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Linklaters’ COO on why he sees AI as a solution enabler, not a job eliminator

Matt McAllester Matt McAllester
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screenpunk

Lawyers can rest easy. AI isn’t the “eliminate jobs type thing that people have been hyping”, according to the COO and tech boss at one of the world’s leading law firms.

Matt Peers, global CIO and COO, was talking to Hot Topics about the role that technology plays at London-based Linklaters.

Business is booming for the group, as evidenced by its 2017/18 full-year results. With nearly 30 offices in 20 countries, it recorded annual profit per equity partner of US$1.985 (£1.548M), with revenue up 5.8 per cent to US$1.94B (£1.52B) and pre-tax profit up 1.7 per cent to US$867m (£676.2M). Deals contributing to its performance included advising Japan’s Takeda on a US$55B (£43B) bid for Shire Pharmaceuticals and UK supermarket Sainsbury’s merger with former rival Asda.

 

Merging tech and operations

Peers joined Linklaters in 2015 as director of technology. But in January of this year he was also handed the position of global chief operating officer. He reflects on how overseeing technology helped prepare him for his broader COO role.

“Most CIOs live in a world where they’re managing large, complex programmes, they get to see lots of business processes in action,” he says. “They also end up being quite good operators because you have to be responsive and reactive to what your organization needs from a technology perspective. And I think all those skills are quite good in preparing you to be a COO and take on broader operating responsibilities.

“Most of the CIOs I know and I meet are actually really good people in terms of having great business acumen. And therefore they’re able to translate that when they come to do another role or a broader role.”

 

Search integration

Merging operations and technology within the corporate structure makes perfect sense, allowing Linklaters to seamlessly meet the operational needs of its lawyers and support staff using innovative tech. It’s a point that’s borne out by recent developments.

“We are currently implementing a solution which massively enhances the search capabilities that people have in our firm,” Peers explains. “Where people would be working on a particular matter (the type of work we do, we call them ‘matters’), they would want to know information that would help them come to the right conclusions and form the right decisions to help our clients.”

This could include getting information about people in the firm, gathering examples of other cases Linklaters has worked on, or accessing market information.

“Historically, in order to get that information you’d have to dip in to lots of different systems,” Peers says. “We [already ran] a single global system for our enterprise management. But we haven’t ever had an enterprise search that works in a way that you can tap into this.

“So you can now run a query which says: ‘show me where we’ve done banking agreements in China where we had people who speak Spanish.’ So we can pull up information that we couldn’t previously pull up. People in the firm really like that kind of thing as it makes their life faster.”

 

The robots are (not) taking over

It’s an example of technology as the great enabler, smoothing processes and improving productivity. But as well as positives, technology’s rapid development brings with it worries and concerns. Not least the idea that people’s jobs are under threat.

“I joined the firm around three years ago [when] there was all this hype in the industry,” Peers says. “AI is going to take over our jobs, we’re going to be able to industrialize everything, and everything’s going to become routine and automated.”

But that hasn’t happened. What has happened, he says, is that AI tools are progressing. “Every year they are getting a little bit better and they can do a little bit more.

“So we can do things with AI tools now where we can extract certain clauses from contracts. If you get a stack of 10,000 contracts and you want to know what the governing law is in all of those contracts, you can run a computer program to tell you where previously you would have employed a person to turn the pages on 10,000 contracts.

“That technology is now available so it is making for a different work experience for people, but it isn’t the eliminate jobs type thing that people have been hyping up for a while.”

Peers says that Linklaters will continue to invest in AI tools, adding: “We’re quite keen to do as much as we can in that space.”

 

Collaborative tech

Beyond AI, Peers is also enthusiastic about the growth of collaboration technology. “The way that we are engaging with our clients is changing, there is a slow increased use of video and online collaboration sessions,” he says.

Social and chat apps have also become more commonplace in communications between Linklaters and its clients.

“We have a number of clients who wish to communicate with us over things like WhatsApp and WeChat, depending on where they are in the world,” Peers says.

“And that presents some challenges for us as a technology function, as we need to make sure we keep records of all the things that we are doing. So there are technologies like that that are quite interesting.”

 

Gap in the market

Meanwhile, for any developer out there looking to make a whole heap of money, it would be worth paying attention to what Peers’ believes is a sizeable gap in the market. A gap that needs filling.

“The one thing that’s not been invented yet that I’m excited for is something around security,” he says.

“When I was just doing the CIO role I was probably spending one to two days a week on security-related issues in one way or another. And we kind of haven’t yet had any massive advances in information security for quite some time.”

It’s long overdue, Peers reckons. “We’re due something that knows and understands who an individual is and what they’re allowed to see and when they’re allowed to see it and how they authenticate.

“We live in this world of the technology team building all sorts of complex systems around passwords and access and we’ve got tools on our firewalls and all these gateways to stop information from going here, there and everywhere, we’ve got clients saying they want us to implement data leakage prevention tools…

“All these things happen, and it strikes me that we as a group of bright tech people should be able to solve these problems and make it easier for people. That’s the thing I’m really looking forward to.”

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