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Gareth Hughes – Adapting to Change and Enjoying It

In this episode, Jake Hills, Vice President, Legal Operations at Elevate, talks with Gareth Hughes, Director of Strategy at the international law firm Reed Smith.

Communicate – You Can’t Build This Stuff in a Box

In this episode, Jake Hills, Vice President, Legal Operations at Elevate, talks with Gareth Hughes, Director of Strategy at the international law firm Reed Smith. Gareth and Jake talk about implementing widespread change, specifically restructuring law firm processes to meet today’s efficiency-conscious customers’ needs.

  • [01:08] – Driving innovation, embedding technology, and process design – it’s Reed Smith’s DNA
  • [02:03] – Clients were telling us they want accelerated delivery
  • [04:09] – “Let’s think about what a great delivery model will look like ten years from now… let’s see if we can make that happen in three years rather than ten years.”
  • [09:44] – The best bit is telling our clients we can do things better.  We hired our first-ever Head of Legal Engineering, focused on keeping us aligned to change, focusing on continuous improvement.
  • [12:08] – Clients don’t want to pay for us to reinvent the wheel. They want to see us moving faster, moving to the next generation of working.
  • [15:23] – When a client asks, “Can you help us solve this?” Four to five years ago; it would have been much harder than today.
  • [17:27] – Having continuous improvement in a role gives you that freshness. People are enjoying it.
  • [20:01] – Professional staff can sometimes underestimate a partner’s ability or willingness to adapt, to be commercially savvy, when clients drive change, it makes a difference.
  • [20:54] – Communicate, over-communicate. You can’t build this stuff in a box.


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Podcast Transcript

Note: This transcript has been adjusted to improve readability. Transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and human transcribers. The context and more than 95% of the actual transcript have been preserved.  We strongly encourage our listeners to listen to the audio.


Nicole Giantonio: Hello, this is Nicole Giantonio, the Head of Global Marketing at Elevate. The podcast episode you’re about to hear is part of our Impact Series, featuring Elevate customers implementing transformative change. In this episode, Jake Hills, Vice President, Legal Operations at Elevate, talks with Gareth Hughes, Director of Strategy at the international law firm Reed Smith. Gareth and Jake talk about implementing widespread change, specifically restructuring law firm processes to meet the needs of business of law customers. And, yes, communication is key.

Jake Hills: Gareth, thank you for joining us today. I’m excited to have this discussion with you. To help frame our discussion, I would like to start at the beginning of your journey; more specifically, when did you realize that you needed to implement change? Was it a moment in time, or was it something more gradual that you came to understand?

Gareth Hughes: I think it’s important to understand Reed Smith’s business and strategy key pillars. They’ve been pretty consistent for a long time. For the six years, I’ve been at the firm; we’ve been talking about driving innovation, embedding technology, and moving forward in our process design. It’s one of the things that attracted me to the firm. Hearing a big law firm talk about process design and continual improvement was pretty exciting for me. Looking back to the early 2000s, Reed Smith had a pioneering Legal Services Center in Pittsburgh. We still do; we have a huge building. We have data scientists. We have practice improvement technology teams. We have a great solution and a great team over there working on it that has been in place for quite a long time. It’s in Reed Smith’s DNA, along with Elevate’s forefathers, Integreon and Axiom. We all started at the same time. We were all thinking about this, with different focuses and approaches, it’s been a focus for a while.

There are always regulatory changes in an international professional environment; you need to adapt and change. The UK and European arms have been working with the center in Pittsburgh for a long time, really effectively. Changes in GDPR and other changes meant that we had to think about how we can have an on-the-ground solution for this problem and make sure that we’re ready to respond to client needs, whatever happens with the regulatory environments. We were quite aware that Brexit was looming, what that would mean for our UK and EU data sharing policy and the ability to work, there were lots of things bubbling away. But the most important thing, and this has been consistent, is that we have a well-developed client listening program, client insights team. I’d read an interesting report from our head of client relationships, which was about clients telling us what was important to them; this was probably three to four years ago. It wasn’t what we thought was important to them. We focus on cost efficiency, alternative pricing models, and that is important, and we’ve got a great solution.  We focus on accelerated delivery to get to outcomes more quickly.

Many recognized that with the convergence in big law, they had to make their more complex relationships into multidisciplinary relationships – and they found that they had firms that couldn’t solve the complex advisory work. Also, the high-volume repeatable work was becoming crucial and challenging.   At the same time, I think what we saw was the emergence of ALSPs, these challenger firms, the Big Four, who we knew had lots of the right capabilities to solve these problems because they were offering us consultancy on how to do it. We had to think about how we were going to find a solution and move pretty quickly.

