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An interview with Freshfields’ Isabel Parker: the future of legal practice — innovative tech and teams

Isabel Parker was named Chief Legal Innovation Officer at Freshfields, Bruckhaus, Deringer LLP in March 2018. Prior to that, she was Director of Legal Services Innovation. Setting up Freshfields Legal Services Centre in Manchester was a key step in her path to that role. The Centre strives to provide efficient, high-quality services for the process-driven aspects of client work. She now has overall responsibility for innovation initiatives at Freshfields. In this interview, she offers a frank and fascinating inside look at innovation at a large global firm.

Tell us about the origins of the Legal Services Centre and how your role evolved.

I started as a trainee many years ago here at Freshfields and I trained and qualified at the firm. I was a senior associate in the finance practice and I worked all over the world and in New York for a number of years. Then, I came back to London, had my three children, and left for a while. Eventually, I was asked to set up the Legal Services Centre in Manchester. As part of that exercise, I became interested in process and thought about how we can work more efficiently and effectively. We began by looking at the due diligence process and how that could be improved. Our idea of a marriage between clearly defined and optimized process, more cost-effective resourcing through the LSC, and the implementation of technological solutions—such as machine learning-assisted contract analysis software—answered a demand from our clients to show real value in our delivery process. As a result, my role was created.

What does your team look like?

We have our Associate Innovation Group, which has proved to be a very successful working group at the firm. There are 30 associates, constituting a cross-practice, global group, and their responsibility is to reach out into their regions and practice groups, and start to spot opportunities to do things more efficiently, and drive innovation from the ground up.

Do they sort of self-select into that or do you find them?

Both. We solicited nominations from partners and I was also familiar with some who had previously expressed their interest in driving innovation to me. There is a growing number of associates who are very interested, largely because they can see in the day-to-day running of a case or a deal where the inefficiencies lie. I have to say, this is probably the most energizing part of the job: working with these clever, driven, and switched-on associates. They are passionate about what they are trying to achieve, fearless, and successful in challenging the status quo.

Any examples of some early wins for the team?

We had a conference in Italy recently for one of our practice groups, and incorporated a slot to talk about innovation. The associates in the Innovation Group came on to demonstrate some of the products they had built, and it was met with such a positive response. From simple time-saving apps to complicated automated drafting using AI, the partners could see how much this can mean to our clients, which was very rewarding.

How do you prioritise what you work on?

Managing the flow of ideas is a real challenge. We have a defined governance structure, which is designed to encourage innovation but to impose some discipline on the development of business cases. Clients always come first, so one of our priorities is to establish our team, along with the wider technology function, as an agile matter-support team. For example, if a new, large mass claims matter comes in, we see that as something to which we can add a lot of value. As a multidisciplinary team, we consider process definition, technology, resourcing, pricing, and anything that on a large matter can drive innovation and increase service delivery to the client, which is definitely a different approach. Before, if we were in pitches, only the lawyers, and usually only the partners, would be there. They wouldn’t bring someone like me along. But now that I have been asked along to pitches, we can see that clients are interested. Also, a new phenomenon is the associates coming to us and saying, “I want to do this. How do we make it happen?” Historically, these things are mushroomed up across the firm and we’d have a million different solutions for one problem, or regionally based solutions, so it would be just a waste of time and money. We’ve invested quite a lot of energy into sort of corralling all ideas into one space and now everything comes into a team of people, which includes me, and we go through every idea.

Are you finding that your approach to innovation and engaging associates is working its way upstream to the firm’s recruitment? Are younger lawyers looking for this kind of activity?

Innovation is undoubtedly something that young lawyers are interested in, see the value in, and want to get on board with. I think this is because, increasingly, people do not want to be sitting behind a desk in a suit for the entirety of their working lives, but want to be finding creative solutions, talking to people, and driving the business of law forward. Younger lawyers are definitely looking for this kind of activity, and we make sure they know that at Freshfields, these opportunities are not only available, but they will be encouraged to explore them and incorporate them into their daily lives at the firm.

How about the rank and file in the firm? Where are they on adopting innovation and technology?

I think we have several strata. There is the senior leadership, who are the driving force and sponsors of our innovation strategy, because they understand how important it is to future-proofing our business model. Then there are the young partners and associates who can see how to drive a real improvement in the service they are providing to clients as a result of thinking about innovation. Those in the middle are very focused on clients – and although they are challenged by the time pressure of managing their matters, they are keen to adopt anything that delivers a better client experience.

Where do you think your operation will be in two to five years?

In the next two years, we will certainly continue to grow from both a people and a technology perspective. In the longer term, I can see the firm’s innovation strategy expanding to cover more adjacent and potentially transformative technologies and products. In the short to medium term, we will be concentrating on delivering a really best in class client experience, and in embedding an attitude of innovation early on in the careers of our people – which makes the firm’s innovation strategy a significant change program. At every stage, though, we’ll be focused on making people think about how they deliver better for our clients, which is, of course, why we are all here.

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