February 17 2020
An Interview with Susan Whitla - Global Head of Process Improvement at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP
Kristina Ravic, our Client Services Manager at F-LEX, spoke with Susan Whitla at BCLP about her career, the challenges currently facing law firms, and the trends influencing legal innovation.
Tell us about your career to date
I am the Global Head of Process Improvement at BCLP. I studied Law at university and I had a position at the Northern Ireland Bar, but I decided to join Deloitte’s Management Consultancy graduate scheme to train to be a Management Consultant. At Deloitte I built up a specialism in process improvement on large transformation projects in the defence and security sector.
In 2015, an opportunity arose to blend my legal and consultancy backgrounds; Freshfields were hunting for a process improvement expert with a legal background to help set up their Manchester Service Delivery Centre. Process improvement in legal was a very niche role in the market at the time, and I jumped at the chance. I worked on various aspects of the project, including collaborating with Partners to identify the type of work streams that could be delivered from Manchester.
Demand for legal engineering/operations skills really took off shortly afterwards and I joined BLP to manage their dedicated process improvement team. The team provide process optimisation services to lawyers within the firm and also consult BCLP’s clients, which was an ideal fit for me. I’ve been here for three years and the team is continuing to grow. Post-merger, I now lead the BCLP team globally.
In your experience what are some of the difficulties law firms face today in seeking to deliver good value to their clients?
There’s the obvious (and perhaps slightly overdone) answer of: clients want more for less. Fundamentally they are expecting high quality work delivered efficiently, with price certainty where possible. Clients are also now seeing value in management information; insights, data and views of the work that you’re able to provide to them as a law firm.
Clients are really looking at law firms as business partners, to help them optimise how their business is running. GCs are confident that law firms have the relevant legal expertise, but they are increasingly pushing the boundaries to test what solutions can be provided to help them to optimise the delivery of their work and to create efficiencies. As a result, lawyers need to be creative in how they come up with solutions as it’s a competitive market. Our team does a lot to aid this and we can add a lot of value, working closely with knowledge, technology and innovation teams to help lawyers rethink delivery of the legal work.
How important is technology in legal innovation? Are you seeing other trends?
Legal technology is certainly a critical element in legal innovation, often however, it is not the silver bullet people expect it to be. At conferences this year there were a number of speakers saying investment in technology had not always brought them the returns they were anticipating, nor had it completely solved their perceived problems.
As a result we see clients looking out for more complete / rounded solutions. Over the past decade there has been a trend towards ‘disaggregation’ of services – in house teams going to different providers to resource different components of legal work, but this is causing a significant management overhead and issues with delivery at the fringes, e.g. ALSPs unable to address complex escalations, traditional law firms unable to deliver routine work at competitive fees. A number of firms have recognised this issue and are offering more complete solutions for legal service delivery; those that bring together deep legal expertise, technology and the ability to alternatively resource work. BCLP have launched our BCLP Cubed programme, which is designing new legal products which aim to seamlessly bring together the Firm’s capabilities in this area to meet the demand.
Can you give us an example/case study of a project you have worked on?
At the moment my team are very busy helping design our new legal products in Cubed. A specific example of this is how we’ve supported the design, development and roll out of our new Vendor Commercial Contract offering.
In the first instance, I helped our product managers define the opportunity in the market, and then pitch the concept to win our first pilot client. Increasingly, clients like speaking to the legal operations roles who will be responsible for implementing new solutions, as we can bring the opportunities to life for them with previous examples. We are involved in a lot of pitches to evaluate the problems and give clients confidence in our track record and capability to optimise services and new products.
During design of the product, the process improvement team worked directly with our pilot client to evaluate their current processes for outsourced commercial contracting and identify their existing pain points. We then worked with them to design optimised processes which addressed their needs, by introducing fixed fees, workflow system and redesigning their playbooks and approval templates. The client’s internal approval templates are also being built into the workflow platform to add extra value to the service by enabling data capture and MI for client dashboards, e.g. the percentage of vendors which sign up to various key terms on client standards, volume of contracts per department, etc.
One of the main benefits of process-driven services is clarity around resources required to deliver the service. Our processes identified how we intend to alternatively resource the service with Paralegals from our service delivery centre. As this work will inevitably have peaks and troughs, this can involve bringing in additional resource from F-LEX so that we can quickly upscale at peaks and bring in the people we need.
Finally, the process improvement team has a role during the pilot and in live ‘business as usual’ to monitor performance against predefined success criteria, and continuously improve the product before launch to other clients.
It’s very exciting, Cubed has a great ‘start-up’ vibe and it’s my job to ensure that what we learn can be replicated in the product development processes and Cubed product range.
Tell us an interesting fact about you!
By the very nature of my role I am a logical problem solver, and while I’m every bit this person inside work, outside work I have a very different brain. It’s like Jekyll and Hyde! At work I am very organised and efficient, but on either side of the work day I’m rather scatty. I will have been running in to work to make my first meeting or I’ll be leaving work to see friends, but won’t have planned where I’m going, how long it takes to get there, then I’ll be late and I forget the main thing I was bringing. Thankfully it’s like a switch goes on when I walk through the door!
Tell us an interesting fact about BCLP?
Our merger was the first merger globally between two law firms with women at the helm. BCLP is a great place to work as a woman; there are lots of women in senior leadership positions who are great role models, and we’ve topped a number of diversity and inclusivity leader boards. There is a genuinely respectful and inclusive culture across all levels of the firm, and as a young woman in a leadership role I have always felt supported and encouraged. I feel very fortunate to belong to the Firm!