As part of our Women in Legal Tech event on the 2nd & 3rd November, we are releasing a series of interviews with inspiring women. Their stories offer advice and guidance for anyone thinking of entering the world of legal tech. Following the event, we will be collating all of the interviews in a free e-book. Keep an eye on our social media to get your copy.
More details of the Women in Legal Tech event can be found here.
Abby Ewen has been IT Director at BLM for over four years. She previously headed up the IT departments of firms Simmons & Simmons and Withers. Abby is committed to improving diversity in the tech sector and works with schools and groups to improve the quality of IT teaching, particularly for girls.
We spoke to Abby about some of the misconceptions involving in-house IT. From insights into an IT Director’s priorities, to selling to the IT department, Abby offers advice for those looking to work in the legal tech sector.
What route did you take to become an IT Director at a firm?
At school I always wanted to be a lawyer or a journalist. I have worked for law firms for 30 years across different areas, starting with legal work in real estate. However, the 1988 housing market changed things dramatically, and I moved from law to an Open University degree around information management. After my degree, I was put in charge of a huge IT project and loved it. I was managing an IT implementation: making sure lawyers had a desktop pc and email systems. It all started from there.
What are the main differences between innovation in firms and in corporates?
It depends on the customer base. Simmons had a relatively different approach to BLM, say. They didn’t live or die by technology systems, but were able to focus on the delivery of Knowledge Management online as this was useful to their clients. BLM works exclusively for insurance companies so innovation is essential. Insurance companies are highly sophisticated in terms of data analysis: these clients expect BLM to be equally as innovative. We also have to be able to integrate with our insurers’ systems, and be equally as analytical about the high volume case work they provide.
As an IT director what misconceptions do start-ups have about in-house tech? What do you wish start-ups knew about the IT infrastructure of law firms?
There is always an assumption that legal is behind the curve. However, there is actually a high degree of mobility and flexibility. The challenge that many start-ups fail to meet is in identifying what business problem they solve. I get 100 emails a day from people who want me to see their AI system. But few of them are well formed or offer a complete solution.
The second challenge is that legal tech companies must remember the infrastructure that law firms operate in. We have to compromise between innovation and security. We have to reconcile technology and the regulatory environment of the legal world. As such it is difficult to force agility on a traditional setup. Our BLM Technovate has taken a different approach here. In essence, it offers an R&D function with a different set of parameters, increased agility and the budget to explore new technology.
Should there be a different approach for sales between selling to lawyers and to the IT department?
In my personal experience there is nothing more aggravating than sales people going around an IT director and contacting a managing partner. Now I don’t think all lawyers should learn how to code. I see many organisations trying to use the lawyers to build a process, as they are the best person placed to explain what is needed in that legal process. But there is certainly an understanding that the IT team must take some part in controlling innovation. We must build space for innovative ideas.
What are your priorities as an IT director?
Customer stickiness. Namely, what can we do to get embedded in a customer’s supply chain. We are trying to make our clients’ lives better through technology. This can be through improving productivity internally or by building a lean value process map. For our insurance clients that means working out ways of making our processes more efficient and more effective and faster. It is impossible to live life in 2017 without technology, law firms included. It is up to me to provide lawyers with the tools and training they need to use that technology.
What piece of technology/software has made the biggest impact on your working life in the last five years?
I would say that unified comms has made the single biggest difference to my working life. It means my team and I can work from home regularly. With unified comms you can communicate with people in real time just like a face to face conversation.
What do you see as the biggest challenge for legal tech in the next five years?
Skills. I am very concerned about where we are going to get skilled tech people over the next few years. Generally, schools do not encourage tech, or they fail to make it engaging, particularly for girls. There is an assumption that it’s boring, or that it’s just coding. Unless schools can learn to make technology programs broad and engaging we are going to struggle to find talent.
If you were to start your own technology or legal tech business what would it be?
The slightly frivolous and unrealistic answer is one which would allow you to learn things whilst you were asleep. Tech people would be able to learn how to code in different languages, and lawyers would be able to learn how to use new software effectively without needing to go on a training course. You would wake up feeling rested, but having learned something new.
How do you maintain a good work/life balance? And does technology help you with that?
Yes, it does. Working from home is incredibly beneficial for work/life balance. Technology allows me to be more flexible in my hours in order to stay productive. Organisations have become much more grown up in the ways they measure people’s productivity. Earlier in my career when I worked from home colleagues used to ask if I enjoyed my day off. That attitude has gone now and people understand that working from home doesn’t mean not working.
What advice would you like to have had during your career (that you had to find out for yourself)?
I think that would be to be authentic and not worry so much about what others think. I don’t mean you should be disrespectful, but understand that it is ok to be yourself and if that means ‘different’ then that’s ok.