Podcast Transcript: Making Strategic Investments in Legal Tech with Theo Ling of Baker McKenzie

Topics: Canada, Law Firm Profitability, Law Firms, Legal Executive Events, Legal Innovation, Podcasts, Q&A Interviews, Thomson Reuters


Hello and welcome to the Legal Executive Institute podcast. Today we’re featuring Charlotte Rushton, managing director for Large & Medium Law Firms at Thomson Reuters. Charlotte will be speaking to Theo Ling, a partner in the Toronto office of Baker McKenzie. Theo recently participated in a panel at the Emerging Legal Technical Forum held in Toronto. The panel was titled “Leading Change: Defining Strategic Investments in Legal Technology.” The panel focused on the broad range of considerations law firms need to think about as they choose what technologies to invest in. Charlotte?

Charlotte Rushton: Thanks Gregg, and thanks for joining us today, Theo. I really enjoyed the panel you participated in. But before we get to that I want our listeners to quickly grasp your special expertise and authority to speak about legal technology. So, you’re a partner and principal of the Whitespace Legal Collab at Baker McKenzie. Could you give us a 30,000-foot view of what you do and how innovation plays into the work you do as a lawyer?

Theo Ling: Sure, Charlotte, happy to do so. I actually wear three hats relating to legal innovation at the firm. The first hat I think is really as a practitioner, as a practicing information technology lawyer, where I focus on data privacy, security and information governance matters. This is the domain expertise part of what I do and it’s relevant to a lot of the legal service design work that we do involving technology and other things. I’m also a member of our global innovation committee at Baker McKenzie, where we’re developing the framework for fostering innovation within the firm, and driving our vision for defining the new layer. Whitespace Legal Collab is the third hat that you referred to, where I’m a principal and the founder of Whitespace Collab. It’s the firm’s first innovation lab and it’s also the first global legal hub focused on multi-disciplinary collaboration.

So, each of these roles really kind of reinforces the other two. With the innovation committee we create the framework to support and encourage the practice. With the practice we leverage the Collab for talent and the collaborative community that comes out of that. And with the Collab we give our people an opportunity to experience innovation in motion.

Charlotte Rushton: Great! So you do have a full plate, but I can see how all three of those roles really do play well to each other.

I was interested to hear about how Baker McKenzie’s considering a phased approach to innovation. So, you’re thinking about the present, the mid-term and the longer term. And the present focuses on leveraging existing technologies with the longer term looking at the potential of bigger game changers, and the mid-term as you described it was focused on the legal focus redesign. Can you tell us about that and who within the firm is leading that charge?

Theo Ling: Sure. First of all, I think it’s absolutely right that most organizations currently are trying to find ways to leverage existing technology to improve efficiencies and performance. And at the other end of the spectrum you hear a lot about, I call it sort of the hype around legal technology, which talks about disrupting the profession through artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies. And in the middle of all of that I think is actually the most exciting area to be working in right now. It’s an area that’s about trying to understand the challenges and needs, as well as the opportunities within the practice of law, and about re-imagining how we could work better and provide legal guidance and support in new ways.

legal tech

Theo Ling of Baker McKenzie

It’s also about I think assembling talent or necessary domain expertise, which includes not just lawyers but providers of technology, data analysts, information specialists, and a whole host of other domain experts that are not as common to the practice of law but I think is a growing field of endeavor.

Another area that’s characteristic of this mid-term redesign activity is the redesign itself and trying to design a new service or product, or redesigning an existing or hold offering. The characteristics, combining all of these activities really results in a final challenge or objective and that’s execution. The ability to convert ideas. Many people have exciting ideas, but to actually be able to convert that into solutions, that’s what legal service redesign is all about.

Charlotte Rushton: Great. And I can see how as you’re focusing on that mid-term you’re actually going to start to achieve that longer term. You talked on the panel about the unique resistance to innovation within a profession that’s really trained to get things right and not fail. And you observed I think that it takes getting things wrong to truly embrace innovation, and that clear requires a shift in the mindset. So what are some of the key drivers behind some of the behavioral transformation you’re looking for?

Theo Ling: Five drivers sort of come to mind right away. The first one, which I think anyone that’s working in this space will highlight is the need for commitment at the highest levels of the organization. You really need sort of management support or leadership support to really go after legal innovation, without it it’s very hard to be successful.

The second thing that I would highlight are role models and innovation champions. Every organization has some of these individuals. Sometimes they’re hidden away and perhaps not appreciated as much as they should be, but these are the folks who whether you ask them to do something around innovation or not, they’re probably actively doing that on their own accord. And so organizations really need to identify these individuals and really roll them out as role models for others.