JH: That’s interesting because it sounds like there are these three things that collided simultaneously; you had a successful Pittsburgh center, you had regulatory requirements coming down on you, and you listened to your customers. Your customers told you things that required you to do something different and required you to put together something new to help serve your customers. Were those the problems that you were trying to address with this solution?

GH: Absolutely. We’d seen other firms do exciting things with delivering that bottom 20% of legal delivery, again, highly repeatable, process-oriented outputs that aren’t legal advisory. They are performing legal administration. We’d seen firms do well with that, and we had a pretty developed US solution for that. It got pretty exciting for me when our managing partner in Europe, Tamara Box, said, ‘Let’s think about what a great delivery model’s going to look like ten years from now. Let’s think about 2025, and let’s see if we can make that happen in three years rather than ten years.’

Terrifying, and then I got excited. I’ve studied postgrad social science, a bit of psychology, change management.  I started thinking, “Great, Kotter, Kübler-Ross, Lewin,” all these change models that I’ve been diligently learning about and making notes about. The reality is, to use those models, you need the perfect mix of employees and organizations to follow these rules. In reality, most firms don’t look like this.  We started to look at who could help us, and that’s where we turned to Elevate. We began to think about how we can do things faster and accelerate these outcomes.

Think about what a great delivery model’s going to look like ten years from now.

Gareth Hughes

JH: You have this mandate to implement something that would normally take ten years into three years. How did you do it, and what was the most challenging aspect of it?

GH: We wanted to be systematic in the approach. We wanted to ensure it is properly embedded and it wasn’t a flash in the pan project. Sometimes law firms get a bad rap for that, buying the latest technology or coming up with a new brand. We wanted to make sure that whatever we planned was co-designed with experts, external experts, with our partners who are internal experts, and often laterals, lots of great ideas and solutions, and clients. We looked internally and tried to understand what the drivers of performance transformation would look like. We were quite clear that we wanted Agile methodology and use Sigma continuing improvement type methodologies. We’ve had very good success with our IT function and our legal ops functions, and our business operations function. Behind all of that is defining something, measuring it, analyzing it, and improving it.  I think that’s the core of what we wanted to do.

We wanted to do it quickly. That was the mandate. The external piece was critical because although we are a large, very capable, very confident law firm, I think having a team dedicated to a big transformational change like this is important. Most law firms run on these 12-month cycles; when you go to your board and say, “We’ve got a 3-5 year transformation project, and it will probably cost us money for the first three, maybe four years,” in professional services, that isn’t typical. It’s typically, “Let’s buy this software. We got a new accounting system, ROI will be satisfied in one year,” or “Buy a piece of AI, and we’ll be using it on litigation in six months.” The proposition was quite different we were trying to build, and I think it was a real testament to our board and our chiefs that we got pretty unanimous support for that, and we have had throughout the last two and a bit years. Even with a challenging 2020, we’ve still been moving forward, which has been fantastic.

JH: Was there anything you experienced along the way that was more challenging than what you expected or something surprising to you?

GH: I was surprised by the fact that much of really complicated legal knowledge just lives in lawyers’ heads.   Probably not surprising to anyone who’s worked in KM or as a lawyer, but for me, my background is pricing and pricing strategy. I remember sitting in meetings with partners, saying, “Okay, well, let’s just define the transaction. What does it look like? Step one and step two, and let’s price that, and let’s look at history.”  I never understood that sometimes they were probably panicking, thinking, “I don’t know what this is gonna look like. I have to act that I do, but I don’t.”  When we said we were going to define all of our processes and said we would build playbooks, I expected we would have a process mapping session. We’d get a big whiteboard and some stickers, and all of a sudden, we’d have these end-to-end process maps, and it was much, much harder than that. We found that even within smaller teams, there was a really wide range of approaches, inconsistencies, and different ways of solving the same problem. But when we’re talking about high-volume problems, we should have consistency in those solutions.

Another thing I thought about when we were struggling initially to get some of this stuff on paper, I did some internet research, and I thought, “There must be somewhere where you can buy these playbooks. Someone must be selling this stuff.” [chuckle] No one’s selling this stuff. You can’t get it anywhere. Again, it’s because the nuance of law, even at that volume level, is really important, and some of that information made us adapt our plan slightly. I had this vision that anyone could come in, and I think the plan was for me to sit down and then test some of these legal processes. Could I do these legal processes? It’s not quite as simple as that. More to it, that surprised me, but it’s been a good learning experience on that front. In terms of how we have documented that information and how we continue to work and develop it, I think it’s a healthy activity for the firm and our lawyers to build into their day-to-day.

