Legal Sector - Views
 

“What is the future role of The Law Society?”

As an IT professional who has served two stints working for the Law Society, I’ll hazard the opinion that it does a fairly decent job of representation of the legal profession, but I do believe that the Society is in a position to do far more.

As the representative of the legal profession, the society does a good job of:
• Mitigating the politically-motivated excesses of central government which is prepared to cut the ordinary citizen’s access to justice and redress in the name of efficiency and cost-reduction
• Setting standards of behaviour (both corporate and individual) within the profession
• Ensuring that large, profit-motivated newcomers act in a way that respects the underlying principles of UK Law and the legal profession
• Providing clear, well-researched and independent guidance on emerging issues in society and how they inter-play with the evolution of UK law and the legal framework of society. A great example of this is the recent guidance on the laws and regulation around the Deprivation of Liberty.

However, I do believe that the Society is in a position to do far more. A short while ago, I watched the annual Richard Dimbleby lecture on TV. Baroness Lane-Fox, the co-founder of Lastminute.com, was the guest speaker. The thrust of her speech was to propose the need for a new organisation in the fabric our society, a “Champion” which is charged with the mission to:

• Be at the forefront of promoting innovative use of technology and thereby be well positioned to
• Provide independent representation to protect the rights of the individual faced with the onslaught of the digital age and
• Promote the role of women within the IT industry

I’m not sure about the last objective: the rare successful periods of my career have traded heavily on the skills and wisdom of female colleagues so I do not underestimate the capabilities of women in IT, and it is true that, in the past, the odds have been stacked against the progress of women upwards on the corporate ladder. However, I do not believe in “positive discrimination” – I think it is insulting to the beneficiaries (implying they could not achieve through their own endeavours) and unfair to those who are passed over because of the positive discrimination mandate. I believe that, as the attitudes of society change, it will be naturally reflected (albeit with a time lag as it works through) in the number of women in the higher echelons of corporate IT.

On the other hand, I am extremely concerned about the dangers we face as a society with regard to invasion of privacy and the use of technology for persuasion and potentially coercion. Simply because advances are taking pace at a rate which means that many do not fully understand the technology they are using, the individual is faced with a digital onslaught which has far-reaching implications.

• Profit-motivated businesses are able to collect unprecedented amounts of data (quantities so large and detailed that we cannot comprehend them) and has available sufficient computing power to analyse and correlate the disparate items of data (in real time) to create detailed personal profiles which contain private information that would alarm individuals if they knew that information has been collected and collated. Predictive behaviour patterns subsequently become the norm based on this profiling;

• Government, under the auspices of national security, is able to avail itself of that capability. Moreover, as the goal of “joined-up government” is realised, this unprecedented knowledge can be allied with an ability to recognise the individual in his / her daily digital life, and control the responses and (more dangerously) manipulate the triggers issued by the institutions that form the bulk of the context of an individual’s everyday interactions

In the wrong hands, this could usher in an age where invasion of privacy takes on a distinctly Orwellian scale.

To those who say that I am being unnecessarily alarmist, I would remind them that “knowledge is power” and to (mis-)quote the great historian Toynbee: “power corrupts; and absolute power (absolute knowledge?) corrupts absolutely.”

It is this context that I believe the Law Society, through its position, history, traditions and enviable reputation (not to mention the quality of many of the people there with whom I have had the pleasure to work), has an almost unique opportunity to be a major player in the protection of individual freedom in a digital society:

• Clearly, the society already holds a unique and authoritative position as a bridge between the judiciary, the legal profession, their clients, their elected representatives and the political administration of the day.
• The society has already developed and published a reputable body of work, covering both guidance and objective research, in the area of policy with regard to areas such as Digital Rights, Freedom of Information, Data Protection and Privacy etc etc.
• The society lobbies interest groups, politicians and civil servants, and consults with subject matter experts and lay people as a matter of course in its daily work
• The society has the best access to the deepest and most copious source of legal knowledge in the land

However, there are some impediments:
• The society seems to suffer from a lack of self-confidence. My own theory is that much of this is due to the debilitating in-fighting between the society and its “super-department” the SRA, and explains why it often undermines its own good work, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, with periodic blood-lettings with the exit of senior managers.
• A further source of weakness lies in the society’s standing in regard to the first of Baroness Lane-Fox’s mission objectives – to be at the forefront of promoting innovative use of technology.

Quite frankly, the society’s record on this front has been appalling. Costly mistake has compounded costly mistake – there is a litany of failed or misguided (and failed and misguided) projects. Successive waves of expensive consultants have failed to have any beneficial impact. During my time there I came across many instances of this – for example, I unearthed 3 reports on the same topic compiled over the span of 7 years, each compiled by different but equally expensive consultants, recommending broadly the same solutions differentiated only by the beautifully designed and innovative graphics with which they were presented!

This record of nearly uninterrupted failure clearly required a solution. Unfortunately, the solution chosen could actually be the final nail in the coffin if the society doesn’t move on!

Having failed to deliver projects successfully, the society elected to spend ever increasing amounts of money on the same approach as before and thereby try to do it better. In the industry, this approach is known as “Big IT” which entails large programmes of work with a number of interrelated and subordinate work streams creating a morass of interdependencies – the end result is an army of people involved in project management / project support (administrative) tasks largely focussed on assuring the work rather than the work itself i.e. bureaucracy.

If you want to know more about the problems with this approach, please have a look at this video:

“The problems with Big IT and Waterfall approaches”

The Law Society embarked on this strategy of incremental improvement of “Big IT” at the time when the rest of the IT industry was finally rejecting this approach. After a couple of decades of dismal and expensive project failures the industry has come to its senses and now prefers to de-compose programmes into bite-sized chunks and deal with them with an Agile (quicker and cheaper) approach.

A very current example is in the sums of money (I admit I have only indicative figures) paid for the development and implementation of Veyo (the new conveyancing portal) which are grossly disproportionate given that the functionality delivered is standard to many Commercial off the Shelf (COTS) products. Indeed, I have had some discussions recently with the team at a rival service which was delivered in a shorter timeframe with roughly the same functionality and integration with other services such as the Land Registry and Lawyer Checker for a fraction of the cost of Veyo.

I fear that Veyo is yet another illustration of the Law Society being out-of-step with the times in terms of its use of technology.

What is of greater concern than the exorbitant cost is the fact that this bodes ill for the ongoing evolution of the platform. I was involved in early discussions around Veyo (in 2012 – has it really taken that long to deliver!!) and the potential for further innovations based on the platform is significant. However, the society will never materialise those value-added developments if it continues to proceed with a Big IT approach.

"Big IT" and PRINCE II have been the bedrocks of how client organisations have gone about change over the last 20 years. I'd make two points: a) successive studies (such as the Standish Group CHAOS report) have shown that the vast majority of change efforts have failed during that time and b) “Big IT” and PRINCE II positively stifle innovation.

My view is that you can position the way the society has approached IT over the last few years in two ways: a) by establishing and embedding certain disciplines and principles, it can be viewed as a stage in the journey to maturity in change delivery or b) as the final destination on that journey.

If the former is the case, then I'd urge the society to embark on the next stage of the journey, adopting modern approaches, as soon as possible. If it is the latter, I fear that Baroness Lane-Fox will have to look elsewhere for her Champion.

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