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CIO50 2020 #26-50: Sarah Thirlwall, MinterEllisonRuddWatts

  • 2019 Rank 22
  • Name Sarah Thirlwall
  • Title Chief digital officer
  • Company MinterEllisonRuddWatts
  • Commenced role May 2018
  • Reporting Line CEO
  • Member of the Executive Team Yes
  • Technology Function 10 staff, 4 direct reports
  • Sarah Thirlwall highlights the nuances of being chief digital officer in a traditional industry that bravely deploys disruptive technology and consequently impacts the organisation in unprecedented ways.

    “Law firms are recognised as traditional and risk averse due to the nature of the service they provide. However, innovation is in our firm’s DNA,” says Thirlwall, who took on the inaugural chief digital officer role at MinterEllisonRuddWatts following a long-term executive career in the health sector.

    “There is pressure to ‘get things right the first time’ however that is not always possible when developing new tech solutions.”

    MinterEllisonRuddWatts, however, was quick to realise the legal profession would not be immune to disruption, and began investing in innovative solutions to ensure practising law remained efficient, and continued to add commercial value for their clients.

    Investing in a joint venture in 2017, we were the first firm in New Zealand to explore the opportunities AI presents for the profession – and it was our first big step into this space, says Thirlwall.

    The joint venture led to the establishment of McCarthyFinch, with former MinterEllisonRuddWatts CDO and her predecessor Nick Whitehouse as CEO.

    “It challenged the law firm to think and behave as a start-up and bring a different mindset, controls and expectations to the table,” says Thirlwall. 

    Since then, the law firm has delivered four significant products that have both changed the way they operate and disrupted the legal services market, she says.

    Late last year, the law firm partnered with McCarthy Finch in releasing authorDOCS – an AI-powered contract assistance tool for legal teams. The software is designed to help busy legal teams draft and review contracts faster.

    As an add-in for Microsoft Word, authorDOCS can be set up and used within minutes, with no complicated install or change to your processes. authorDOCS allows for faster contract reviews and faster contract drafting, she says.

    “We also collaborated with clients to develop a Client Portal which is a bespoke web application built in-house she says. The portal enables businesses to share and collaborate on private information securely and easily as well as offering a customisable compliance register with 100+ acts/ regulations and 2000+ plain English summaries. 

    “Our business transformation team is continually introducing greater document automation using a tool that generates documents quickly,” she adds. “The tool uses a questions and answers interview process, instead of starting from scratch or editing an old document each time.”

    They also ramped up work on another product, the interactive, gamified compliance training system, Safetrac. The latter was the firm’s first foray into innovative technology solutions.

    Established in New Zealand in 2015, the legaltech tool’s content is refreshed and updated annually and is reviewed and approved by our firm’s leading lawyers. Businesses can choose modules ‘off the shelf’ or customise to their operating environments. 

    Through all these initiatives, she says the firm continually gets feedback from their clients on how they are meeting their needs and where they can increase the value of their service.

    “We also see efficiency as critical to our operations, tracking matters through various phases, costs and encouraging greater collaboration that leads to better ways of working.”

    She says driving legaltech solutions creates new opportunities to work alongside their clients. “It demonstrates our ability to think differently to achieve excellent commercial outcomes.”

    She says their products like Safetrac and the Client Portal are filled with top legal advice and maintained by their legal teams, ensuring they are aligned with regulatory changes. 

    “With each change in legislation, our legal teams interpret the impact on the client and recommended activity.”

    She says their innovation and legaltech products are unique because three of the four have been developed in-house by lawyers for lawyers (authorDOCS, Safetrac, Client Portal). 

    With their fourth product, they partnered with another firm with legal expertise – LawHawk – to build the templates. 

    “The value these innovations bring to our clients and our firm are multifaceted. The products demonstrate an understanding and empathy to our client’s challenges and needs – and provide consistency, value and quality. They also enable greater collaboration with clients and support our trusted advisor status.” 

    She says developing the Client Portal created the opportunity to introduce agile methodology which is now being used across the firm to use time and resource effectively, increase team work and collaborate.

    Partners found the agile approach immediately beneficial and slotted into the product owner role well. 

    She says the technology team also introduced KanBan and daily stand-ups for legal services. The teams found it beneficial but she admits there was scepticism at the beginning.

    Her strategy is to “start with the willing”.

    “We started with whoever wished to participate and it didn’t take long for the sceptics to want to be part of the morning routine – and once started, they found it so beneficial they became promoters. 

    “The scrum master would attend the various teams 15 minute daily stand-ups to encourage ongoing development and address questions. This was essential to allow teams to ‘start simple’ and slowly mature the practice.”

    For Thirlwall, this approach is reflective of her approach to leading teams.

    “My leadership style is very collaborative, seeking input across stakeholder groups and valuing diversity of thought,” she says.

    “I encourage individuals to bring new ideas and suggest alternative options to solution design or problem solving. I get a lot of energy from bringing people together to work through and debate various options and approaches to new challenges.”

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