Reinventing legal: a tech perspective from a Belgian point of view
Ari Kaplan talks with Olivier Wouters, Managing Partner at Claeys & Engels, about how the firm leverages technology to support its clients; how lawyers collaborate with knowledge management teams: the challenges of deploying new applications internally, the benefits of technology to enhance firm marketing; and advice for other partners on whether to launch new initiatives.
Attorney and Legal Industry Analyst
Ari Kaplan is an attorney, author, and leading legal industry analyst. As the host of his own long-running Reinventing Professionals podcast, he has interviewed hundreds of leaders in the legal profession since 2009.
Managing Partner at Claeys & Engels
Olivier Wouters started his career as an attorney with Claeys & Engels in Belgium in 1999. He has been the firm’s Managing Partner since January 1, 2015.
Welcome to Reinventing Legal. I’m Ari Kaplan, and my guest today is Olivier Wouters, the managing partner of Claeys & Engels, a labor and employment law firm in Belgium. Hi, Olivier, how are you?
I’m fine, hi, Ari, how are you?
I’m very well, I’m looking forward to our conversation. Tell us about out your background and your work at Claeys & Engels?
I’m the managing partner of Claeys & Engels, which is a law firm in Belgium. We are a boutique law firm offering a range of legal services in all areas concerning human resources. We assist both national and international companies on all aspects of human capital, labor, and employment law in a broad sense of the words.
You’ve served as the firm’s managing partner for almost seven years, what have been the most significant changes to the firm during your tenure?
We have always embraced technology and we always wanted to be top of the list of what was about innovation. Our founding partner, Thierry Claeys, was a real digital native adopter and [inaudible 00:01:08] about technology he really enjoyed. And yes, it’s part of our DNA, I would say, and 2018, for example, we launched Innovation Journey, actually we challenged our people with a tagline, “Dare to Innovate,” and come with concrete ideas, not just some ideas that you put on a yellow Post-It on the wall, but come with concrete ideas, develop them, and let us know what we need to change, what we need to innovate, but with one purpose, and the main goal was how to can we improve the customer experience. And for us, it was not just innovation for innovation, no, the main goal was the improving the customer experience, but not only the external clients, the companies we assist on a daily basis, but also our internal clients.
We truly believe that we are all clients from each other, between lawyers, between staff members, between staff members and lawyers. We really wanted to focus on how can we increase the customer experience? Because you see the evolution of expectations of external clients when they order things, they want things fast, immediate, they want to have a trustful partner with whom they deal with from a commercial point of view or the things on the internet, well, they have the same expectation I would say when they call a law firm, they want have fast advice, trustful advice, must be easy to use and easy to understand. This is what actually the baseline, the main target that’s focused on. And to answer your question, we launched that in 2018, and we are now working and developing different tools to implement actually all these ideas.
How have you adjusted your leadership style to adapt to the pandemic?
We were very lucky as a law firm that we had the chance, I would say, that we were all able to work from home. In other words, we could really continue the business and continue to assist clients that were looking for advice in these very difficult circumstances. And that was due to the fact that we were already good organized from an IT point of view, and we could immediately switch, and we have six offices in Belgium. Well, from one day to another, we had 150 offices in Belgium because everyone was working from home and it worked very well, everyone was very flexible, and yes, this has an impact on the leadership because it’s also a question about trust, but it went very smoothly, I would say.
And I always say, I always tell clients also when people are challenging now and are thinking about how will we organize ourselves after the pandemic? How will we work with our employees? Is it good to work from home? And how will that be organized on a daily basis? And can we trust our employees? And I always said, “Look, these employees, they are the same employees before corona or after the corona.” In fact, my point is people that you didn’t trust before, well, they, you will never trust them. I mean, for me, it’s more about, do you want to continue with the people and do you believe in your team? And that’s the way how you have to move forward. You have to empower people, you have to trust them also.
Yes, it has had a change because, of course, in the past we were working all at the firm, and we saw everyone, and we have a lot of physical interaction during meetings, et cetera. Now, yes, that will change a little bit, and we will indeed work a bit more from home, but still people are also very keen to come back to the office because they really enjoy that interaction, but they will combine that, we will not forbid that, we will accept, and whenever it helps also to improve the work life balance, we will certainly encourage that. But a good combination and a good balance, because 100% being at home, that’s how we want to work, and we really like that interaction.
What changes did the firm make during the past year and a half that you expect to remain permanent?
Our staff members, they are all the salaried employees. Our lawyers are all self-employed people. Self-employed people, they actually, in Belgium, choose how they work, where they work, when they work. But our staff members, assistant secretary, finance people, knowledge management, IT guys, marketing, et cetera, there we actually have put in place a structured daily work policy, which means that they can tele-work one day per week, but it’s on a voluntary basis, which means that some people like it, other people say, “No, I would prefer to continue to work 100% that in the office.”
We provide that flexibility, so that’s, I think, a big change. It’s a bit a revolution in the market of law firms, contact with a lot of other managing partners, and they ask me sometimes, “How would you at Claeys & Engels, how will you organize yourself, what will you allow your people, et cetera?” So, that is a big change for us, but a change that was possible due to the fact that we have always invested in technology, that’s a very important element in that respect.
