Headquartered in London, in 2017 Keystone Law became the third firm in the UK to be listed on the London Stock Exchange. It's also a company that doesn't appear to have been fazed by the COVID-19 pandemic: In 2020, it achieved revenue growth of 10.9%, to £55.0 million, plus onboarded 58 new senior level lawyers from rivals such as Charles Russell Speechlys, Clifford Chance and Fieldfisher, increasing the total number of senior lawyers by 16% to 369.
As a result, Keystone Law has over 400 lawyers, 50-plus support staff and many thousands of clients. Last year it was also named Law Firm of the Year at The Lawyer Awards 2020.
But more interestingly, both from a technology and HR perspective, is that well before recent discussions about hybrid working models, Keystone was already in many ways a highly distributed, virtual professional services firm.
Unlike traditional legal firms, Keystone Law lawyers are actually self-employed consultants, who retain up to 75% of their billing: even better, they are also provided with the flexibility to run their practice from any location, as its Director of Technology and Innovation, Maurice Tunney, told us:
Keystone people are all UK-qualified lawyers, but they work wherever they feel comfortable: we've got 5% who don't even work in the UK because they they've got homes in France or Germany or Spain, we've got a couple of in Israel, a couple in Australia and New Zealand, but they are all UK-qualified and service their UK client knowledge.
Key to allowing these legal experts and clients to work so flexibly, in what for their sector is a very ‘new model', is technology-bolstered by a commitment, right from its 2002 foundation, to paperless working practices. That's a philosophy summed up by Tunney as:
We're a law firm in that we offer legal services and legal advice to our clients, which is obviously the traditional reason for contracting with firms like ours. But that's where the traditional law firm comparisons stop, in that we're not at a partnership.
What our founders wanted was a more innovative, more business-focused approach, where they put together the bare bones of the company, but then brought in experts who knew what they were doing. So, we are not run by a group of lawyers, but instead run by a group of experts in their commercial fields: we are a listed company, and as a result we're very different and, we think, very agile as a result.
Accessing, sharing, collaborating
The main IT partner supporting this approach -which Tunney and his fellow management layer at the company style as ‘lawyer-first'- is a company called NetDocuments, which was brought in in 2015. The company offers a document management system constructed around a family of platform APIs, Microsoft Office integrations, and an active partner ecosystem to connect NetDocuments content with tools customers depend on. It's also, he told us, the main way his colleagues have been able to access, share and collaborate on documents from any location. Tunney says:
When I came on board, we had 120 or 150 lawyers who were all working in silos, weren't storing their documents centrally, and weren't collaborating. With this software, we were able to centralize where we were storing those documents-cloud-based of course, because we didn't want large overheads in the central office.
Security was a key factor in the procurement process when selecting NetDocuments. Tunney adds:
We looked at various different options of course, but this firm was far stronger on the security side of things, and the collaboration and usability of the product were stronger than the competitors. Our lawyers work in different ways, so we didn't want to force them down a certain way of using the documentation system; they always have the option of using it offline as well as online, because some of them are on the road a lot and they didn't want to struggle to not have access to their documents because the train WiFi wasn't very good.
The package has a facility which allows them to save their documents locally and work on them as and when they have an Internet connection, which then syncs up to the cloud and updates everything. That enables our people to work the way they want to work, so they don't have to be in the office to access their documents - they could be wherever they have a Web connection.
Providing a ‘central workspace'
In practical day-to-day terms, what people working at the firm physically see and work with is a so-called in-house developed ‘Keyed-In' collaboration hub that provides a central workspace, and which serves to reinforce team-based working. A big part of that is automation, as many routine tasks as can be identified by Tunney and his team, he added, with a big emphasis on security and protection of client confidentiality.
And in functionality terms, this is done by a mail tool that ensures files are never lost and can be easily accessed whenever they are needed, which utilizes predictive filing, powered by AI (artificial intelligence), to make inboxes more organised, collaborative, and efficient for users.
This is linked to a specialist law sector time and billing app that the firm says makes sure any and all client matters lists are easily and quickly updated, as well as a two-way file syncing solution for both Macs and PCs that supports remote user productivity, by giving secure, local access to every file and document they need, regardless of if they're actually online at that second, as well as a way of backing up both data and metadata to a local server or network drive.
Will distributed work become the standard?
The pandemic has truly validated this model, shining a light on the importance of flexibility, agility and having a ‘lawyer-first' approach, something that has been at the heart of Keystone Law since it was founded. But as we noted at the start of the discussion, the pandemic has opened up a real Pandora's Box of thinking about work styles.
Keystone's approach meant it could easily handle that level of disruption… but maybe the company needs to start looking over its shoulder, as its competitors will also have learned a lesson or two about remote working, and soon this ‘lawyer-first' model may become the standard, not the exception? Indeed, investment bank Arden has predicted that the Keystone Law-style consultancy model will become the dominant model for high street and mid-market law firms, stimulated by the success of remote working during the pandemic.
Tunney says ‘bring it on':
We were COVID-ready: a global pandemic is never a good thing, but our lawyers always had no impact on their ability to work. They've been able to work as they did before COVID started, which has been a massive benefit, and I can't see any reason why things won't continue to improve as we move forward.