Webber Wentzel: Driving Innovation for South Africa’s Legal Sector

The CIO at Webber Wentzel, a prominent full-service law firm based in South Africa, talked to us about how the firm leveraged technology to navigate these unprecedented times, and its roadmap for the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t mean an end to business as usual for Webber Wentzel—one of South Africa’s “big five” firms. I spoke to Warren Hero, chief information officer and chief digital officer at the company, about how Webber Wentzel used technology to thrive in the pandemic and the road ahead for the organisation. This article, based on an episode of the Workday Podcast, also appears in smartCIO magazine

Could you start by giving us an overview of Webber Wentzel and your role within the company?

I've been in technology all my working life, primarily in financial services. I was with Microsoft earlier in my career and joined Webber Wentzel, where my role is CIO and CDO. Webber Wentzel is a premium, full-service law firm, and our focus is dealing with legal matters for our clients, whether it's in corporate or commercial, dispute resolution, litigation, or mergers and acquisitions. We position ourselves as the “dealmakers of the decade,” and that’s down to the fact we have the most incredible lawyers. When it comes to applying both the legal muscle and the technology muscle to help our clients solve difficult issues, that’s what we're really good at.

Tell me how your career journey has evolved and how you've evolved to wear both the CIO and CDO hats.

My story started in financial services and working to support the digital channels into the call centres. I was really fortunate to launch some of the first internet and telephone banking capabilities in the country. As someone once said, "If you don't have a seat at the table, bring a fold-up chair." And so from an executive point of view, I got a chair at the table and then started doing some deep work around customer experience, customer satisfaction, and loyalty—all linked back to the employee experience. The fact remains that the biggest indicator of an engaged or loyal customer and client is an engaged employee, and being able to explore that was one of the seminal lessons.

“Our firm is all about intellectual property: being able to bring together a person's academic knowledge, a lawyer's academic knowledge, and their behavioural knowledge.”

Another key part of my development was at Microsoft. Often when you work for an organisation, you only have the opportunity to understand your own organisation's journey. But in my role as CTO at Microsoft, I was able to, on at least 44 different occasions, go through this digital transformation journey with our clients across various sectors. It helps you develop a mental picture, because you get an understanding of what works and what doesn't work. How do things look in a year's time? What does the world look like in three years' time? Can we even look 15 years ahead?

During the pandemic, Webber Wentzel has been using technology to resolve disputes digitally. How has digital played a key part in keeping your business moving?

For me, this is all about the trust of our employees and then the trust of our clients. When we went into a hard lockdown in March last year, we had been planning around employee mobility rather than the mobility of the technology. We tied our mobility programme to ensure our employees and teams could work from anywhere. When the pandemic hit, the only thing we really had to do on some of our admin teams was to give them devices.

This made a big difference because, in the South African context, we still use the billable hour. When our teams then had to switch to remote working, they could be as productive as they were in the offices, and that was one of the big wins. 

Our clients want to be able to collaborate throughout the process and not just at the very end. That’s where technology has empowered us during the lockdown. We’re able to involve the client after the briefing process and identify which aspects of the matter deserve emphasis. We started showing teams the benefit of the data that came from these discussions. This could be something like a change in the client’s tone or a facial expression. These are really important triggers we have to react to.

How do you view cybersecurity? And what sort of work have you been doing in that area internally and externally for clients?

The starting point for me is to understand that the ability to sense becomes one of the most important things. Understanding the signal is key because I think most traditional cybersecurity approaches are about lists. But attackers use graphs because they understand how to traverse your organisation by using graphs. Part of what we do is to understand our own graphs. We then have a visibility of the graph and understand how somebody traverses the organisation—and so we can create behavioural blueprints internally.

“When it comes to applying both the legal muscle and the technology muscle to help our clients solve difficult issues, that’s what we're really good at.”

Because we have had such a focus on migrating all our core systems to the cloud, part of the benefit it generates is that we have the core system and, let's say, our document management system in the cloud. This means we have a behavioural footprint on the user. When there's a variation to that behavioural footprint, even though the person might be using the same credentials, we can start picking it up.

In real time, we're constantly enriching that identity graph for the individual. So when there's a geographic disparity between where the person logs on and what happens, that concern immediately begins. 

The next aspect is around the devices. A device has health, and as long as the health is at the appropriate level, the individual can join whatever resources they need to. But from a conditional access point of view, and because there are automated playbooks in the background, our incident response team doesn’t have to come to an incident and think about which playbook to kick off.

Of course the last aspect we think about is data. Our law firm's brand promise is around ensuring client confidentiality and client privilege. The way we think about the curation of the data, the way we then employ multifactor authentication, and the way we think about using data loss prevention factor into the way we manage devices. All devices are managed. If your device isn't managed, then you can’t have client data on it. And for us, because we've become so clear about our information security management system, we're now in the process of pursuing a third-party certification: ISO 27001, 27002.

Could you tell me about the Webber Wentzel legal platform? What is it, and what’s the role of technology in bringing it all together?

Our firm is all about intellectual property: being able to bring together a person's academic knowledge, a lawyer's academic knowledge, and their behavioural knowledge. The behavioural element is something we get from our document management system. We knew the first point of leverage was to be able to get an accurate view of our people. 

Our first platform in the cloud was Workday because we needed to take advantage of the innovation premium, and because we had six different applications for HR. Now we have one, and we’ve reduced the cost of management for all these platforms. Therefore, our teams can focus on helping the HR function, putting them in a position to initiate recruitment faster. This impacts our graduate recruitment process because we take attorneys straight out of university, and we put them through a process. And in two years' time, they will join us as a bona fide legal associate. We knew from a recruitment perspective, and from an induction perspective, it's one of the fundamental things we have to get right.

“We needed the ability for our business to understand financial discipline and to preempt cash flow issues—which was probably one of the biggest opportunities we saw through COVID-19.”

Coupled with that is diversity and inclusion because while we have a large Black population, the representation in the workforce is quite small. So by understanding our own employment equity, we were then able to set targets for ourselves and put programmes in place to ensure the representation of individuals who come out of university. 

The next part of our platform is our client platform and the ability to bring our client insights. And once again, as a client briefs us on a matter, we no longer have to rely on an individual partner to share that knowledge. We go to Workday. We understand that they have this body of knowledge, and we can then match the client's need to the internal skill. 

Then there’s finance and operations.. We're in business to make profit, but to do so in a responsible and a sustainable manner. We needed the ability for our business to understand financial discipline and to preempt cash flow issues—which was probably one of the biggest opportunities we saw through COVID-19. We knew we had to get a real-time understanding of our cash flow. 

The last portion is an innovation platform. A mentor of mine always said there's this juncture between using the ax and sharpening the ax. This is one of the things we see playing out quite well into the way we do innovation.

Can you tell us about your approach to data management and how you get the most value from it?

It's not a technology issue; it’s an organisational issue. That’s one of the first realisations. The second is we have clearly identified system owners, and that system owner is someone in one  line of business who drives the capability that needs to be developed. So when we think about our business model, we think about the client. We think about what the capabilities are in terms of the value proposition that we need to develop. Then we think specifically about business capabilities. 

Finally, the thing that happens when we do the right things is that the economic outcomes are produced out of understanding those different components of the business model. We knew we had to get really data driven, and we've developed the capability among a core of our staff to be able to understand data science, the application of data science, dashboards, user interface, and the way user interfaces work. Because when I show you a piece of data and I don't bring the appropriate context to it, the ability to consume it decreases. It's this ability to go from the macro down to the micro, and then to be able to build up from that granularity back to the macro picture—that’s key.

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