How does Claeys & Engels leverage technology to support its clients?
We always have applied a strategy of content marketing. So, we like to share our knowledge towards our clients, and we usually do that through seminars and webinars, et cetera. But we also share a lot of knowledge through newsletters, newsflashes, et cetera. And when we were doing that innovation journey in 2018, we were really thinking about how can we indeed embrace technology, and how can we use that technology to even share more knowledge to our clients? That’s how we actually have started a very nice collaboration with the startup, Lawren.io, I met them in Amsterdam two years ago at the Lexpo in Amsterdam. It’s a Belgian startup company, specialized in setting up chatbots for law firms. And we actually said, “Look,” we took a challenge, and we said, “Let’s collaborate together?” Because we have as a policy, we will not hire IT guys on our payroll, we do not believe in such a system, we truly believe in an ecosystem of corporate venturing where we really work together, collaborate together with startups or others experts on the market.
And that’s one of the reasons that we developed a tool, user friendly, easy access for free, where people can, on our website, dismissal.be, can chat with a true chatbot. So, it’s a true machine, it’s also machine learning, these are not trainees that are behind the table or behind the screen and you’re typing the answers. No, it’s a true robot answering questions. And if the chatbot is not able to answer the question, it’ll always offer a menu of other answers or other questions, “Perhaps do you mean this with your question? Or do you mean that, or can this topic be helpful for you?” And if it really doesn’t know the answer, then next time it will learn actually, and it will keep improving.
And that’s the way how we see things, that technology can help clients because, for basic questions, they can call 24/7, that chatbot, it’s available for free online. But for us and for our lawyers, it was very interesting because we truly collaborate with these legal tech guys because we delivered the content and the tech guys were busy with the programmation of all this stuff, and it was very nice. And for us, it’s another way to share that knowledge. You can say to a client, “Look, here is a newsflash, please read it.” But we all know that and we are all becoming a bit more lazy than we used to be because we don’t like to read long texts, everyone, if you think about something, a topic, then you Google it. But you’re not always sure about the correctness of the answer, that’s what we offer through this tool.
What is your process for determining whether to develop a technology tool in-house or to purchase a commercial application?
First of all, we do not believe that we have to hire people for that on our payroll. So, we truly believe in an ecosystem where we collaborate very closely with legal tech companies or companies that can really offer that added value because they have that expertise, that’s point one. Two, we always think about the purpose of the technology. The technology should truly improve the customer experience. Can we make our content more accessible to the clients? Is it a tool that has really an added value for our clients, and again, for internal clients, but of course, for our external clients.
I can give you an example, we are now developing the so-called deadline tracker. The deadline tracker, in employment law, and a lot of HR people that listen to this podcast will be agreeing with me that in employment law you have to deal with a lot of deadlines, for example, a work permit that expires, or you have to file an answer to an employee or ask for motivation, you have to answer within two months. So, all these kind of things in order to avoid that people would miss a deadline with them, which then we could claim damages, et cetera. We really want to develop such a tool.
I call it actually the smart fridge. You know that smart fridge, the fridge that orders milk before you actually are aware of the fact that you have no milk any longer in your house? The tool will actually solve that and will help you and say, “Pay attention, Ari, within two weeks you have to send an answer to the employee, et cetera.” So, this is how we see it, it must be useful, and not technology for technology, but really how does it fit in our strategy to serve our clients?
How do the firm’s lawyers engage with its knowledge management team?
We have a very good knowledge management team. We are five or six employees that are fully dedicated, we are surfing the whole day on the internet and consulting all resources so that every day at 11:30 AM we all receive in our mailbox an email in which we will find all news about evolution of legislation, et cetera. So, for us, it’s very important that we have access to all this news so that we, as lawyers, are all updated.
So, the interaction with the knowledge management team is very important. And on the other hand, the knowledge management team is also responsible for the animation, I would say, for our internal work groups, and we offer our lawyers to be part of some working groups about specific topics. For example, if you like all questions about privacy or questions about data security, if you want, for example, as a lawyer to be a true specialist, well, you can enroll in such a group, you can participate and you can develop some knowledge documents, et cetera. And this is actually a great interaction that we have with our knowledge management team that they really push our people, that they coordinate these activities.
And for us, it’s important because everything we know that we would develop internally, we always think, how can we help our clients in that respect? And for example, if we wanted to send out a message, for example, a newsflash about a new legislation, well, it all starts with having a very good knowledge management team because they know the sources, they know what is going on in the parliament, et cetera. And they will actually inform us on a daily basis so that we are always up to speed and that we are able to inform our clients by saying, “Look, are you aware by the fact that legislation will change and you have to take into account the possible change, because that might have an impact on the way how you deal with your personnel, for example?”
What are the challenges of deploying new applications internally and to your clients?
