Alumni Matters 2023
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Generative artificial intelligence has created an inflection point for legal services providers. While the reaction among many lawyers is dismissive of the AI potential (“we have always done things our way and will continue to do so”), there are now quite a few who believe that the application of ChatGPT and other generative AI programs, which combine phenomenal data analysis with the ability to generate natural, believable language and reasoning, has the capacity to do many tasks that lawyers believe that only they as humans are capable of. Scott Cochrane is certainly one of those in the second camp.
As someone who has long been interested in change management in organisations – not just in law firms – he has many ideas on how law firms can adapt and benefit from generative AI. “I am fascinated by the way organisations face up to change and how senior leaders can materially impact, positively or negatively, the way change happens,” Scott says. “I am constantly curious about how change affects people and how it stimulates helpful and destructive emotions.”
Interestingly, Scott believes that many law firms talk a good talk when it comes to harnessing technology when delivering legal services, but now that he is in the position of a client, he doesn’t immediately see that manifesting itself in their services. “It is certainly the case that the communications technology has improved vastly, and that is of course very helpful, but my view is that there is much that can be done to put technology to better use when advising clients. There are of course exceptions – Herbert Smith Freehills being one of them,” he says.
Scott should know. He was with Herbert Smith Freehills for nearly 28 years. He originally wanted to be an orthopaedic surgeon, but changed to law when he read about doctors working 100-hour weeks and thought law would be an easier option. (How little did he know…) He studied law at Durham University and, showing debating aptitude, applied to Herbert Smith (as was) based on its reputation as a leading litigation firm where he thought he could put his debating skills to good use. Plus, he was impressed with the firm’s recently opened offices in Exchange Square.
In fact, he didn’t practise litigation, but gravitated to asset management having done his first seat as a trainee with Nigel Farr (who now heads the firm’s asset management practice). Scott became interested in this particular practice area, initially because he felt it was an area of law which hadn’t really been focused on and where it potentially provided practitioners with scope to have greater control. “As a product lawyer, you tended to be the person running the transaction rather than taking instructions from others,” Scott says, “but, at a more straightforward level, I liked Nigel and enjoyed working with him!”. He was made partner in 2002.
I am constantly curious about how change affects people and how it stimulates helpful and destructive emotions.”
Alumnus of London office
1993 - 2021
As well as practising asset management law, Scott also had a number of management roles at the firm. At various times, he was a member of the Global Partnership Council, Head of the London corporate practice, International Partner for Clients and Sectors, and Global Head of the corporate practice. He was therefore closely involved in managing the practice of the merged firm, with the many facets that involved, including integration, setting up well-functioning processes, client management and technology efficiencies, all in the context of a rapidly changing legal environment and fiercer competition.
The fact that the funds practice was not a ‘mainstream’ team provided a different perspective, requiring different approaches to practice building where they couldn’t completely rely on the firm’s existing franchise and to be more creative in matters such as billing and developing relationships with clients. That experience came in very useful when Scott took on the corporate management roles, he says. “If you like, I stepped into management bringing a slightly left-field perspective that helped me to challenge a number of accepted historic views.”
“Added to that, I have never felt that ‘the law’ per se is either particularly interesting or useful. My starting point was always focused on how we use the tools at our disposal to solve the problems the client has. Drawing a comparison, a patient doesn’t want a surgeon who simply stands at the operating table and takes pride in their ability to name all the bits, they want someone to fix them. And yet, there are still lawyers who tell you what the law is, which I absolutely hate. I thought that this had gone out of fashion, but it is astonishing how often this is still what you get back. Good lawyers apply the law to real life problems.”
At the same time, Scott delved deeper into his interest in management, including taking a master’s degree in change at the INSEAD business school, with a focus on organisational behaviour and development. For his thesis, Scott wrote on “complexity theory” and “complex adaptive systems”, taking as his study field a drug rehabilitation unit in Glasgow, looking in particular at how complex (for which read, chaotic) management systems, when properly supported, can create the conditions for real creativity and adaptive change – what Scott summarises as “productive chaos”.
