Interview with John Craske, Head of Innovation and Legal Operations at CMS

This week, The Attic speaks to John Craske, Head of Innovation and Legal Operations at CMS, about his thoughts on innovation of legal services, helping people adapt to change, and how work allocation programmes are helping to solve many operational issues, included those faced by people returning to the law.

Tell us what led you to the law and how you ended up in a legal ops role?

I come from a scientific background academically, somewhat unusual as many in the law tend to study humanities subjects like History and English, I’ve always been interested in how things work . But I was always interested in and intrigued by law as academic subject, and took the decision to leave the Midlands and attend law school in the beautiful city of Edinburgh – so I’m an Englishman but a Scottish lawyer! I succeeded in getting a good traineeship with Dundas & Wilson – who eventually merged with CMS in 2014– and once I qualified I became a commercial property lawyer. It has always bothered me since school watching people do repetitive things again and again, so in my work dealing with leases of units shopping centres, office blocks etc. I became very focused on technology and ways to work harder and smarter with clients.

Dundas & Wilson then became part of the Arthur Andersen legal network. It began as a very exciting time and I got be involved in some technology projects with clients that were very ahead of their time, however these came to a shuddering halt once the Enron scandal hit. We came out of the AA legal network in a hurry and at that point, I got involved in IT and ended up leading the governance of supply and management of outsourcing and insourcing. From there, I learned loads about technology, services provision and managing budgets. Around the same time, I did a project management qualification and became more interested in process mapping and process improvement. So I’ve always been interested in how things work and building solutions, which are the things that come at the junction of the business of law and the practice of law, which is where legal operations falls.

What are the unique features of your role as Head of Innovation and Legal Ops within CMS?

What we do is not different massively to other companies, but our work encompasses what many would understand as project management. This began at the start of recession. We were waking up to the commercial reality that most of our clients were banks, who were telling us they needed same or more for less cost – if we wanted to maintain profitability we had to start working differently. I wrote a business case for the introduction of a Legal Services Unit (LSU) – and began looking at ways to measure and reward more profitable behaviour, and provide better education around legal project management.

The LSU has grown to between 60-70 paralegals and we have also built a legal project management team. Legal ops is like having an internal consultant team continually looking at ways to improve and work smarter through education programmes, project process and structure review.  More recently, we started focusing on work allocation and resource management – how you resource a job and availability of skills required for projects? That was the beginning of the role I have today.

As an industry, law has a reputation for being resistant to change. Is this something you come across? How should we be encouraging more openness to change?

It’s often said change is the new constant, but it’s always been something humans as a collective are not good at. Especially when it comes to ways of working that suit us and makes us money, change is difficult.  Anyone who say it is not is living in make believe. As generations change, we often assume that change will be easier, as a generation of digital natives comes through surely we will become better at using technology. But actually, I’ve found that’s not true either – there are plenty of young people who are just as clueless at spotting opportunities for using technology as older clients and vice versa. Indeed, many older partners are better at spotting opportunities. It’s down to individual personality and their growth mindset.

There are things that encourage change: One is the creation of necessity – if we suddenly find we can’t compete with a competitor’s service, we either adapt or stop altogether. Another similar driver is if someone sees a particular prize to be won that requires motivation to change. Otherwise, we simply need to put in the hard graft of building better resilience from the very beginning. That means teaching people before they even become lawyers about creative thinking, a growth mindset and adapting in business.

It’s not just about technology – the answer isn’t just about teaching lawyers to code or whatever, but how to be better at problem solving, experimenting, and being willing to try and fail – the latter of which is particularly difficult due to our psychological make up! Sometimes, you can engineer a burning platform to create a necessity for change – but you have to shape people to adapt to change, you can’t expect them to just do it.

What are the foundations for building successful legal teams and fostering innovation?

I think that there is often a missing piece when we talk about innovation.  And again I want to be clear when we say innovation, it doesn’t just mean technology or the big grand gestures that I call innovation by press release – announcing some exciting new adoption, innovation is not always something esoteric. Often it is the everyday small adaptations at the coalface of the business. It’s a question of the how, what and who. In law, we have traditionally focused on the ‘what’ – the service – but we have to look at the how and who much more – we’re striving to find that balance between profitability, brilliant client service, and happy people. This makes for a sustainable and exciting business future.

So, successful teams have to start with the human beings – humans need to connect and respect each other. Communication is a word used a lot but effective communication doesn’t happen by accident, it requires deliberate action. For example, we have teams in Edinburgh, Sheffield and London, so working with remote teams is a given. It can often be cited as a barrier, and yes it can be tricky if you aren’t able to easily build a connection that fosters trust and builds rapport. We can’t build trust with a system, or automation – technology can support us it but it is created by that extra effort by us. One has to be strict and formal about the time put in to building relationships. While I am in Edinburgh today, I will deliberately set aside time to phone or IM, not with work-related comms but with the kind of conversation as you would have when you are getting a cup of coffee together in the office.

