My Way - IT at Simmons & Simmons

Global law firm Simmons & Simmons has successfully deployed a worldwide upgrade of its IT infrastructure helmed by IT director Abby Ewen and her team.

Engineering and Technology: 'Project Vanilla', as you named the Simmons & Simmons IT revamp, sounds like a huge undertaking.

Abby Ewen: It was quite ambitious, but it did have significant advantages in that we had a greenfield site environment.

E&T: Why did you decide to change everything at once?

Ewen: This allowed us to build a new system from the ground up, and move people onto it, rather than trying to squeeze bits like square pegs into round holes.

E&T: In broad terms, what did Project Vanilla consist of?

Ewen: The project was essentially removing all of the servers from each of our international offices and consolidating them into three data centres in London, Rotterdam, and Hong Kong, so we didn't have to rely on secretaries in Italian offices taking back-up tapes home in their handbags, for example!

E&T: Seriously?

Ewen: That kind of thing used to happen, and would keep me awake at three o'clock in the morning!

E&T: That's not surprising. So what exactly did the project work consist of?

Ewen: Now we have three replicating data centres: London replicates to Rotterdam, Rotterdam to London, and Hong Kong to London, all in real time.

E&T: What about the terminal devices?

Ewen: We replaced every single laptop and desktop globally. With a standardised locked down environment; we know that globally, every single PC is identical. This means that if we do need to update anything, we can test something centrally in London on a build and push it out anywhere in the world without breaking anything. It also means our mobile workforce can go into any office in the world, log-on, and get exactly the same kind of environment as anywhere else.

E&T: What about desktop applications?

Ewen: We put in a new document management system, Microsoft Exchange, and Microsoft Outlook. Prior to that we had a Novell and Oracle environment, so (Project Vanilla) was very much a push towards Microsoft technologies as well. We put in Office 2003 - we'd been running Office 97 before and had found serious limitations to it. It actually got to the stage that we couldn't really communicate with clients anymore - we were ending up with lots of corrupt documents, etc. We put in an email archiving system, implemented email manage-ment - filing of emails into matter workspaces - and put in a remote access solution.

E&T: What about timescales?

Ewen: We spent a year planning, and then just over a year rolling out [the project]... It's created a foundation, a platform for moving forwards.

E&T: Tell us about the implementation phase: how did you approach that?

Ewen: It did become obvious during the pilot that we couldn't just lob this straight back into the IT environment as it was, so it also resulted in me putting the whole department through ITIL [Information Technology Infrastructure Library] foundation training and implementing ITIL across the board. So we've embedded change management, release management, configuration management, etc.; and that was something the whole department bought into.

E&T: So how did you roll something of this magnitude out - department by department?

Ewen: It was quite a big change management piece for our users. In terms of rollout it was quite intensive. The reason why it was called Project Vanilla was because we wanted to do as much out of the box as we could. I didn't want lots of customised environments that were very difficult and expensive to maintain. To a certain extent we were lucky in as much as we were giving people things like Office 2003 and Outlook, which they used at home.

E&T: Were there any other factors that worked in your favour?

Ewen: [We had] the advantage of coming so late to the party was that we came into a software market that was very mature. It meant we could take advantage of getting everything integrated, so we have an environment where everything talks very well to everything else. Leading on from that has meant we can overlay things like Reccomind to pull the information together out of all the various systems.

E&T: Did you have to redeploy the IT team in relation to the roll-out?

Ewen: As part of Project Vanilla we took people out of the IT department and onto the project, backfilling their role. So instead of employing systems integrators who then learnt a lot and took it all away with them, we made sure we embedded all the knowledge about the new environment in our own people.

E&T: They handled the roll-out globally, then?

Ewen: Basically we just sent them all around the world to roll this out and by the end of it, it was a really well-oiled machine. It was a bit like a production line. We'd just swoop into an office, do it, and then run. We would build the data centre first, then put people on training, and upgrade their PCs while they were away. While this was being rolled out, the infrastructure team would move on to begin building the next data centre. It was one of those things where it could have gone disastrously wrong, but it actually came in on time, on budget, and fit for purpose.

E&T: It must feel like a great achievement to have pulled that off problem free?

Ewen: It is an achievement I'm quite proud of - but I wouldn't do it again!

Actually one of the things I feel passionately about is that I'm not doing that again in three years time. We need to keep on top of upgrading systems, because we will otherwise end-up in the same position. I'm carrying a huge amount of depreciation as a result of that project, so I'd rather keep the investment more fluid than spending a huge amount of money every seven years.

E&T: Did the project allow you to future-proof in any way?

Ewen: Definitely. We've got a new storage environment, a SAN [storage area network] from Pillar Data Systems, which was quite a bold step because no other law firms were using that environment. However, it was a very cost effective solution, and also very scalable. So when we need storage space we just buy another 'brick' of storage, and put it in. So rather than having to rip-and-replace like you have to do with some storage environments, we just add a bit more 'brain' to it. We've also created an environment where it is very easy to upgrade things, so I think we've built in quite a lot of future-proofing, as much as you ever can with technology.

