Welcome

Mahmood Lone and Boyan Wells

Interview with Wim and Andrew

WIM DEJONGHE and ANDREW BALLHEIMER

A fusion of ideas

Jonathan Brayne and Shruti Ajitsaria

Aiming high

MICHAEL FELDBERG, TIM HOUSE, JACOB PULTMAN, JOHN SAMAHA and Brechje Van Der Velden

Fact, fiction and the art of writing

Abi Silver and Shankari Chandran

Spotlight on Belfast

Andrew Brammer, Patricia Rogers, Jane Townsend and Kevin Oliver

Children trapped by war

Andrew Ballheimer and Louise Young

SPOTLIGHT ON BELFAST…

Opened in 2011, A&O’s Belfast office has made its mark on the firm and how it serves clients.

Andrew Brammer

IT and Shared Services Director
A&O: 2002-present

Patricia Rogers

Support Services Centre Head
A&O: 2013-present

Jane Townsend

Partner, Head of Legal Services Centre
A&O: 1995-present

Kevin Oliver

Head of Advanced Delivery (Technology)
A&O: 2011-present
Big Fish sculpture by John Kindness at Queen’s Quay, situated at the foot of the A&O office.

A&O Belfast gives the firm a unique proposition and, with its blend of technology and law, is forcing lawyers to reconsider how they serve their clients.

It’s also becoming “a centre of competence for the firm” in the field of data extraction and contract review using AI tools. That was the view of senior partner Wim Dejonghe after he visited the office, home to our Support Services Centre (SSC) and the LSC, early in 2017.

Belfast has certainly made a success of its first six years. Conceived in the aftermath of the 2008/10 financial crash and opened in 2011 when other law firms were closing offices, it has profoundly changed the way A&O supports its network of offices and clients.

Its work, particularly in advancing the use of technology in the legal sector, has been recognised within the legal industry, the Northern Ireland (NI) business community and the firm. It is regularly cited for best practice in working environment and corporate responsibility.

With more than 500 employees, Belfast is our second-biggest office worldwide, and naturally its people are proud of their achievements.

Andrew Brammer, IT and Shared Services Director, was instrumental in establishing the office and led the SSC for its first three years. Its genesis owes much to the firm’s realisation that it had to respond to client demands that their advisors be more efficient and cost-effective.

“The pressure from clients forced us to take a fresh look at how we delivered some of our support services,” Andrew says.

The SSC launched in November 2011 to deliver core internal business support processes including IT, HR, finance, business services and library. The LSC followed in early 2012 with its focus on providing clients with the right combination of resourcing and technology.

A year later, the Belfast office expanded with the establishment of business protection and acceptance units (BPU/BAU), adding further lawyers to those already working in the LSC and aosphere. The move, said Andrew, demonstrated the firm’s confidence in the quality of legal talent in the local market.



Different atmosphere read more

Visitors, including those from other A&O offices, comment that Belfast has a different atmosphere to other offices in the network. The city itself is buzzing, and nowhere more so than the city centre, where A&O is located.

Major new developments and regeneration projects have transformed areas such as the Titanic Quarter, Victoria Square and the Cathedral Quarter. Business and employment opportunities are good and the city continues to attract major foreign direct investment with new operations by the likes of Baker McKenzie, Pearson, Tullett Prebon iCap, Axiom and iManage.

500+
ALLEN & OVERY’S SECOND LARGEST OFFICE BY HEADCOUNT

100+
THE IT DEPARTMENT ALONE BOASTS MORE THAN 100 PEOPLE

BELFAST

Time zone ping-pong read more

Multinational organisations are fond of the concept of handing off jobs between offices in different parts of the world, especially if the work is urgent.

Belfast allows the A&O network to play the same game on occasion although, as Jane stresses, they obviously prefer advance notice.

On one occasion, the LSC was able to help after A&O’s Sydney office received “some quite tricky documents” about 7pm their time and a 24-hour deadline for dealing with them.

“They rang us for help about 9am our time,” said Jane. “We managed to get a team of about eight people, with experience, to drop what they were doing to help our people in Sydney.