JH:  What was the result? How did you decide to measure success, are you achieving success, and how’s that been to date?

GH: We now have a center based in Leeds in the UK, our experimental platform for doing law differently. Some people call it internally next-gen legal services; some people are still using the term high volume, and it is both, but we have a team of Sigma-trained specialists. We thought that it was important to give them continual improvement education.  Tailored to law, but instead of 100% utilization,  50% of their time focused on improving, which is quite interesting, and new for lots of the staff who’ve worked in other similar centers or worked with law firms in a similar position. Still, they enjoy it, and they get to be creative day by day. They get to solve problems. Demonstrating that continuous improvement is gratifying, I think for those people and me and the others in the firm to see the strides we’re making.

The best bit is telling our clients we can do things better, and we’ve shortened delivery chains, or we’ve cut away steps of waste, or whatever you want to say. They’re the most satisfying pieces. We hired our first-ever Head of Legal Engineering, a term we haven’t used in the firm before. The focus of the role is on keeping us aligned to change, keeping us focused on continuous improvement. Even back five years ago that we would hire that type of role, have that position based not in one of our head offices in London is a pretty significant change for us. The best bit, the most gratifying way, I think, would be that the partners have supported throughout, bought into this, given up lots of free time.

At one point, we had a standing meeting every Friday at 8:00 AM, trying to bribe the partners with breakfast. We had some really interesting debates from, “What do our engagement terms look like?” It was a complicated minutiae-type change to the big picture, “Where will we be in 10, 20 years?” Those partners who’ve sat around that table, probably 20 or 30 of them in London, and a much wider base across our global platform, are now not just interested in how we can deliver law differently in that bottom 20%. They’re much more focused on getting pricing right for clients, on value-based pricing, on asking those questions to clients of, “How do you want this to be delivered? What are the critical elements that you need to have first? Can we re-engineer, repurpose, re-orient the way we deliver this stuff to make it more valuable to you?”

These are questions that I don’t think most partners would have asked just a couple of years ago; I think that’s been a  great result. We’re not there yet. We still have work to do, and we’ve developed 12 core service lines, and they have individual service line pricing at each one. The aim is to ramp up delivery speed, simplicity for our partners and clients to understand. I think we’re looking to roll that up to 24 – 27 service lines this year.  It’s been a good indicator of the appetite around the firm and from clients.

JH: That’s interesting. You talked about selling this to the board and the partners; that was a bit of a challenge because it’s not common.  You came to this idea with the commitment that this team will only bill half their time. How was that conversation, “We’re gonna do something that hasn’t been done, and this team will bill their time 50% of the time, and the other 50% is gonna be committed to continuous improvement (CI)?” How did that conversation go, and how did you respond to any questions you may have had?

GH: I do remember a  nervy presentation to all the partners, standing up, being ready with the slide, which was, “Here is the 50% utilization model, and here is the 50% CI model.” There were a few kinds of squinted eyes and tilts of the head, but then the next slide was, “This is what clients were asking for. This solves a big problem we’ve got in our business: clients don’t want to pay for us to reinvent the wheel. They want to see us moving faster, and they want to see us moving to the next generation of transports. They don’t wanna see the same thing again and again.” We had some good, really positive, and constructive debates about what that would mean, and I talked earlier on around the cycle for ROI on this project being quite long. We could have maybe tried to shortcut some of that by going further afield with a lower-cost base, trying to deliver some of this stuff. Again, what we heard consistently was making sure that we could align our culture on a big cultural gap and deliver in the first phase, even if it came at a greater cost to the business.

This is what clients were asking for. This solves a big problem we’ve got in our business: clients don’t want to pay for us to reinvent the wheel. They want to see us moving faster, and they want to see us moving to the next generation of transports. They don’t wanna see the same thing again and again.

Gareth Hughes

Refreshing for me to hear that the partners weren’t just chasing how can we make a bigger percentage on what we already do. That wasn’t the goal. The goal was I think it’s the Trevor Faure type model, which is better for less, which I love. We use it all the time. How can we be better for our clients, how can we charge less, how can we be more aligned to what they need?   I think everything within that CI portion has continued to improve with 50% of the time focused on that. These kinds of legal delivery chains are complicated, as we all know. Even the simplest task that we have in one of our practice groups, which we give to the paralegal, requires a lot of thinking. It requires a lot of experience, sometimes lots of different interactions, which is only getting more complicated with more technology. We have more complicated client needs, more complicated regulatory environments to set that baseline now and say, “We are always going to focus on improving. We’re not going to stand still and watch as the cost increases and pass on to our clients,” I think it is the right decision to make, and it continues to be the case.