Successful teams also must be diverse – and I mean that not just as a box to tick with someone of a different gender/sexuality/race in every team, but quite simply that different people from different backgrounds bring different mindsets and experience to drive innovation more naturally. There is so much research showing diverse teams are better teams, and we don’t have metrics around diversity, it’s just part of the requirements for our teams to be diverse from a business and human perspective.

How does legal ops help with external client processes?

A hot topic at the moment is the expectations gap. A question we often get asked is ‘What have you got to innovate us?’ The question is framed as something that we are going to ‘do to’ them. That’s not how it works. You can’t do innovation to someone. We can work with them to understand the problems and challenges and get to a place of collaboration and work out how the tools we have can help with those areas.

Sometimes the hope is that we will just tell them all the tools we have got, which we are happy to but it’s not just about what you have it’s what you do with them. And it’s understandable, it can be tricky for clients who feel they don’t want to share their issues or don’t have the time and resources to engage with us on to that degree. But it does create a gap between what law firms are doing and what clients want. Where there is closer collaboration, that’s where we can make a real difference.

What role is legal technology playing in innovating services? What trends do you predict over the next 5 years in the development and adoption of legal tech?

Overall, the understanding of what different tools can do is low, and hype is high. People believe that AI, automation etc. are going to do something to their organisation that isn’t possible. And when we look at the sales cycle, we can see why. Tech demonstrations are set up like a magic trick – with a dark stage, wordy introductions and build ups then the big reveal, the rabbit out of the hat. We forget that the reality is different. We all know magic isn’t real and we should be thinking ‘ok, but how does that work?’  But we buy the hype. In house teams are so time-poor that they are looking for the quick fix to make things magically quicker.  Instead, we should be learning to use a tool to support changes in process overall to make things better.

As far as my predictions go:

  1. There is so much legal tech out there doing same thing, there will have to be some consolidation or emergence of front runners. We don’t need as many contract and automation tools as there are in market now. We also don’t need so many AI tools, providers will have to find their own niches or get absorbed by other platforms.
  2. There will be more integration of different functional building blocks – there are huge numbers of tools out there but if they don’t work together it’s pointless.
  3. Less of a prediction and more of a hope. There will be less talk and hype and thus more adoption of useful legal tech in the real world as more people get to understand how to use it.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t be looking ahead and experimenting but we can’t jump from that to widespread use everywhere. It goes back to working out the usefulness and where it will work best for each client and team.

A big question for us is how innovation can help more lawyers, particularly women, advance their careers and return to work. What would you see as the best approach to tackling the issue?

It is a big question to answer, but one particular aspect that I have seen has a real impact for women returning to work is work allocation projects. Work allocation is something that accountants, for example, are very good at. This helps them understand what people are doing and when, as well as the aspirations of their people and their capacity, so they can schedule jobs more easily. Law firms, on the other hand, traditionally haven’t been good at this. They tend to look backwards in terms of matters and time spent, but this means they don’t always know what people are doing today and what they will be doing over next month, because of the billable hour. We’ve done work allocation programmes across two practice groups. And when you first say to partners what you are doing they think great, we will get better use out of our people.

But that’s not the be all and end all. If you’re a lawyer, you want to increase your opportunities and have it fit better with your personal life. Visibility and access to more interesting work and more influence on personal development are the most important things. So first of all, work allocation programmes help to balance out the work to ensure everyone is getting the opportunities they want and workloads are more fairly distributed. But it also has an effect on people returning to work, be it from maternity leave, career break or secondment.

The problem returners often face is that they could be quiet, maybe for months. That is not down to any bad intentions, simply that the team has reorganised in their absence and there is no ready waiting stream of work. It is, however, very demoralising for someone highly-skilled and at the top of their game before they left, and their motivation is quenched. With a work allocation project, the time spent getting someone up to speed is days rather than months.

Proper mechanisms for work distribution can also help with fitting work around life for everyone, e.g. for working parents –  understanding people’s schedules and using technology to allow them to work remotely and flexibly. As a result, the cultural barriers to flexible work have almost gone away in our organisation now. It’s not perfect – there are still some types of work where there is less flexibility, e.g. at the height of the deal negotiation cycle but I think market will move once clients become more accepting of the culture shift, and not having that deal mentality of high energy late nights until it’s done. It’s a challenge that remains across industry but it’s up to law firms to put the pressure on and change that way of thinking.

There are still culturally lots of ways people miss out on opportunities in work to be visible and forge those connections we talked about earlier, even for example teams going for drinks after work – that’s difficult for people with childcare, or those who don’t drink due to religion or lifestyle choice. No one should miss out as long as they are doing the high standard of work needed; we just need to work harder to find ways to make everyone fit together like a jigsaw.