Richard Hodkins

The year 2012 was a fast 12 months for DWF, a national law firm with big aspirations. Three mergers complete and a near miss on a fourth all in support of the firm’s current stated mission – become a top 20 firm. DWF, under the current leadership, has changed gear to a pace that is near incomparable in the legal sector, a sector which is undergoing a metamorphosis into something that is more recognisable to those in other consumer and business focussed sectors. Changes in regulation have been the catalyst to this shift in landscape with some business failures and many more firms merging to survive or, in the case of DWF, build a new position in the first division of legal services.

The rapid rise through the league table brings challenges for the business on a number of levels which are at least; operational maturity, harmonisation with the newly merged businesses and, importantly, building out new innovative ways of delivering legal services. DWF is entrepreneurially led, the continual quest for unique ways of distinguishing the business from others in the field goes on despite the increasing scale of the business.

Video conference services were completely upgraded and cloud sourced along with a BYOD policy and unified communications – the standard tools end users are becoming familiar with. However, other connectivity mediums such as social tools were becoming better understood and their use, particularly with the younger generation of lawyers, is becoming tools of choice. Social tools have come from off the enterprise demonstrating that it is more than just a passing fad and that there are benefits to be had in the business with private social networks. I would be the first to admit that if you are looking for a technology investment around social with an attractive ROI, you may not find it here – we are in the realms of the ethereal.

This is fine of course because despite the best efforts of management consultants, academics and the like to create a science from the subject of IT and business management by insisting on an ROI for everything, we are dealing here with people and human behaviour. Humans, as we know, don’t always respond consistently or predictably to a given set of inputs and, indeed, this is the very feature of the human condition I sought to provide for within what has traditionally been a very logical and rules driven business.

And the problem being solved was...

In a nutshell social networking at DWF assists with:

1. Creating a space for sharing information around existing client relationships and seeking out new business opportunities by connecting the right people with new thinking. Increasing the firm’s geographic spread was a strategic ambition, particularly with key moves into Scotland allowing stronger relationships to be established with existing clients and greater potential for being invited to work for new clients looking for a nationwide multi-jurisdiction law firm. With more offices came the need to improve the way people interacted and technology has a significant part to play in building bridges and cementing relationships both internally and externally.
2. Bringing clients closer to us with private client facing social networks and demonstrating an innovative step. Technology facing the paying consumer in the legal market is not as well developed as other sectors and so looking to use social tools with clients, albeit not exclusively as it depends on the clients preferences, was considered to be a great step forward. This is particularly important as the demographic of the client is wide so DWF has to have a broad appeal in style and capability.
3. Giving everyone in the business a voice – inverting the triangle we call it using the notion the leaders in the business are, at times, subservient to those working on client files who have intimate knowledge of those things that are not working in the business; business improvement ethos.
4. Slow the number of email discussions taking place. As we all recognise, email has and does serve an extremely useful function, however, it has to be recognised that it is not a perfect tool for ad-hoc discussions that may have wider audience participation. It is desirable that many discussions come off email on to a more appropriate tool allowing greater transparency and involvement.
5. Project support particularly around DWF's five mergers in 13 months. In the latter mergers, the firm used Yammer to pool project resources to minimise the high level of circular email traffic on issues and the high level of documentation on the move.

This may sound a little lightweight with no hard and fast cuts in operational overhead or a technology that enables exciting new lines of income; this is about the hearts and minds which in merged law firms is a critical component. Failure to understand the soft aspects of people behaviour will unravel the potential value in the merged entity. After all, in a law environment, the lawyer is the product.

Yammer implementation

Enterprise social network tools entered the DWF world in the shape of Yammer, which was subsequently consumed by Microsoft which was handy – we were already lovers of Microsoft and any closer working between the two could only be a good thing.

Technically, Yammer was a gift for IT – it is, dare I say the word, a cloud based solution meaning it was ‘instant on’.  Adoption was viral in nature with people connecting without the need to plan and undertake an expensive implementation programme. It meant that new business being merged with had instant access to the DWF social scene without the need for complex networking to log on to an on-premise domain to get involved. It delivers one of those very suspect terms used around cloud computing – elastic. The solution moves with us in scale and without any IT impact. Usefully, the solution comes with a free-to-download iOS App, which is functionally rich and easy to use.

Easing any administration there is associated with living with Yammer, there is a useful synchronisation with DWF's active directory helping the integrity of the service with starters and leavers.

Governance – a heavy word however and, deliberately, it was decided there was only one rule to using Yammer beyond what everyone signs up to in the ICT Acceptable Use policy which is to never use the service to pursue a matter for a client. Otherwise, it is open season and deliberately so as we felt it necessary to allow freedom of expression. This needs further work as the majority of the active users are at fee earner level whose highbrow discussions have tended to alienate another larger audiences such as central service teams and secretaries  we need to engage with. There’s more work to do here.

The story so far:

Launched in the summer of 2012, the adoption of the solution was epic particularly as IT planted the seeds but the highest level of business user led the charge. User sign up was more than 1,400 in 14 days. Without a doubt there was an initial buzz, which has not been sustained and there’s more work to do in embedding it into the ‘way we do things’ as old email habits die hard. Some facts:

- There are 199 groups being used for both internal communities aligned; functionally, by sector, projects or other, the largest with 211 members
- 7,000 posts, threads and
- Nine external groups
- 11,000 messages have been posted
- 1,527 members have subscribed

In summary, the key to rapid adoption of products, particularly in professional services where time always appears to be at a premium for training, is two-fold:

1. Simplicity - Something I call Fisher Price computing. With Yammer, no/minimal training was required as it is modest in functionally making the interfaces simple and intuitive. Like other social sites widely used, there was a degree of instant familiarity and so without any training, users started sharing prospects in a short space of time. However, for those not familiar with social networking, a training solution needs putting in place to assist improved adoption to another level.
2. Accessibility - The growth of the business and the advent of BYOD, which has been embraced by DWF, means we have in excess of 500 people moving about/on the move. Providing tools which are readily accessed from any platform stimulates use.

Social networking on the enterprise may be in its infancy and considered an optional extra, however, the increasing demographic within large multi-site and international businesses brings about a compelling need for co-operation and collaboration that cannot be ignored.