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Law firm management

Taking the lead in tech-savvy efficiency

UK’s Foot Anstey under IT Partner Duncan Eadie

As a polar explorer, Duncan Eadie is used to going where few people have gone before. That’s why, in the summer of 2015 when he was named an equity partner at Foot Anstey, a UK law firm that’s ranked among the country’s top 100 firms, he broke some new ground. Eadie is not a lawyer; he’s a tech geek and head of the firm’s IT department. Indeed, Foot Anstey became an alternative business structure (ABS) which, under UK law, is allowed to make nonlawyers partners.

“I’m one of the first [IT directors] in a UK law firm to get that sort of accolade and certainly not the last,” Eadie said. “I’m sure there’ll be many others as the market changes – but then again, it’s just the sort of entrepreneurial move that Foot Anstey is prepared to make.” Eadie, who has made successful treks to the Geographic and Magnetic North Poles as well as crossed Greenland’s ice cap, was able to firmly plant the firm’s flag just a few months later when Foot Anstey was named by the Financial Times “Innovative Lawyers” report as one of the UK’s most innovative law firms. The ranking, which listed Foot Anstey above some of the largest law firms in the world, cited a newly designed practice management system (PMS) specially created by the firm’s IT group, working with Thomson Reuters.

“I think given the stature of the competition, to do this is confirmation that we’ve been focused on the right things,” Eadie said. What his team at Foot Anstey has been focused on since Eadie came on board in 2009 includes not only the new PMS, but an almost complete retooling of a traditional law firm into one of the more tech-savvy and efficiently lean firms in the UK. First off, Foot Anstey is not a London firm – it has seven offices, all in the UK, including an office in London, but it’s main stomping ground is the southwest and more recent expansion along the south coast. The firm has 300 lawyers, including 50 equity partners.

The move toward tech

During the financial crisis that began in 2007 and lasted for several years, Foot Anstey – like many law firms worldwide – found the very core of its business model challenged. “As with most businesses, Foot Anstey was experiencing more uncertainty at that time,” Eadie explained. “The recession meant that many firms were dealing with customers who were saying, ‘We can’t afford big law firm prices anymore.’”

Interestingly, that may have helped the firm, he added, because it shone a new light on regionally based firms, like Foot Anstey, who were local powerhouses, but didn’t always get much recognition on a global stage. Couple that, Eadie said, with a visionary managing partner, John Westwell, who saw the dark times as an opportunity to focus on recruiting talent. “He saw that it was time to actually go against the market and do something brave given those economic circumstances,” Eadie said. “So, the firm invested when others were retracting.”

During that time, Foot Anstey refocused itself and even opened new offices while other firms were closing them. Instead of reducing staff, the firm hired key legal support professionals in areas of human resources, IT and marketing as well as additional lawyers to move the firm forward. Westwell’s vision certainly paid off. The firm is now ranked No. 75 among the UK100 and its total annual revenue climbed to £36 million last year from around half that during the first years of the crisis.

Of course, an investment and commitment to retooling the firm’s technology was key to this strategy, and it became Eadie’s first course of action upon coming aboard. “When I joined, there wasn’t a strong technology strategy,” Eadie noted. “There had been underinvestment in technology because the firm didn’t really have someone in place whose job it was to create and lead that strategy.” The initial course was challenging – the firm hadn’t purchased new PCs in a few years – and Eadie soon found himself having to explain to key partners the firm-wide benefits of envisioned technological innovations amid the day-to-day challenges of operating under an outdated tech infrastructure.

“There is always going to be a challenge explaining to lawyers, say, how they will greatly benefit by using a client relationship management system that might be online in six months, when they didn’t even have the ability to print that afternoon,” Eadie said, adding that the solution was taking small, practical steps quickly. “We had to get the basics done before putting in play first-degree technology,” he said, adding that the firm had an advantage as a smaller, but ambitious, player in that it could provide what was needed without having the complication of a vast office base integrating multiple systems across the globe.

Soon – in fact, sooner than anyone thought possible – all the key systems were upgraded, improved and in place at the firm. The firm was streamlining communication among partners in different offices and with clients, sharing documents and tapping into the enterprise knowledge that was vital to business development and client relationships.

“This energy and innovation infused a spirit throughout Foot Anstey that gave us the feeling of a start-up company.”

And all that innovation quickly paid a second dividend: It helped to facilitate the firm’s strategy to recruit top-rated lawyers from London who were eager to leave the overcrowded and overpriced city for a tech-savvy law firm.

Creating the right tools

Once all Foot Anstey’s offices and all its lawyers were on the same page, technology-wise, the firm started to look at ways to innovate even further. It began experimenting with creating its own tools, pushing them throughout all its branches and using them to further cement relationships with key clients. The firm was one of the first in the UK to roll out Elite 3E® PMS and its MatterSphere® workflow tool, both products of Thomson Reuters, and watched as the offices began to come together in how they worked with the tools. “We saw how they worked and what they were going to change, and where we saw there was inconsistency, we would make it consistent by eliminating inefficiency,” Eadie said. “Crucially, it was led by the lawyers – we just facilitated this process. This was a culture that embraced change and it was great to see it in practice.”

Most recently, Foot Anstey has created a digital conveyancing tool, again using workflow software from Thomson Reuters, which has dramatically improved how the firm handles property transactions. For example, the new system can automatically generate conveyancing letters, cutting the time needed for each letter by an amazing 97%, which tends to add up since the firm creates more than 80,000 conveyancing letters per year!

Now, among the accolades, Eadie doesn’t think in terms of reaching the summit, but rather about the journey that got them there. “My goal was to make each individual lawyer actually feel how technology could make their lives better – not theoretically, but practically – improving the way they work with clients and each other. And at the end of the day, that’s what we’re all trying to do.”


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