“Because we have quite a big team here, we do our best to shuffle work around to enable us to help our colleagues when this sort of thing happens.”

SYDNEY

Staff also enjoy their modern open plan office in a “lively little corner” of the city. In front of the office is Belfast’s ‘Salmon of Knowledge’ sculpture, the equivalent of Copenhagen’s famous mermaid. Nearby is the historic Customs House and Titanic museum. It’s an area popular with both locals and tourists, especially the cruise ship trade.

A&O was one of the first international law firms to establish its services centre in Belfast. The move was also “a coup” for Invest NI with its vision of a legal services cluster in Belfast to complement its financial and fintech centre.

Andrew recalls being made to feel “incredibly welcome” by the NI business community. Six years on, A&O is among Northern Ireland’s top 150 employers and part of the fabric of the city and local community.

Ascending the value chain read more

Patricia Rogers, who succeeded Andrew as SSC head, said the SSC was primarily set up to do low-end transactional work. “Over time, we’ve moved up the value chain.” She cites the IT department as an example – today, global IT service management is operated solely from the Belfast office, as are all IT infrastructure projects.

“Every support function is represented in Belfast,” Patricia says. The SSC carries out “a significant amount of the transactional activity for the firm in terms of support functions”, mainly for the UK, western European and U.S. practices.

The IT department in Belfast is A&O’s largest, with more than 100 people. That puts the office in an ideal position to trial innovative technology.

One area of interest is robotic process automation (RPA) in support services. This technology, widely deployed in our client operation centres, uses technology to automate swathes of repetitive process work. Though in its infancy, RPA is something the board is “keen for us to investigate further,” Patricia says. “That will be an opportunity not just for SSC but for support functions throughout the firm.”

In the forefront of development read more

Technology is also changing the landscape in legal services, and here the LSC is in the forefront of development. An integral part of our Advanced Delivery suite, the LSC has helped give us, in essence, a new way of working with clients.

LSC head Jane Townsend says an increasing number of lawyers are embracing technology. “Using a machine to help read documents for you, for example, is becoming a lot more mainstream in the industry,” she said. “We have that technology in this office.”

For many young lawyers, the LSC is a “door-opener”; an opportunity to increase their awareness of IT and the importance of adding those skills and knowledge to their toolkit.

The LSC works on client matters with most of the firm. Around 300 partners have instructed the LSC; more than 150 regularly use its services. It typically handles document-intensive projects, work that other offices don’t have the permanent manpower to handle. Increasingly it also works on smaller and more specialised drafting, analysis and negotiation exercises.

Often it is external client-facing work, sometimes involving LSC secondees. At any time, 10-15 LSC lawyers will be on secondment within the A&O network or at client sites, giving Belfast a physical interaction with other offices and their clients.

The LSC is also well placed to help identify opportunities for technology-based improvements. “We have the luxury of a bit more time to explore better ways of doing things,” Jane says. “Demand on us is a little less than on a traditional A&O office, so it’s easier to say to one or two people, ‘Go away for a month and develop a solution’ to a specific challenge.

“Because we are a general pool of resource, our lawyers work across different practices. That enables us to lead change by suggesting improvements we see in one area of the practice that can be usefully deployed from other areas.”

One LSC team member developed an innovative process for recording trademark transfers and applied it to 20,000 such transfers in 185 jurisdictions around the world, in support of a joint venture in the healthcare sector.

“The LSC is a microcosm of the firm,” Jane says. “When you work closely with IT, as we do, technology ceases to be a ‘minority sport’. We can all benefit from it.”

Scientists on staff read more

The LSC also has eight PhD-qualified scientists on staff, a reflection of the breadth of client issues and a differentiator for A&O in the market. Their knowledge of physics, chemistry and molecular biology is invaluable in IP litigation, particularly in the life sciences and technology sectors. “Some claims revolve around disputes in relation to the science,” Jane says. “To understand documents and fight these claims, you need people who can follow the literature.”

This knowledge and skill is also useful in writing descriptions of science or technology-heavy businesses, for a prospectus for example, and in helping corporate clients manage product liability risk in areas relating to new scientific developments.