How can we be better for our clients, how can we charge less, how can we be more aligned to what they need?

Gareth Hughes

JH: I think that’s a pretty forward-thinking concept. I think what you said was how can we charge our customers less, and I think that’s a new way of thinking, and it speaks to the customer’s centricity that you’ve talked about. It sounds like you’re responding to your client’s needs in building this center. Have you had any feedback from your clients? Have you had any feedback about its success or what they’ve been able to accomplish?

GH: Most of this work is bundled into bigger, more complicated matters, and our goal is really for this to be completely seamless for our clients. Historically, post-completion used to drag on for six weeks or billing used to come across in different formats because different paralegals were doing it.  With consistency the delivery we can present greatly improves. That’s the type of thing that we’re trying to drive up with clients, we’ve had some nice feedback saying that we are getting sleeker on that stuff, coming back to the acceleration point. Every time we’ve delivered something ahead of schedule or ahead of a client’s expectations, it just lands well. Our external customers and clients and our internal customers as a team are now our partners. This helps drive further adaption and is well-received, its goodwill extends further as we have more service lines to deliver on.

JH: That goes to the next question that I have. What is the expected longer-term impact? What are the next services you plan to offer out of the center?

GH: I think back to the earlier points on growth and client relationships. The strategy and focus on firms as globalization increases in becoming more international. These bigger relationships are more complicated to handle, and I think making sure we think about client-centric service lines, we miss ensuring that when a client has a need, we don’t think in narrow channels of, “These are our practice groups. We just have this service line for this practice group,”  It’s the 20% when a big company comes to say, “We’ve got a problem,” or we ask them what their problems are. We’re ready to pivot, and I think having that face in Leeds and Pittsburgh where we have all these types of different roles – again, back to the data scientist, legal engineer type roles. We can brainstorm and innovate on those problems. I think that’s a helpful thing to have to get back to that adaptability point.

When a client brings us a problem and says, “Can you help us solve this?” I think four to five years ago, it would have been much harder than today when we have all this infrastructure and this partnership with Elevate, which helps us think of all these problems in place, and economics is a massive difference. Further afield, there will be many changes, I believe, to our business and many businesses in terms of the shift in talent strategy. Adaptability is a key part of our lives now. It’s key to our project, that purpose at a few times, my keyword at the moment.  Having flexible teams who we can scale up and scale down quickly, that’s one of the elements that we build under that umbrella. It is new to us. Historically, we may have gone out to third parties or hire temporary paralegals or hire temporary junior associates. The task will come in and see these playbooks, all infrastructure in place. It’s a thought and culture that aligns with the firm’s core values, but it’s slightly to one side or maybe cooler and more interesting. It might make you stick around a bit longer. Future readiness is a big part of what we’re thinking about on the project, not just in terms of operations for people and what they expect.

JH: It sounds like you’re also looking for different types of people. You mentioned data scientists. You mentioned legal engineering. Are you expanding beyond just what people think of when they think of a lawyer or a paralegal to look at different types of folks you want to bring into the center to be more adaptable?

GH: Absolutely. I think one of the things to think about is the changing expectations of the forthcoming talent generation. I think it’s going to be very different from what we’ve experienced in the last ten years and maybe radically different from what we’ve had for the previous 30 years. We’ve seen lots of data around people wanting short of 10 years at firms. They want more change. They want breaks. I think it’s essential that we are thinking about roles that change and grow.   I think having that continuous improvement in a role for me gives you that freshness, gives you that ability to say, “Okay. I’ve got a project, and I want to deliver something. I don’t want to get some gratification from it. I want to demonstrate my value to the firm and myself. I want to learn something.  Then, I’m going to move on to the next thing.” Whereas sometimes, in the traditional model, you’ve always got that element, but I guess it’s just a smaller portion of it.

Sometimes, you have to go above and beyond your typical hours to do that stuff. Having it baked into the core role, I think, it’s quite interesting, and we’ve had great feedback from the people we’ve been able to hire. We’ve got some cool people on the ground in Leeds who we’re enjoying working with. We expected more of an accelerated talent cycle through that. We thought people would be staying with us for 12 months and then say, “I’m bored with this. What’s next?”  People are enjoying it more than we expected; we’ve got a longer tenure, which is great because it means that we train people and keep them and learn from them as they learn from us.

JH: With the evolution of the lawyer, we’ve talked about it before, as a T-shaped lawyer. You’re not looking for just a traditional route that the lawyer would take, join the law firm and stand with that law firm forever. If someone was out there finishing up their training, just thinking about becoming a lawyer, what advice would you give that person?

