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.
Sally King is the COO of one of America’s largest law firms, Akin Gump. Originally from the UK, she has worked on both sides of the Atlantic for both Corporates and Law Firms.
Sally spoke to us about her priorities as a COO. From streamlining process to giving her lawyers an edge she discusses the challenges a COO faces. Finally, Sally offered us advice on how to successfully drive diversity in firms.
What route did you take to become a COO of one of the largest firms in the US?
I grew up in the UK and worked for a finance company there. I was always attracted to the US, but didn’t want to move over into a finance role there. After I attended Columbia Business School, I was recruited to GE and became their first non-lawyer manager of a legal department. Then I moved to launch counsel connect, an innovative online service for lawyers which was ahead of its time.
After I started a family, I was looking for a new job around the time 9/11 happened. It made me rethink my travel schedule, as at the time I was living in NYC and had two small kids. I was introduced to a relatively small firm who was looking for a COO. In fact, I nearly decided not to go to the interview! I found myself responsible for everything because the firm was so small. But it meant I truly got to understand the function of a law firm. From technology to finance to networks. After a merger with Cooley, I eventually went back to work at a UK law firm in the US worked for Clifford Chance, and Dentons after that. Finally, I got a call from Akin and here I am.
What are your top priorities as a COO in such a large law firm? Is it increasing efficiency, cutting costs or streamlining processes?
It varies from year to year. My key concern is ensuring that lawyers can focus 100% on servicing clients. It’s all about efficiency and controlling costs. Enabling them to deliver legal services to their clients in the most efficient way possible to be competitive, cost effective and have a competitive position in the market place. It is so important to have an edge.
As a native Brit, what is the main difference in doing legal business in the UK vs the US?
UK law firms tend to be much more process oriented and structured. Much more codified. The US tends to be much more relationship based and less formal in its structure. That actually presents challenges to COOs and for firms that are global in nature. Knowledge Management (KM) is a lot more refined and thoughtful in UK than it is in the US. The ability to define things and build training programmes are much more KM focused in the UK. The value proposition is much more understood. For example, the UK often has practice support lawyers who don’t bill time but act as a resource for other lawyers. However, while the US is behind in KM, the push for AI and the use of new technology is easier to adopt in the US. The reduced amount of infrastructure lends itself to better agility and a willingness to test things more.
Do you see any differences in approaches to diversity in the US vs the UK? Particularly regarding tech.
Diversity is a huge issue in the US and in the UK. At Akin we are about to announce the hire of a Chief Diversity Officer. However, there are different issues in the US and the UK. Because of the unique nature of each country, they necessarily face different challenges. We recently put all of our partners through implicit bias awareness training. However, we were careful to use a different consultant in the US than in the UK.
At Akin, we want to be sure that messages were heard and relevant. We believe that building awareness for implicit bias will help us to improve diversity over time. If you are considering improving diversity, it is essential that the message is heard by the audience. This means addressing linguistic challenges but also cultural challenges. Ensure you continually re-enforce learning and development with other programmes.
How do you see technology impacting C-level executives?
It’s made my job easier because I can work from whenever I am. Sometimes it can be tough, because you’re always on. I am accessible 24/7. The upside, is that the speed of decisions is much faster. We’re expected to have the information at our fingertips at all times and we do. There are tools and functions that really help though with this, like Webex.
What piece of technology/software has made the biggest impact on your working life in the last five years?
Unified comms has definitely made the biggest impact, for the same reasons as before.
What do you see as the biggest challenge for legal tech in the next five years?
I think cyber security will present the biggest issue. Its importance is so much more far reaching than it ever was. The challenge is that maintaining security flies in the face of convenience. People increasingly want all their tools to be the latest and greatest. Being able to secure and control those devices is tough, and failure has huge consequences.
If you were to start your own technology or legal tech business what would it be?
That’s a tough one! Probably an innovation around my iPad mini. I love that device but I can’t do everything on it. Downloading large files, for example, is impossible. I’d like to invent a device that would be as convenient as a mini iPad but can do anything.
How do you maintain a good work/life balance? And does technology help you with that?
As I said before, I think Unified Comms is key here. It means I can work from anywhere! I also try to stay focussed and in the moment – when you are with family, try to put all the devices down!
What advice would you like to have had during your career (that you had to find out for yourself)?
I think having a good mentor is essential – such that you have a sounding board and encouragement to pursue your dreams. Make sure you take time away from work – use your vacations and try to use the time to clear your head – your work will better for it. None of us are good at what we do if all we do is think about work. Be in the moment – when you are at work, focus on that – when you are at home, focus on family and friends – and always be present for the important events! Foster relationships and never compromise your own values.