes to cost-sensitive operations. The firm operates at both ends of the legal spectrum. While a large proportion of its business is generated from work with global enterprises, the rest comes from volume handling for a broad range of clients, such as motoring claims for insurance firms.
“Everyone believes the success of the business is directly related to the use of technology”
Chris White, Clyde & Co
“The volume end of the business is very price-sensitive with thin margins,” says White. “The global marketplace is such that there’s intense pressure on cost. Our clients want us to push down our prices as much as possible. We can’t ignore that fact and expect to continue to be successful.”
The key to remaining competitive is likely to be technology. White and his IT leadership team are investigating how automation, such as case management technology, might help the firm complete a large amount of its low-volume work. White expects similar advances in management information, where the mining and analysis of the firm’s huge amounts of data could produce big benefits for both the business and its customers.
Read more CIO interviews
- Neil Davison, IT director of Farrer & Co, the law firm that served Charles Dickens, is keen to eschew legacy and take a cutting-edge approach to IT-led transformation.
- Bruna Pellicci, global head of IT at global law firm Ashurst, is rolling out a new IT strategy based on single platforms worldwide for its core business areas.
“Being a great lawyer is becoming a bit of a hygiene factor in our sector. Everyone just expects it,” he says. “Clients want to know what else you can do for them to make their working lives better. We need to create services that add value for our customers.”
White and his leadership team continue to investigate the potential of leading-edge technologies, such as advanced analytics and artificial intelligence. “We’re talking about the future of the law firm,” he says. “Technology can provide a big competitive differentiator if we can make better use of our information, and present it in a way that adds value to our clients.”
Creating the foundations for lasting growth
While leading-edge technology provides some tantalising opportunities, White’s main focus right now is building the IT foundations to help his firm take advantage of the innovations he outlines above. One area of work involves key infrastructure developments, such as new regional datacentres in the US and Asia. White is also leading the implementation of a wide area network (WAN) for the global business.
In terms of software, White and his team are refreshing most of the firm’s business applications. The company is working with Thomson Reuters in regards to case management and practice management software. White’s team is also introducing a new human resources platform, as well as a global learning system.
The hardware and software transformation forms part of a grander plan. “I’m creating a single IT strategy for the global business,” says White. “Technology will be standardised as much as possible. It will be supported 24/7, and we’ll allow people around the firm to work securely anywhere and on any device.”
He says the successful implementation of his strategy relies on a great understanding of aims within the department. “Everything has to be underpinned by cultural change – everyone has to understand the effect of our work on the rest of the business,” he says.
“Our partners and employees are interested in technology. Our clients are fascinated by the potential of innovation, too. The whole legal environment is changing because of the use of digital systems and services. My job is to ensure that my team and our firm is at the forefront of those changes,” adds White.
Aiming for modernisation and continued excellence
White also recognises that technology is just one core component of a much broader business transformation. Clyde & Co has made a series of high-profile executive appointments recently. Alongside White, the firm has a new finance chief, business development director, chief strategy officer and human resources director. Across all positions, the aim is the same – modernisation.
“We’re all working to put the right kinds of processes in place for a fast-growing law firm. Change management is a key challenge. Everyone in the business wants to see an instant transformation, but the right kind of change takes time, particularly when it comes to the integration of IT,” says White.
“Change requires a huge level of financial investment, too. We’re continuing to open new offices around the globe. Supporting expansion through IT requires a significant amount of work, never mind transforming older systems and integrating newer services.”
The good news is that White is confident in the abilities of his team. “We’ve got some great people, and I’ve managed to attract talent from other firms and outside the sector since I joined the firm,” he says. “We’re developing centres of excellence in key areas, such as project management and cyber security. At all levels, the future looks very positive indeed.”