Christopher Young’s interview with Stuart Whittle.
When I sit down with Stuart Whittle, I instantly feel inspired. He has this air of confidence and down to earth genuineness that immediately puts you at ease.
What makes Stuart different from others is his experience in working not just up the ladder from trainee to partner, but his horizontal and seamlessly fluid movements into commanding different team leadership roles throughout departments.
He was fresh out of a law degree when he joined Weightmans as a trainee solicitor and since then he’s mastered a number of teams. Now 30 years into his Weightmans journey he sits as Chief Technology and Innovation Officer.
Stuarts has a brain full of big ideas, but he doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk and he’s got the skills to execute them too.
I get the sense Stuart really is in many ways Weightmans itself, with his DNA like understanding of how the company truly works. We delve into his experience, as well as his predictions for the future of law firms.
Tell me a bit about the kind of earlier career. What prompted you to be a lawyer in the first place?
“I’d like to say I had this burning ambition to be a lawyer. But the honest answer is I did five A levels which were maths, further maths, physics, chemistry, and General Studies. And I genuinely didn’t know what I wanted to do.
“This is a testament to the failure of my grammar school because whilst they taught me how to pass exams they didn’t capture my imagination. Can you believe I did science A levels, and I couldn’t see how that applied to the real world?
“So I picked law because I thought I’d be able to see it in the world around me, and that’s true. After I studied, I was offered a training contract at Weightmans, which in the midst of a recession was the luckiest thing that could have happened to me especially as those around me were receiving hundreds of rejections.
“And I was lucky in other ways with Weightmans because the tasks I worked on really suited my skill set. We were acting for solicitors who had been sued and every case I dealt with was different. Anything from failed personal injury claims to limitation issues around litigation.
“Some were incredibly complicated. For instance, I was assigned a case which was a failed litigation, about a failed litigation about a purchase of Spanish property and frankly it was the most complicated case I’ve ever dealt with!
“Intellectually every day was so different, I was constantly learning and researching and looking through books for answers because I couldn’t possibly know it all. We had to set our starting point on each case as what should have happened and go from there.”
So after ten years you then moved more towards IT for Weightmans, is that right?
“Yeah, so I actually had my first taste of IT as a trainee. At the time we were a small law firm with a HR partner, Marketing partner and IT partner.
“Our IT partner, Frank, was really forward-thinking – we all had PCs in the office and laptops which were almost unheard of at the time! He really championed IT.
“We were working with one client who chose to work with us based on our geographical location but this meant that we were competing with big London firms like Clifford Chance who had whole IT departments and could produce 40 to 50 page documents and fax them through whilst we were struggling with our small team. I don’t know how Frank maintained his sanity!
“So in response, Frank sent us on a week-long IT course, which back then lawyers never did but we went and it was so logical – I learnt so much.
“When we came back, myself and another team member updated this database which transformed the way we worked. Suddenly, we were able to compete with the likes of Clifford Chance and produce just as many accurate documents with hundreds of pages.
“The London lawyers didn’t have a clue as to how this smaller ‘local’ law firm could keep up!
“And this sparked my imagination because I saw the logic and the benefit of how we can use IT to strengthen relationships and resolve issues.”
It feels like all his legal experience has been the bricks and mortar in building Stuart as to where he sits today.
Do you think you could have done what you’re doing today without having had the experiences we’ve just touched on?
“It gives me an advantage definitely, there is an element that I’ve walked in somebody else’s shoes because I understand law and what lawyers need. I know truly what they do, day to day and case to case, so I can adapt our systems to them. But then I also truly understand the other departments too, because I’ve worked with them and headed up different teams so I definitely have a huge advantage in my understanding of Weightmans.
“I’ve seen it all and this means I have the birds-eye view of the legal team and I can offer solutions.”
Can you recall one of your earliest moments of using this understanding?
“There’s a lot! But if we go back to the early 2000s, it seemed like law firms sat in two camps using either document management or case management systems.
“At the time our clients were asking for management data, essentially discrete data points that we had to capture somewhere, and they also wanted access to an online system to better capture information.
“My concern was that unless we had one system in place to do this then we wouldn’t be able to offer this service. So, I persuaded the managing partner at the time to get one system that could do it all.
“We set up a case management system and built our own extranet which could securely show clients a whole range of data.
“Because I know from experience that it doesn’t matter what type of work you’re doing, you sit on a spectrum and so we introduced this system and it helped a tremendous amount.”
