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A Digital Services Strategy is No Longer a “Nice to Have”; It is a Necessity

The below article was originally published in The Lawyer in March 2021, as part of its Business Leadership Series.

Julie Murphy-O’Connor, co-head of the commercial litigation group at Matheson, shares how the firm has invested in people, processes and technology to provide customised digital services and solutions for clients. 

What has been your experience in implementing a digital strategy in a longstanding traditional law firm?

Matheson has a long tradition of innovation. In 1980, we were one of the first Irish law firms to embrace the computer age by purchasing one of the first Wang computers. We were the first Irish law firm to provide PCs and email addresses for all of its lawyers and trainees in the early 1990s. We were the first Irish law firm to establish an IT Law practice group and the first European law firm to establish an office in Palo Alto. We were engaged by the Irish Government to advise on drafting the seminal Irish Electronic Commerce Act in 2000.

In the late noughties we were already using legal technology to support our disputes practice and a legal forensic services team to support that practice. This evolved as new technologies emerged. By 2016 we had identified digital transformation as a broader strategic imperative for the firm. We hired Tom Connor to support and lead our digital journey.

By choosing to tackle cultural transformation ahead of digital transformation, we cleared the path for the establishment of a standalone digital services business within our business as a law firm. I firmly believe this approach avoided what could otherwise have been significant internal resistance to change. In 2016 and 2017 a lot of time was invested into our SMART@Matheson program, thereby embedding a digital mind-set across the firm.

In November 2019 we launched Digital Services as a distinct standalone offering with 17 professionals including AI software developers, lawyers, legal solutions consultants, legal project managers, document automation specialists and business analysts operating across three divisions: client solutions, legal process optimisation and digital innovation.

Just over a year later, the Digital Services Group is already a key enabler to the successful delivery of various client and internal projects. We are firmly on the road to achieving significant digital immersion across all of our largest practice areas.

How can a firm implementing a new digital strategy ensure that it reaches and is utilised by the bottom line?

Lawyers will usually want and need to understand “what’s in it for me?” before embracing and adopting digital services. The answer is: It is what our clients expect.  It is what the top graduates expect. It is no longer a “nice to have” but a necessity if we are to stay ahead in a fast evolving and competitive market. A number of global law firms now have what they often call “advanced” teams, which assemble the skills of legal engineers along with technologists, project managers and design thinkers. We compete globally and this is also the direction we have taken at Matheson.

A year on, our Digital Services offering is already delivering to the bottom line. We are monetising, rebranding and enhancing what we already do well (for example, on the e-document management and processing and project management side of things), ensuring that this legal technology is being used and embraced by a much broader practice base, and we are continuing to build from there. By doing this, our technologists are working on the ‘blue sky’ projects in tandem, in an environment where the cost of investment is easier to justify because the returns on that form of investment are easier to see. Our technologists have also developed and delivered various technological solutions that address internal pain points for our lawyers and we are constantly looking at ways in which we can use similar tools to assist our clients.

What was the driving force behind establishing Matheson’s first digital services business?

Innovation, partnership and entrepreneurship are three of our core values at Matheson. We believe that real innovation is about solving problems for our clients and for our colleagues. This was one of the fundamental driving forces behind establishing the firm’s multi-disciplinary Digital Services business. Launching the Digital Services Group has enabled us to deliver a variety of technology-enabled solutions to clients and to respond to their fast-changing requirements, as well as to promote internal efficiencies. Our Digital Services Group ensures that we deploy current and emerging technologies, including cloud-based systems, intelligent automation, data visualisation and cognitive computing solutions such as, machine learning, expert systems and natural language processing technologies on complex and large-scale legal matters across all other practice areas to ensure value for our clients without compromising on quality.

There are different directions a law firm can take on its digital transformation journey. Matheson has invested in combining people, processes and technology to provide customised digital services and solutions for both our clients and ourselves. Any one of them alone is no longer good enough. The fact that we have an integrated legal and digital offering all under one roof differentiates us from other law firms.

You know it has been successful when it feels like it has always been there, and that’s how it feels to have a Digital Services practice group in Matheson.

In your opinion, what is the greatest invention of this past decade? 

This is difficult – so many of the technologies we rely on heavily in our daily lives, and take completely for granted, only came into existence from 2010 onwards.  The iPad, smart phones and smart TVs have in particular completely transformed the way we live and work.

However, I hope that next year we will be looking back and saying that, without a doubt, the Covid-19 vaccines were the greatest invention of this past decade because, as much as these technologies allow us to carry on our work and lives in a remote environment, there is nothing that can quite replace meeting, getting together and collaborating in person.