E&T: What benefits have you seen from the project already?

Ewen: There's a smoother operation of the IT department now, and a global standard. One thing I've been able to do is outsource the service desk, creating a global 24:7 service desk. Based in London, as a result of the global standard, they can resolve 80 per cent of calls remotely over the telephone or by remoting into a PC. Through this we have been able to reduce the number of staff we have on site.

E&T: How did the ITIL exercise work out?

Ewen: The ITIL transformation was quite interesting because it got me to the stage where I knew exactly what my service desk was doing: what service they were providing to the firm, what kind of calls we were getting, and so forth.

E&T: But what is the operational value of that kind of IT management intelligence?

Ewen: It has meant I've been able to do sufficient benchmarking to prove that there's no financial benefit to outsource the department to India, etc. You get pressures from partners who have been told by friends that outsourcing could save the business 30 per cent, [but] because I'm in a position where I know down to the last detail exactly what we are delivering, how quickly, and for how much, I [am in an informed position to] rebut those arguments.

E&T: Aside from managing projects such as this, what else does your role as Simmons & Simmons' IT director entail?

Ewen: I think my job spec doesn't necessarily reflect everything that I do now - there are some intangibles that would not be in my job description. It entails a lot of expectation management. Lawyers are a particularly interesting set of people. They have very high expectations, high stress thresholds, and can be quite challenging and demanding.

E&T: This is the 'political' side of IT directorship?

Ewen: There is a bit of conflict management: managing the disconnect between the central management of the firm that control budgets and sets policy and strategy, and translating that to the other 200 partners who actually own the firm. For example, it is quite hard to tell a partner who turns over a couple of million pounds a year that the firm's policy is that he cannot have a desktop and a laptop. He won't get that it is a problem; but when it comes to governance, budgeting, financial control, and so on, it is.

E&T: Does working at directorial level mean that you have less 'hands on' contact with technology?

Ewen: I'm involved in a lot of meetings, mainly at commercial and strategic level. I don't tend to look at bits of software anymore, because I have a very good team of managers who are very capable of doing that. A big part of my role is mentoring them. I have eight direct reports in London, and two more at the other data centres, all very expert in their areas, who use me as a point of escalation but also as a mentoring resource. They each manage a different area of the business from infrastructure or development through to service support and telecoms, etc. In the main I'll give them a broad framework of what I expect them to deliver; but the decisions on how they deliver are very much up to them.

E&T: All that said, what would you say is the most interesting part of your job?

Ewen: The most interesting bit of the job is internal and external client liaison. That's talking to the partners, listening to what the issues are, down to a very basic level. It's not unknown for me to go into a partner's office, and talk to them about something fairly big from a technology perspective, and end-up showing him how to set up a flag on the email in Outlook.

E&T: Being called on to help with rudimentary stuff doesn't annoy you?

Ewen: I feel liaising this way is a real step forward for technology. We're no longer seen as the 'oily rags' in the basement that keep the lights flashing; we are very much being seen as an enabler.

E&T: Working in the legal sector, what do you have to focus on IT-wise? Presumably security and file access is important?

Ewen: Security is big. We have regular penetration tests done on our environment for external threats; and we have a document management system that has quite granular levels of document security.

E&T: When you say that security is 'big', you mean it is...?

Ewen: Security is a problem, but also the sheer volumes of paper we create; and there are lots of initiatives going on at the moment to try and reduce that. We have put the technology in to help, but we have to influence behavioural change too.

E&T: Do you intend, or hope, to go entirely digital at some point then?

Ewen: Yes. We've got enough linear storage in this office to stretch from here to the 2012 London Olympics stadium in Stratford, and twice around the track. This is the visual representation I use to explain to lawyers why they should be scanning their paper.

E&T: Legal people like paper. It's legal.

Ewen: But it is a very paper and information intensive business, so something like Recommind, which can actually pinpoint where these nuggets of information are, is very important. Microsoft came to us, and explained that law firms are pushing the boundaries of using programs like its Word much more than other vertical markets, just because it is such an information and data intensive business. We tend to exploit more of the functionality of Word than other kinds of organisations.

E&T: You said that it is partly about managing expectations.

Ewen: [I have found] as you put the technology in, the expectations grow exponentially. For example, with the archive email system, I've got lawyers saying it takes them 30 seconds to find an email that is five years old. I have to respond by saying if it was on a bit of paper on the floor, it would take them significantly longer to find it! That's what I mean about the expectation management.

E&T: Would you say they can be, to put it politely, quite 'stuck in their ways'?

Ewen: Risk adverse, conservative, and deeply opposed to change. But when you do get something changed, it's a massively rewarding feeling.

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