I can tell from Stuart’s enthusiasm that there’s more he wants to tell me about his role in spearheading the IT processes for Weightmans, so I stay quiet to give him the floor.
“Another pivotal point for me was when I led on building the data warehouse, which was introduced to solve the issue of getting different answers depending on what system you asked.
“With everyone using the data warehouse we were all getting the same answers. And we extended this as time went on. Today it takes all data, from all angles of the business and departments.
“From a client perspective, we’ve got a huge view of the client, from prospects and pipeline into campaigns and what worked profitably. And this can be adapted from client to client.
“And as a strategy, this has been hugely beneficial, I honestly don’t know how firms without a case management system do it. They must have an industry of people stitching spreadsheets together in the background.”
It’s funny to hear the data-integrity stories from Stuart because whilst he’s talking about 20 years ago these are issues that law firms come up against time and time again – even today.
It’s almost as if the IT team’s strength determines the time zone that the law firm operates in, in Stuart’s case he seems lightyears ahead of the rest.
If I were to go to a partner of the firm and ask them what Stuart’s MO? How does he work, what would they say?
“I’m famous for asking people ‘what’s the problem you’re trying to solve?’ because technology alone is not the answer to anything in and of itself, it’s there to support people and processes and we need to understand the problem before we move to the next step.
“You have to start with the problem that you’re trying to solve and really understand its root cause. Every problem in a law firm at some point has got a people definition to it, so if you don’t tackle that people element then the technology is redundant.
“It’s for the same reason that I’ve been described as ‘a living Action Man of legal innovation’ because I’m always trying to solve the problem first through understanding it and secondly through an innovative process.
“This mindset started after I attended a Lean Six Sigma course and I came off completely changed and inspired. I realised that so many law firms and people in them fix symptoms of problems and inevitably make things worse.”
So what do you know now that you didn’t know then?
“I was part-way through my IT masters when I joined Weightmans IT team and I truly thought that it would be the IT function that I’d be interested in but it wasn’t at all – it was the business and how the business functioned.
“I was just mesmerised by the mechanics of it all, and I really found my passion there for wanting to understand things at a microscopic level but then also zooming out to see the fully functioning model.
“Once I had this revelation, I started to truly understand all aspects of the business, from finance to billing, to new starters, to commercial and it all just came together and started clicking. I look back now and shake my head because it seems so simple, but there are still so many law firms that operate in a pigeonholed manner.
“Another thing I completely missed when I was a lawyer but know, and use well, now is the theory of ‘make your clients boss look good’ because when you do this in the process, they’re going to come back to you time and time again.”
I note how refreshing it is to hear a lawyer talk in such a down to earth manner, I wonder if this is Weightman’s culture and one of the pros of being outside London’s influence.
And what about Weightman’s, what’s the culture there like, is it grounded?
“Absolutely and that’s what our clients and people who work for us love. It comes down to a take my word straight approach. Recruiters even say that people come, leave, and come back again.
“And clients always comment on our down to earth, grounded approach, they value our authenticity and humanity.”
And what about the future, what does that look like for Weightmans?
“We’re at a pivotal point because the law firms of the future that are going to be successful, are the ones that are going to be able to pull together capabilities of multidisciplinary teams to solve clients’ problems, only one part of which might be legal. And some of it might not be legal at all.
“And we recognise this so it’s a really exciting time for us. We’ve had a lot of success in seeing a client’s problem, and understanding our capability to know when we can do something about it through technology or another service.
“And those firms aren’t isolated in this problem, pretty much all of the other firms in their sector will come up against it. So what we’re now focusing on is systemising our solutions to make them repeatable and turn them into products and I’ve put together a strategy for this.
“I truly believe that if it isn’t somebody’s job in a law firm, it doesn’t get done, I heard Neil Cameron say it and since then it’s stuck. So today we’re using our strengths and facing the market through the seven segments we operate in.
“I’m recruiting seven of our most creative partners who will align themselves with each segment, they will work with a product manager and our innovation team and together they understand the market and create products that we can take to the market.
“So we’re working really differently, using creativity, knowledge of the segment and the market and really going to tackle businesses’ challenges on a wider scale.”
Unfortunately, our time was up, despite there being so much more I wanted to find out it was a pleasure to speak to Stuart and hear his fascinating pathway to where he is today and his take on the future of law.
In fact, I have the sense that if anyone gave Stuart full control of the tiller, he’d be capable of even greater things at a huge level, my sense is that he’s destined for bigger things.