posted 26 May 2009 in Volume 12 Issue 7
The profile: David Fitch
Stephanie Ramasamy chats to David Fitch about industry recognition, career drivers and what it takes to succeed in knowledge management in the legal profession.
Having been up against some knowledge management (KM) heavyweights, a blurry-eyed David Fitch ended a tremendously successful year for him and his team by leaving the 2009 Legal Technology Awards (LTAs) with the coveted ‘knowledge officer of the year’ prize.
Fitch, director of KM at international law firm Simmons & Simmons, and his team have completed a number of successful projects over the past 12 months, all of which have been particularly well-received by the business. Key to this, he says, is the firm’s perception of KM as a valuable part of legal services provision, not merely an overhead.
“These projects have been able to deliver services that support or add value to the firm’s client relationships,” says Fitch. “It is essentially about using legal technology to enhance service delivery and enable KM.
“At Simmons and Simmons we have a good culture in respect of know how, and the know how team is integral to the service offering. We use KM to differentiate ourselves from our competitors – and we use it creatively.”
Fitch has had a surprisingly varied career. Having left university, he went into joint business with his brother owning a restaurant. It is this experience – one of his greatest achievements, he says – that has formed a solid base for his career today.
“Running a business and managing client service has really influenced the way I work and view service in my firm today.”
Not only does he have a great understanding of relationship management and meeting clients’ needs, he also believes that multi-tasking is a fundamental skill in the effective day-to-day running of a business – whether legal or non-legal. “When you own your own business, you have to be flexible, multi-skilled and client-focused, and these have shaped the way I work at Simmons & Simmons,” he says. “At the restaurant, I did the accounts and ordering, I organised functions and weddings, and I also worked in the bar and kitchen.”
Next, Fitch practised as a litigation lawyer for four years, and it is at that time when a profound interest in the capability of legal technology to enhance service efficiency developed. Towards the end of his legal career in his native country
One project that Fitch oversaw (and was also highly-commended at the LTAs) was the ‘navigator funds’ programme. This subscription-based information service for fund managers provides access to regulatory matters and updates across 80 jurisdictions worldwide.
“This is a typical example of packaging know-how for our clients in a form that is digestible and usable,” says Fitch. “The quality of legal content and analysis, and the way information is presented in a tabular format with tear sheets and downloadable matrices, makes the information very accessible,” says Fitch.
Testament to the success of the service is its popularity – it currently has 500 users – and the fact that it performs a fundamental role within clients’ day-to-day work. “We are meeting our clients’ business needs by providing them with information to make those all-important timely investment decisions – helping them to stay competitive in the current market,” says Fitch.
As well as achieving success on an individual level, Fitch’s team was highly-commended as ‘knowledge team of the year’ at the LTAs. Fitch attributes this to running the team on a firm-wide basis. “As an international firm, we operate in a connected way across all our offices. The international professional team meets monthly via WebEx – an application which enables the sharing of desktops and applications.” The coming together of practice groups and teams across the firm has clearly enabled sharing, collaboration and new ways of working.
Demonstrable return on investment has also boosted the projects that Fitch has led. Still in its first phase, Simmons & Simmons’ enterprise search technology roll-out is already showing significant returns. The first phase – the know-how release – is a single entry point for lawyers to the firm’s core know-how resources.
Fitch explains: “The know-how release integrates content from the firm’s know-how database – Heritage (the firm’s library catalogue), elexica, the collection of standards and project management documents, and importantly, know-how from PLC.
“The second phase will be the indexing of the document management system across four global data centres –
The firm has also recently launched a video podcast, which delivers a weekly five-minute update on a topical area of the law. The podcast can be accessed through the firm’s online service – elexica – but is also integrated with the iTunes store, enabling users to subscribe to the podcast and view weekly episodes on their iPods or other mobile device. The content is international in focus and covers all practice areas.
“We moved into video just over a year ago as it represented a good way to share know how and expertise across the firm,” says Fitch. “We now routinely record practice-group legal training, so that it can be watched by our lawyers around the network, and we have now opened up access to clients to be able to watch breakfast briefings, seminars and CPD days online. The last phase of the project was the podcasting phase, which has now been completed.”
Throughout his career, Fitch has been inspired by those peers who have shared a similar way of thinking and working as himself. To name but a few, Gerard Neiditsch, executive director of business integration and technology at Mallesons Stephen Jaques is looked on with favour by Fitch for his innovation in legal technology, together with Chrissy Burns, IT and knowledge director at Blake Dawson and Tom Baldwin, chief knowledge officer at Reed Smith, who have been inspirational in their continuous search for business opportunities through aligning the know how service tightly into the practice.
Fitch concedes that despite his firms success in technological innovation over the past 12 months, the coming year will be challenging for all firms. His approach in dealing with the challenges which lie ahead is to view KM not as an overhead, but as a service differentiator – aligning it closely with the fee-earning practice.
At Simmons & Simmons, the professional support team is tightly integrated with the practice groups, actively supporting and adding value to client relationships. They are client-facing and are billing time. “Our PSLs are technical experts, who are valued by clients, and in some areas, our clients are willing to pay for their services,” says Fitch. “My advice to all KM practitioners is to ensure that they remain business-focused, and to look for opportunities to support and add value to their client relationships.”
Running the KM function on a tight budget is the challenge that all KM practitioners currently face. Fitch recently spoke at Ark Group’s 9th annual KM Legal conference on demonstrating value, reducing costs and managing KM on a minimal budget. His session on the methodology of approaching cost analysis was about analysing and understanding what is being spent and where it is being spent. “It is important to look at key metrics – KM cost as a percentage of revenue, KM cost per fee earner basis and staffing ratios – such as the ratio of professional support lawyers to fee earners. Once you understand these metrics, you can make more informed decisions,” says Fitch.
He also focused on benchmarking at the conference. “Benchmarking is really helpful, in order to be kept aware of what peer firms are doing. Look at the percentage of revenue they use on know how and compare that with your firm – for example, are they spending two per cent of revenue on know how, or perhaps less?”
For Fitch, 2009 is a year for innovation. He clearly sees the opportunities that the downturn can bring. “We are going through a period of change, and we have to understand and seize the opportunities that the business environment is presenting – looking at doing things differently,” says Fitch. High on the KM agenda is creating new products and services, and to look at innovative ways of supporting client relationships. “Now is a good time to introduce new things. The market makes it easier to get people’s buy in for change,” he believes. “It is also a good time to be speaking to clients about what they value in their relationships with us,” he adds.
From having spoken to Fitch, it is clear that he has a profound interest and curiosity in experimenting and seeking out new ways to improve the efficiency of the firm’s practices. His positive outlook on the economic downturn shows his appetite for creativity as he describes it as “a time for opportunity and innovation”.
“Innovation is not expensive,” he says. “You can innovate on a shoe-string, providing you understand the opportunities and how to bring people and technology together.”