Nick Taylor-Delahoy, head of technology at Allen & Overy, talks to Legal IT about his department's move to its new open-plan offices, wireless networks... and light-emitting polymers
|April 11, 2001 at 08:03 PM
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For most readers, the name Allen & Overy (A&O) conjures up images of the striking and venerable building the firm occupies, leased from the Bank of England, sited directly opposite St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London.The bank’s legacy lives on in the dingy basement vaults, which, until recently, housed the firm’s IT department. Here, some of the key developments in last year’s ‘extranet wars’ between the UK’s top law firms took place.But last November, despite head of technology Nick Taylor-Delahoy’s admission that the extranet wars had not yet been won, the team finally quit its bunker and emerged, blinking, into the light. Its new office may be just around the corner from headquarters, but it is still a far cry from the subterranean warren they had become accustomed to.Apart from the ultra-modern look of the new office at 130 Wood St and a coffee machine to rival that in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the move has stimulated some serious innovation.Immediately striking to the visitor is the choice of an almost completely open-plan layout. Taylor-Delahoy calls it a “community space”. All staff are seated at desks in small clusters, breaking up the monotony of the huge space. A number of glass-fronted “quiet rooms” are an alternative for those who need seclusion to concentrate on specific projects. Only Taylor-Delahoy has his own office – a spartan glass cube containing a desk, laptop and a bookshelf containing a well-leafed copy of Bill Gates’ book Business at the Speed of Light.The other thing that strikes the visitor is the complete absence of desktop PCs – all IT department staff have been issued with laptops. This may not seem revolutionary, but the lack of tangled wires trailing over desks and across the floor demonstrates just how state-of-the-art this office is. A wireless local area network enables the laptops to connect to the servers remotely from any point in the office.The IT department has already successfully adapted to the new open-plan layout and its sense of community has grown stronger since the move, according to Taylor-Delahoy.The firm is evidently impressed with the open-plan office space as it is currently moving the 140-strong project finance department onto another three floors of the building, which is equipped with laptops and a similar wireless network. Even partners will have to do without the comfort of an individual office – they will be seated alongside their fee earners and secretaries and will use the shared quiet rooms when they need more privacy.“It is visionary for the whole department to take a risk and do this,” Taylor-Delahoy says. “It is exactly what we wanted them to do. We will be able to showcase the benefits of technology to the rest of the firm.”Another firm that recently made substantial moves towards open-plan offices is Osborne Clarke, whose new headquarters in Bristol has been designed along similar lines. All lawyers in the department will also be issued with digital dictation systems that include a remote working facility and the firm is on the point of rolling out voice recognition tools to both fee earners and secretaries. The firm will set up a central server dedicated to this purpose.“Managing voice files is not the first step,” Taylor-Delahoy says. “We are starting with digital dictation, both in the office and externally. We will be rolling out speech-to-text [applications], but I only envisage people using it for simple documents.”He says one reason for exposing lawyers to all this new technology is a general desire of the partnership to move away from the currently heavy reliance on paper. In the new office for the project finance group “because the space is different, there is less capability to store paper”, he says. “We’re not going paperless, we’re going less paper – the idea is to scan incoming mail and put it into a space on the web.”He says A&O is developing a system internally to achieve this. E-mails will also be captured and filed by the system so all correspondence sits in the same logical space on the network. “There is still the occasional partner who will print out three feet of documents because it looks impressive on his bookshelf,” he says. “But people are starting to accept that they can do without it.”Taylor-Delahoy, who joined A&O from consulting firm McKinsey, says he was at first shocked to find that only 5% of lawyers used technology to the best advantage and even fewer – about 1% – really understood the issues. “It is a bit of an indictment of the legal industry,” he says. “At McKinsey, people’s understanding of technology was much better – we were brought up on laptops and had to be completely self-reliant.”But self-reliance is not the norm in the legal sector. If a partner’s laptop runs out of power when he is on the motorway, his reaction is usually to phone up his secretary and yell at her. “People need to take responsibility for their own work tools,” he says. “But it is starting to change.”According to Taylor-Delahoy, a major hindrance to the uptake of IT in offices is the inadequacy of display technology. Despite the massive advances in the field since green screens were the norm, it is still not as easy to read from a screen as it is from a printed document. But he predicts that within the next five years screens almost as thin and flexible as paper, which can be annotated with a pen, will revolutionise the way people work.One of the companies leading the research into light emitting polymers (LEPs), which may provide the solution to current display issues, is Cambridge Display Technology (CDT). According to CDT’s website, the company has been producing prototypes of wafer-thin flexible screens for more than two years.But Taylor-Delahoy points out that even if the display issues are resolved, there remains the problem of batteries. All wireless devices have to be recharged regularly and their size and weight are largely dictated by bulky battery packs. A&O has decided to issue personal digital assistants (PDAs) to all lawyers in the project finance group. The first application for these will be a mobile billing facility, delivered via a Carpe Diem client server. This will be followed closely by mobile access to e-mail. “We used to support them and provided some integration… but this is the first time we have actually issued lawyers with Palm Pilots,” he says.The firm recently completed extensive trials of Windows CE-based devices, also known as “pocket PCs”. Although these support an internet browser capable of connecting to the firm’s NewChange suite of extranet services, Taylor-Delahoy decided not to supply them to fee earners, opting instead for the more user-friendly but less sophisticated Palm Pilots. “There is always a trade-off,” he says. Some technical support staff have been given pocket PCs.Of the magic circle firms, A&O was first to market with its NewChange suite of extranet systems, designed for collaborative working with clients, just pipping Clifford Chance to the post. Taylor-Delahoy says the original dealroom concept was classic innovation as exemplified by the client reporting systems developed by courier company DHL.DHL’s web-based service enabled clients to access information held on the company’s intranet, which enabled them to track their packages as they travelled across the world. The resulting transparency was unprecedented in the industry and many of DHL’s competitors have never caught up. Taylor-Delahoy maintains that securing first-mover advantage with virtual dealrooms was similarly important for A&O.Use of the firm’s extranet facilities dipped in the summer, but has recently escalated. It currently has about 7,000 registered users for the virtual dealroom and more than 1,000 for its litigation support collaboration tool, Caseroom, according to resident extranet developer Marcus Lambert. In particular, Caseroom has picked up recently, Lambert says.The IT department has started using NewChange as a means of collaborative working, Taylor-Delahoy says. Because his department is, in effect, a global technology organisation, IT staff across different offices have been using it to work on common projects. It could also conceivably be used to provide technical support for clients. “The most difficult thing to get right is establishing 24-hour support seven days a week,” he says.One of Taylor-Delahoy’s top priorities in the short term is to take a serious look at unified messaging (UM). Until recently, e-mail was fed into a separate document management system and held in a different repository from other documents, which were archived on the central PC Docs system. Since the IT department moved to its new office, this has changed. Now both are integrated into one virtual space. “The only element that is missing is voice,” he says. Voice files are most likely to be of use in litigation.“Whether or not we will go for UM as well, I am not sure,” Taylor-Delahoy says. He reveals that A&O is piloting a UM system in its Amsterdam office, the results of which are expected next month. If feedback is sufficiently good and the system is judged to be scaleable, A&O may implement UM on a firm-wide basis.
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