GH: As I said, things are changing. I think some people are starting to fear being pigeonholed as a lawyer.   Stuck in law for life, the pros and cons to that.  I believe there are ways not just within our firm, ALSPs, and other forward-thinking international firms.  There’s the ability to learn and train in Sigma and other things you can take to other practices and other disciplines. We talk to our new staff about that during the onboarding and the hiring process, and I think that should be exciting to people because it’s probably something we didn’t all have 10, 15 years ago. [chuckle] Take your discipline and stick in it for life. I don’t think that’s the case anymore, and I think the ability to work more flexibly, work internationally and virtually as well, is a key part of that. I think it’s really exciting, and I’m a little bit jealous that people get to go through this choice right now.

JH:  I know you’ve sprinkled this throughout, but is there anything about implementing this change that was surprising to you or anything that you thought was unexpected across the whole process?

GH: Honestly, for me, just how quickly the partnership got on board and committed. I expected more resistance.   I think professional staff can sometimes underestimate partners’ ability to adapt or willingness to adapt and be commercially savvy. As soon as clients drive it, it makes a massive difference; I think that was interesting. Again, very rarely have we had challenging or difficult conversations around the goal, the strategy, and the tactics we’re employing. Most of the challenge has been, “Can we not go faster?” Yeah, I think that’s pretty surprising. It is again surprising for me to learn just how different the ALSPs are, especially learning a bit more by Elevate, how they operate, the two sides of the law, and professional support in learning from each other.  It’s great that we’re doing that collaboratively; I think that’s pretty gratifying as well.

The partnership got on board and committed. I expected more resistance.

Gareth Hughes

JH: I’m curious – if I’m working at a law firm today, and I’m thinking about implementing this, what advice would you give me? What would you tell me how to start this process?

GH: First of all, Jake, you got the job if you want to come work for our law firm because you’re great. [chuckle] But I think seriously, you need to make sure you have buy-in across the partner level. You need to make sure that you communicate, over-communicate. Some of this stuff changes very quickly. We had a project plan in 2018 that, by 2019, looked radically different. Then we’d been operating for a year, and it looks different again. If you miss that communication point, all of a sudden, people think that it’s a disjointed strategy or things aren’t properly aligned, and that’s not the case. It’s an adaptable project that we’re constantly evolving and learning from. Take it back to mistakes, I guess. ‘ I think a good thing to talk about is not communicating enough because sometimes you can get embedded in a project, and you think, “Gosh, I’m sending these weekly updates. We have these weekly video blogs, and there were photographs of our new staff in the center working collaboratively.”

GH: You think, “God, I’m just bombarding these partners with information, and they’re busy. You may pick up 50% of them.” You can’t underestimate getting that communication point right, and I think continuing to focus on that. When we were all in the office, one of the great things was the ability to run around and knock on doors and just catch people for five minutes. Some of that’s a little bit harder virtually. This last year, some of that’s been more challenging than it was historically.

JH: If you were to do it all again, would there be anything you would do differently?

GH: Yeah, I think we would still be partnering with Elevate or an external provider. I think that’s resulted in great value for us in terms of the speed. Whenever someone says, “Do something in three years,” yeah, it takes a little bit longer; maybe we might have shortened that cycle again. We may have been more ambitious with that. For me, just the previous points on communication are really important. More communication, stronger communication. The elements of including our clients and working with external providers have been the right choice. I think more of that would be great. Again, constantly surprised by the industry’s ability to collaborate between ALSPs. I still have great conversations with Cagney Law, who helped advise us in some early stages, and Elevate, to talk to both those parties and talk to the clients and partners around the firm has been important. I think more communication.

JH: Communication and understanding your client’s needs and making sure you hear the need throughout the law firm.

GH: You can’t build this stuff in a box. Some elements have to be worked upon and thought about with a smaller group. You can’t wait too long to start to spread those ideas and socialize those ideas and change. The first time we said to the partners that we would have these Sigma specialists, they may fall off their chairs. “What’s a Sigma specialist? What does that mean? What does that mean to our clients? What does that mean to the SRA?” We went through all these different steps to make sure everyone was on board, that we’d done our diligence, and that it was considered credible. But that’s changed.

JH: Gareth, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you today. I think we covered a lot of ground. We learned what we could do differently and how the law firm would kick something like this off the ground. Thank you very much for joining me.

GH: Great stuff. Thank you.

About the Author(s)

The host of this interview is Elevate, Vice President, Legal Operations, Jake Hills.  Jake talks with Gareth Hughes, Director of Strategy at Reed Smith.

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