A third driver I think are what I would call storytellers. I’m definitely seeing this as a challenge even in the work that I do, where you can do fantastic things and not be as good in communicating that to others. And in order to create momentum for legal innovation, you need to have some capability to communicate and capture the imagination of others.

A fourth driver I think are success stories. Everyone loves success, and I would say it’s sort of the number one driver or effective driver to sort of converting the doubters to being supporters and proponents of legal innovation.

And the last driver, which is probably the most critical one in order to really have a chance to be successful, is talent. There’s a real shortage, in my view there’s a real shortage of talent within the legal profession at this time to drive legal innovation. That’s not to say that we haven’t had folks amongst our ranks who have those skillsets. But I think a lot of those individuals get frustrated with how the legal profession operates, and up to now we really haven’t sort of embraced or valued some of those skillsets. But I think going forward it’ll be really important to see how that develops and evolves, because ultimately talent is what is going to be I think the most significant development which will help shape behavioral transformation.

Charlotte Rushton: Yes, that makes a lot of sense to me.

Another topic on which the panel had a lot to share was about selecting a technology vendor in the legal space, and I think one of the panelists commented that law firms are not venture capitalists, so they’re not looking to invest in something that’s unproven, they really want to be assured of a company’s staying power. I think you referred to that as the sustainability of an initiative. So how do you think about identifying that one vendor who’s most likely to be a true partner over time?

Theo Ling: So, for anyone that’s actually trying to move from ideas to implementing solutions or arriving at implementable solutions, finding the right collaborator is I think the key to success. This is why in Whitespace Collab we’re focusing on multi-disciplinary collaboration. It’s really about bringing the best and most talented individuals and organizations together and working together to solve a problem. And so it’s usually the case I think when we talk about technology and the application and the sort of legal context that the technology solution is never fully baked when you’re evaluating it. There’s always a gap between what the technology can do out of the box and what it needs to become in order to be an effective and viable solution.

legal tech

Charlotte Rushton of Thomson Reuters

And it’s sort of my own personal experience I’d say, there’s at least 20% to 40% gap there that you need to bridge. I think that’s where you really need to find the right partner to help bridge that gap. Of course, they have to have the right technology, they have to be able to demonstrate their skills, but they also have to be willing to commit and be committed to your vision. They have to have the bandwidth to stick with you when their business is either not as robust as they wish it would be or when they’re so successful that they don’t necessarily have the same level of resources to sort of focus on you. And they have to have the interest and ability to learn as well as teach you, and so alignment of interest I think is critical, and ability to sort of grow over time is also key.

Charlotte Rushton: Even work hand-in-hand on getting the 60% or the 80% to your 100%.

Theo Ling: Exactly.

Charlotte Rushton: I definitely don’t want to finish this podcast without asking you more about the Whitespace Legal Collab, which I think you launched with a big splash last June. And as I understand it it’s a physical space within the Toronto office that enables the Baker McKenzie attorneys to meet in person with leaders in business, government, academia and not for profits to collaborate on solving some of these complex global challenges. I think you mentioned there’s a focus on date privacy but also smart cities and other data related problems. Can you share a few of the highlights from those first few months?

Theo Ling: Sure, I mean I think the first thing I’d say is how amazing it’s been to actually have a physical presence. The impact that that has had in attracting the interest of clients and collaborators in other disciplines has been quite phenomenal and well beyond, I think, our expectations since this summer. The irony of course is that most of the work that we do in the Collab is virtual. We work in the Whitespace, there are no real boundaries or walls, whether they’re geographic or talent wise. As I said earlier, we try to bring together and harness the best talent from around the globe, and the importance of the physical space is really more symbolic because it represents a certain level of commitment on the part of our firm, our organization to legal innovation. We’re committed to this and we’re in it for the long haul.

I think the physical thing is probably even more important just the fact that it’s located here in Toronto. And so outside of just our activity within the legal community, there’s a very robust and vastly growing innovation ecosystem, if I could call it that. That’s sort of emerging in this location where there’s more talent, a lot of resources, plenty of opportunities, public sector support, and probably most importantly there’s a market for it. In other words, there are enough consumers of the things that folks dream up and create, to be able to not only service this particular market but I think serve as a sort of testing round for… testing ground I should say, for global roll out. So, I think that’s probably been really helpful to us as well.

Charlotte Rushton: Fantastic. Well thanks again for joining today Theo, I’ve really enjoyed speaking to you and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Theo Ling: You’re very welcome.

And thank you for joining us for the Legal Executive Institute podcast. You can find more podcasts on our website, at www.legalexecutiveinstitute.com.