The LSC is steadily expanding the number of practices it works with beyond English law jurisdictions. One result of more work in the U.S. may be to encourage some of its lawyers to add U.S. law qualification to their CVs.

As the LSC matures, it is adding an increasing amount of in-house and client-facing work to its portfolio. Its lawyers also now find themselves working for specific clients, negotiating and drafting complicated documents and instruments. “We’re moving from being just a ‘big projects offering’ with other A&O offices to handling many more strands of smaller work, often direct with clients,” Jane says.

Energised workforce read more

The impact of Belfast’s dynamic and energised workforce is perhaps best seen in the way the office engages with its local community. It has a vibrant and active corporate social responsibility CSR) agenda, driven by the staff. “Our people are very interested in the contribution that we as an office can make,” Patricia says.

The team revels in its multicultural mix, a reflection partly of its work supporting offices across the globe, partly the happy outcome of increased mobility in the labour force – part of the NI peace dividend. At last count, 13 languages are spoken in the office.

Some 70% of the staff are millennials; considerations such as flexible working patterns are important. Nine-to-five doesn’t suit everyone, which helps when it comes to staffing SSC shifts in IT support, creative services, finance and document services, which need to cover office hours in other time zones. Diversity and inclusivity are major themes for the office. It invests in a structured programme of initiatives across numerous interests, including gender, health and wellbeing, LGBT and families and carers.

“Diversity is key for us,” Patricia says, “and we lead the way in the local market.” If proof were needed, she could point to A&O’s founding membership in both NI’s Rainbow Project in support of the LBGT community and the Equality Commission’s health charter. The Belfast office has CORE accreditation – one of very few firms in Northern Ireland to have it – and is featured in a broadcast by the Equality Commission about best practice in mental health. Business in the Community awarded it ‘highly commended’ for diversity and inclusion.

Belfast staff donate their time to mentoring school children in skills such as reading, computer literacy and coding through programmes with local junior and senior schools in disadvantaged areas. They also take part in a Dragons’ Den-style activity, in partnership with PwC. The office’s CSR committees are “very self-motivated,” says Patricia. “They get things done – and that’s great. I’m very proud of our people. They’re committed to making a difference.”

Legal Innovation Centre read more

A&O is one of the sponsors of the Legal Innovation Centre at Ulster University, which was launched in February 2017. Andrew describes the initiative – the first of its kind in the UK as “post-graduate education where law and technology intersect”.

“As a firm, we recognise the huge opportunities, and disruption, that technology will bring to our clients and our industry,” he says. “With the LSC, we are starting to bring together some of that law and technology to look at its influence on how we design and shape solutions in future.

“One of the benefits of being in NI is access to a highly educated and technology-literate workforce.”

Jane worked closely with the university on setting up the centre. She says the inaugural course was well received and the centre’s partners are looking at ways of expanding its relevance, including the introduction of a recognised legal technologist qualification.

“Legal service is a knowledge-led business and technology is pivotal to everything we do,” she says. “Across our firm, we seek to continually improve and enhance our systems and the way we do things. This collaboration gives us the opportunity to work towards these and other goals while deepening our strong relationship with Ulster University.”

Ulster University is home to the UK’s Legal Innovation Centre.

The impact of Belfast’s dynamic and energised workforce is perhaps best seen in the way the office engages with its local community. It has a vibrant and active corporate social responsibility (CSR) agenda, driven by the staff. “Our people are very interested in the contribution that we as an office can make,” Patricia says.

The team revels in its multicultural mix, a reflection partly of its work supporting offices across the globe, partly the happy outcome of increased mobility in the labour force – part of the NI peace dividend. At last count, 13 languages are spoken in the office.

Some 70% of the staff are millennials; considerations such as flexible working patterns are important. Nine-to-five doesn’t suit everyone, which helps when it comes to staffing SSC shifts in IT support, creative services, finance and document services, which need to cover office hours in other time zones.

Diversity and inclusivity are major themes for the office. It invests in a structured programme of initiatives across numerous interests, including gender, health and well-being, LGBT and families and carers.