Well, the main challenges are the fact that human beings are always a little bit reluctant when we talk about change. So for us, the change must always have a purpose, and again, must fit with our firm’s strategy. If it makes your life easier, then yes, and then it’s important to have such new applications, for example, internally, we moved from time sheets on a daily basis on paper and or in Excel sheets, well, we moved to an automatic system, VIQ, which we use and that actually really improved the way of working both for the lawyers and for our assistants, and it also improved actually the way how we work in our finance department. So, when people know what is the purpose, if they see why it’s worth to change, if they see the goal, then you can actually encourage, and you can really have them on board.
And what we specifically have done with our journey when we launched that a few years ago, we actually involved everyone. So, it was not a top-down exercise, it was actually an exercise in which we really implied everyone, we really encouraged everyone, but it was on a voluntary basis, if you were not willing, well, that was a personal choice, but everyone was so enthusiastic that everyone wanted to participate in this brainstorm exercise, but we said, “Okay, we will not just only brainstorm, we really empower you and we give you the tools, and if the project is interesting, then we will also put a budget available.” So, we really challenged our people, and we said, “You have to make your own SWOT analysis.” And by doing so, they will then even more embrace the change and see why we have to do it, and why is very important, even more today than it used to be in the past.
What are the benefits of deploying technology to enhance the firm’s marketing?
We have a strategy as a law firm, it’s now more than 20 years that Claeys & Engels exists, and our strategy from the beginning has always been the content marketing, meaning we really love to share our knowledge towards our audience, which are clients, companies, HR responsible, legal councils. And for us, that’s the main purpose, that’s content marketing. And everything that can help to really spread that message and then how we can share that content, well, we will opt for that. For example, we now participate a lot by doing podcasts, but also, for example, the fact that we have developed an interactive video on our website, dismissal.be, it’s an interactive, animated video that we developed with another startup, it’s called 87 Seconds, because I was told that if you want to have a clear message, you should stick to 87 Seconds. And the video is a bit longer, but it’s an interesting technology, it’s a little bit like Netflix. You can move forward in the video if you don’t like this or that topic.
But the video is also asking you questions, for example, it’s a video about how to dismiss an employee in Belgium, and what are the pitfalls, what do you have think about? The video will ask you questions and depending on your answer, you can scroll the video. And so, again, it helps, it makes things more easy in access, and that’s, for us, very important. The technology must help us improve our services, our commitments. The fact that we enjoy to share that knowledge, that’s the way how we see it for our firm.
What advice can you share with other law firm leaders who are trying to decide whether to launch new initiatives at their firms?
Well, my main advice would be no top-down, obviously, it’s important that you have the buy-in of all your stakeholders and first place your internal people. It is very important, and you have to ask yourself every day, what we have now today is, do we still meet the expectations of our clients? Because with no clients, you have no business, and again, external clients, because your internal clients, if they’re unhappy then you will lose your people, and if you have motivated, happy people, then they will even better serve the interest of your external clients.
So, the buy-in is important, they need to see why you want to innovate, why you want to have new initiatives in your firm. So, that buy-in is very important. That’s also the reason why when we launched our Innovation Journey, we really invited everyone, and we said, “There are no taboos, just come with your ideas and we will see what we do.” And we have created a lot of enthusiasm, and your message and your projects are much stronger if you have that buy-in than if you have to send out, as a managing partner, a message to your employees, by saying, “Look,” to your colleagues, “as of now, we will change the procedure, and as of now, it will be this and this and this.” The more buy-in you have, the better it is and creates enthusiasm, for me, that’s collaboration and co-creation of some projects, that gives you energy I would say.
This program is called Reinventing Legal, how does your work further that objective?
I can really be proud, and our lawyers are very proud also about the fact that our founding partner was actually very visionary. He had great vision about how things should evolve. He had a great vision already in the early ’70s, and because now with artificial intelligence, and it’s a bit of a buzz word, if law firms do not embrace technology they will all disappear, and that’s what you hear or you read in a lot of books. The question is, how do you deal with it?
And actually, Thierry Claeys, in the early ’70s, he developed a formula about how to predict notice periods and what will be the outcome of court case in Belgium to determine a notice period. He gathered all case law, and he has put that in a statistic formula. For me, it’s an early application of artificial intelligence then because when we talk about artificial intelligence and law firms, it’s all about predictability of court cases and the outcome of such court cases.
And whereas you generally said the computer should lawyers because the computer will tell you what the judge may render as a decision, well, for us, the fact that Thierry already has developed such a formula has made it that in our mindset, we really try to be very innovative in the firm, and that’s, for us, very important, and we will always, every 3, 4 years, we do a big exercise in our firm by asking ourselves what we do today, does it make sense? What do we need to improve? How can we make life easier for our employees and for our customers? And it’s not because you have decided something two years ago that is still very useful, and by asking your employees also how are you using the things?
This has been Reinventing Legal, I’m Ari Kaplan, and it’s been a privilege to speak with Olivier Wouters, the managing partner of Claeys & Engels, a labor employment firm in Belgium. Olivier, thank you so very much.
You’re very welcome, thank you, Ari.
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