It was certainly an interesting choice of subject matter and not one you would necessarily associate with management at a top law firm. One feature that Scott observed in the Glasgow unit was the focus on how energy moves around an organisational system. “The staff at the unit always carefully managed the energy that existed or which they generated to create situations which helped with the recovery process. Choosing to study an organisation outside of the normal business school world was a bit of a risk, but I had a notion that the way complex systems work is actually a good model for professional services firms. You have lots of largely independent actors who all interact in complicated and unpredictable ways. You can’t necessarily direct how the whole organisation moves but you can ‘manage the spaces in-between’ to keep the organisation in the best state to adapt and change.
“I think it used to be called herding cats, but I prefer to think of it like spinning plates. You have to carefully monitor the energy of all the plates and give them a spin where required so that the plates don't fall off their metaphorical poles.”
As with many people, Scott took the opportunity of lockdown to take stock of where he was in his career. The BlackRock relationship partner mentioned that BlackRock were looking for someone to join their legal section, which was in need of some attention (a polite way of saying there had been some historic challenges in the team). Could he recommend anyone? Scott then realised that with his asset management experience, his practical knowledge of management and his recently completed master’s on managing complex systems, he himself might be the right person.
He duly joined BlackRock in May 2021, as Head of Public and Private Funds Legal EMEA. In that capacity, he heads teams of lawyers advising on both public and private funds, as well as dealing with regulators and seeing how they can put new technology to best use. “In many ways, my role now is similar to private practice, managing teams of lawyers who are creating new fund structures, advising the business on law and regulation and dealing with day-to-day legal issues. What is very different is having to learn about the operational aspects of running an asset manager. BlackRock is a huge organisation and with scale comes operational complexity.”
As already mentioned, Scott is in a prime position as a client to see how much law firms are adapting – both to deliver their services more efficiently and to provide good value for those services. And, perhaps no surprise here, there are no easy answers. What frustrates Scott is the inertia. “If you take away the communications tools, where there has clearly been progress, very little has changed. But, as a client, I need my legal providers to be bringing me new solutions.”
He believes that sooner, rather than later, law firms will be forced to change as a result of the AI potential. “Clearly, ChatGPT can’t deliver everything, but we want our legal services providers to be exploring possibilities. Lawyers need to get out of their comfort zone and recognise the need to challenge their own business model. I would much rather have law firms try things out, and be prepared to fail. We need to get beyond the mindset where lawyers believe that failure counts against them.”
He applauds the approach taken by HSF in developing its capabilities in Belfast, and believes that more should follow suit: “Belfast provides HSF with a capability to offer solutions to some of my most pressing challenges. Often, these are not complex legal tasks – they might not appeal to the mind of a top City lawyer looking to challenge their professional capabilities – but to us, they are crucial. By being able to offer a way to help us with these issues, HSF is building a deeper level of engagement which serves them well across the entire value chain of work we might instruct on.”
But isn’t that what many law firms are doing? No, says Scott, at least as far as he has noticed. “It continues to amaze me that the big firms haven’t completely woken up to the real needs of their clients. I don’t think any law firm now has the luxury of thinking it can pick and choose what work they would like to assist us with. This is where I think the big firms really need to focus on how emerging technologies can assist. This, in turn, asks some very fundamental questions about how lawyers perceive the value of what they deliver and how they price for that. For me, the chargeable hour has long outlived its usefulness – law firms hate ebilling, but it is the natural conclusion of continuing to look to charge by the hour.”
So, much of interest for Scott as he pursues this stage of his career – and plenty of advice for law firms looking to improve their service. As a voracious reader, he has also many book recommendations (currently, Colonialism, a Moral Reckoning by Nigel Biggar, Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, and Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, among others). He continues to see much of his former colleagues with whom he worked at Herbert Smith Freehills, both professionally (instructing his asset management peers) and socially. Otherwise, he enjoys watching rugby and cricket with his two grown-up sons, and will resume his travels to exotic places (Everest Base Camp and Easter Island being his highlights so far).
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