“Diversity is key for us,” Patricia says, “and we lead the way in the local market.” If proof were needed, she could point to A&O’s founding membership in both NI’s Rainbow Project in support of the LBGT community and the Equality Commission’s health charter. The Belfast office has CORE accreditation – one of very few firms in Northern Ireland to have it – and is featured in a broadcast by the Equality Commission about best practice in mental health. Business in the Community awarded it ‘highly commended’ for diversity and inclusion.

Belfast staff donate their time to mentoring school children in skills such as reading, computer literacy and coding through programmes with local junior and senior schools in disadvantaged areas. They also take part in a Dragons’ Den-style activity, in partnership with PwC.

The office’s CSR committees are “very self-motivated,” says Patricia. “They get things done – and that’s great. I’m very proud of our people. They’re committed to making a difference.”

Culture of innovation read more

The Belfast set-up gives people time and space to innovate. “The firm gains additional value from our culture of thinking about continuous service improvement,” Patricia says.

When Belfast’s marketing team realised the headache that completing A&O’s submissions for the annual legal directories caused, they took on the task of streamlining the process. Ultimately they plan to automate it. Patricia says the firm can expect more of the same.

The firm’s success in NI and its reputation for good training makes A&O people attractive to other professional services companies. But they come back too – sometimes quickly, as was the case of an IT specialist who returned after only a few months with an insurance company. Another ‘boomerang’ rejoined the Belfast office after two years in Dubai; others have moved to the London office, some to join the trainee scheme, and “hopefully will come back to us in the years ahead”.

“What A&O has achieved in Belfast has been largely down to its ‘one firm’ culture,” Patricia says. “Our success here wouldn’t have been possible without the drive, determination and skills of all the people involved – not just the team here, but the many people we work with across the firm every day.

“Belfast is a key part of the firm and we’re here to benefit the firm as a whole.”

Titanic museum is one of the best-known tourist attractions in Belfast.

Illuminated Belfast City Hall.

13
LANGUAGES SPOKEN IN THE BELFAST OFFICE

10-15
LSC LAWYERS ON SECONDMENT AT ANY ONE TIME WITHIN THE A&O NETWORK AT CLIENT SITES

8
PHD-QUALIFIED SCIENTISTS ON THE LSC STAFF

IT’s year of disruption read more

After years of hearing how technology was going to disrupt the way we deliver legal services to clients, Kevin Oliver believes 2017 was the year it “came to fruition”.

He’s in a good position to know: as London-based head of the Advanced Delivery technology department, it’s his job to make it happen in A&O.

Kevin is responsible for technology that impacts how lawyers work day to day; for exploring ways to help lawyers transact more efficiently and profitably. “Essentially we’re trying to build a legal technology toolkit for the various practices.”

He moved to his current role in May 2017 after six years in Belfast where he led the IT team setting up the service management function there.

The legal sector, he says, is five years behind retail, pharma and other industries in its use of technology. But software suppliers are getting better at understanding the challenges lawyers face in areas such as document review and discovery, and developing appropriate technology.

He says much changed in 2016/17 to give legal services “an extended period of technology-assisted lawyering”; meanwhile, his team constantly scans the technology horizon to stay abreast of developments.

“My role is trying to understand what’s really important from A&O’s perspective,” he says. “We’re trying to focus on where the firm’s resources and capital can be invested wisely.”

Kevin rejects as “unlikely” the suggestion that technology will put lawyers out of a job. What will change, he says, is the way they work with automated systems. New roles will enter the market. “Lawyers will be able to become more focused in certain areas,” he says.

“We’re trying to raise awareness of the role of technology beyond practice management, looking more along the lines of how technology can help us work better, smarter and more proficiently. Law firms will increasingly re-invent themselves to rely on data to make decisions from the ground up.”

In Belfast, members of our technology team sit within the LSC, increasing their day-to-day contact with lawyers and legal work. Kevin says: “We’re trying to get the two disparate groups more closely aligned, talking each other’s language going forward.”

“What A&O has achieved in Belfast has been largely down to its ‘one firm’ culture. Our success here wouldn’t have been possible without the drive, determination and skills of all the people involved – not just the team here, but the many people we work with across the firm every day.”