The Lawyer features BLM as a case study, the article is published in full.
BLM’s tech revolution: Why we restructured the firm By Joanne Harris 5 June 2018
It has been a time of change at BLM. The firm is in the middle of a period of significant investment in technology, coupled with internal restructuring which has seen it cut business services roles in a drive to become more efficient, more effective and offering better services to clients.
Some of the reduction in business services roles was noticeable in the firm’s 2016/17 headcount figures. It reported a drop of two full-time equivalent (FTE) staff in its facilities team, a fall of 10 (12 per cent) from its finance team, a decrease of 11 FTEs (2.9 per cent) from secretarial and document production, and a drop of nine FTEs (12.7 per cent) from technology. Some of this decrease was offset by increases in other teams, with risk, HR, and marketing all seeing a gain in FTE numbers.
However the following financial year was one of more change, with BLM announcing a voluntary redundancy programme of 50 secretarial roles in June 2017 amid other restructuring programmes.
The altering shape of the firm’s support functions are connected to its use of technology. In the last 12 months BLM has been implementing a series of new pieces of software in an ongoing programme of investment.
Among the new tools deployed are voice recognition software, an internal key performance indicator and performance management portal, and the pilot of a new matter inception and conflict checking system. IT director Abby Ewen adds that BLM is also continually investing in its case management systems and is in the midst of a project to go paperless.
“They’re fairly rudimentary things and you might consider them to be hygiene factors in the technology landscape, but all of these things aggregate to change the shape and kinds of people that we need to run the firm,” Ewen says.
BLM’s investments have all come to fruition at roughly the same time, resulting in the firm asking lawyers and staff to adapt quickly to the new tools on offer.
“We’ve been bombarding them a bit with new stuff,” Ewen admits. “The reality is that these are things that we need to do to get our firm as lean and efficient as we can make it.”
Managing partner Vivienne Williams says the new technology has been largely embraced by BLM’s staff.
“Where we’re bringing change that will actually benefit those doing the day job, they’ve got a vested interest in it,” she points out. “Some of the things that we’ve been implementing are things that they’ve been asking for and that they want.
“While change is difficult and you have to manage it carefully, ultimately when people can see it’s going to benefit them in the day job they’re keen to have it,” she adds.
Williams and Ewen say the matter inception pilot is a good example of the way new technology has had an impact on both lawyers and staff. The aim is to substantially reduce the administration required by lawyers when bringing a new case or client on board, cutting down on paper and forms and speeding up the time needed before work can begin.
A dedicated team is planned to support the system and some role profiles will change as a result of this new technology and other systems implemented.
“In general terms our focus is on getting the business in the shape we want it to be in in the future,” Williams says. “We’re looking at our business and identifying where we see waste, where we can make ourselves more efficient. We’ve got that in our minds when looking at investments that we want to make.”
Part of this process is looking at repurposing roles or finding people with different skills to work in areas such as business improvement. However it has also involved cutting roles, notably in the secretarial function; BLM had two redundancy programmes ongoing during the summer.
“These kinds of processes do create a lot of concern among staff,” Williams admits. She says the firm has tried to be honest and open with staff and to engage them throughout the various pieces of restructuring it has carried out.
BLM introduced an employee forum, known as the ‘Voice of BLM’ and chaired by head of corporate communications Natalie King, which meets every six weeks and allows staff to pose questions to firm management about the changes taking place.
Williams says BLM has also “genuinely” tried to redeploy people around the business and when it carried out its voluntary secretarial redundancy programme it did have enough volunteers not to have to proceed with a mandatory redundancy exercise.
She says the processes mean that BLM’s business services function is fit for purpose in terms of what the firm needs right now.
“In the short term I’m not expecting any change,” Williams says. “We’ve gone through two consultations, we’ve restructured in terms of the support we need for the business at the moment.”
That does not mean future change will not happen, nor does it rule out more gradual shifts in the “shapes and kinds” of business services staff required by the firm.
“Where we’re having some high degrees of success at the moment is we’re employing people with different but complementary skill-sets,” she adds. “We see it as a reshaping rather than a reduction.”
That extends back to technology, with BLM now employing a number of people focused on how the firm collects and uses data, for example.
“It used to be the case that you could get away with not engaging with technology but you can’t get away with that anymore,” Ewen points out. “It’s one of those situations where you get out what you put in.”
She says BLM’s learning and development functions have become increasingly important in the firm as it has invested in technology.
“Software’s not cheap and you only derive all the benefits of software if everyone uses it the way you envisaged when you wrote the business case,” Ewen says.
Williams acknowledges the last year has been challenging, with the firm having to work to keep morale up amid the consultations, but she claims that efforts such as the Voice of BLM have paid off with the firm now better-placed for the future. Exactly how the shape of the firm has changed will be revealed in next year’s UK 200 reporting, but for now BLM is seeking to make sure all its work has a positive impact on finances and client service.