The heart of the matter

ALLEN & Overy ranks among the world’s largest law firms, with offices in 19 countries. Its corporate practice takes it into the limelight often – it recently brokered the Glazer family’s purchase of Manchester United, for example.

When it moves to its new, Foster & Partners-designed London headquarters at Bishops Square, in Spitalfields later this year, it will pull under one roof 2,500 staff – around half of Allen & Overy’s global workforce – all of whom count on the reliability and accessibility of the company’s IT systems to access case documents 24/7.

That was not always the case. When Dave Burwell, the firm’s IT director and CIO, joined from BP in 2001, “IT was a dirty name.” That first sweltering summer, a faulty circuit breaker in a back-up UPS unit caused a catastrophic power failure: it took IT a month to recover from it. In later years, it became apparent that Allen & Overy’s data centre cooling systems were inadequate for the ever-faster (and warmer) servers it wanted to install.

Burwell took the opportunity of the move to Spitalfields to build a new data centre under the main office and, at the same time, to host many of its key systems with co-location specialist Savvis.

The two data centres, 40 miles apart, are contracted by a network, provided by Fibrenet, consisting of two complete 10Gbit fibre rings, diversely routed (along railway lines) until the point where they converge at the Savvis data centre near Reading.

The data centre and network must be reliable enough to provide almost constant access to Allen & Overy’s unique document management system, Omnia. Heavily adapted from a document systems developed by Hummingbird, Omnia is accessible from almost any point using Citrix technology. It provides a ‘matter-centric’ view of cases and documents, enabling more flexible working and better accountability.

Information Age (IA): What were the circumstances which brought you to move to a data centre hosting contract?

Dave Burwell (DB): The company is about to move out of two buildings into a new purpose-built facility in Bishops Square. That gave us the opportunity to rethink what we do with our data centre: at the moment we have our production data centre in the basement of a old building that used to belong to the Bank of England. And we have a disaster recovery (DR) site with Hewlett-Packard about three miles away at Vauxhall. We were a little bit concerned, and always have been, that we locate all our assets in one place – all our people are over there and our computers are underneath. If we have any sort of major event, we could basically wipe out our computer capability and have our offices damaged at the same time, and it would be quite difficult to recover from that quickly. We are a business that works under extremely tight deadlines. We work for many of the world’s largest financial institutions and corporates and we’re often doing transactions that are very time critical. We need to keep going, come what may.

What we decided when we moved to Bishops Square was, we would not co-locate all our intellectual assets – our people – in the same place as our technical assets. Instead we found a third-party data centre where we could put our production systems and decided to actually put our DR systems in the Bishops Square building. It sounds a little counter-intuitive, but if we have a major problem in our production data centre, we’ve already got our people on site in the new building who are able to have access immediately to our DR site, so we can get that up and running very quickly. If on the other hand we have a terrorist attack that affected our building, we would have our production centre still running because it’s away from London and we would continue to operate that remotely. Savvis’s data centre is based near Reading, about 40 miles west of the centre of London.

Next year, we’re going to establish an active-active configuration – both components will be production centres and if one fails, the other will have enough capacity to take on at least two thirds of the load so you don’t suffer any downtime at all other than for very low priority users. We won’t strictly have a DR site any longer.


Name: Dave Burwell

Company: Allen & Overy

Title: Director of IT, CIO

Key challenge: Providing risk-reducing ‘matter-centric’ documents, with ultra-high reliability.

IA: Is there a cost saving element in this as well?

DB: There isn’t really a cost saving by changing one in-house data centre for one third-party data centre – except that in our new building we could not provide, the degree of resilience and redundancy in power and cooling that Savvis have.

The total cost of provisioning that building with that level of tier-three or four data centre capability would be cost-prohibitive for us. We’re really talking about at least four-nines [99.99%] availability in a data centre like that, literally a matter of a few minutes downtime in a whole year.

IA: I’ve seen claims that Allen & Overy has built a unique, ‘matter-centric’ document management system. What were the driving forces behind investing in that?

DB: Lawyers basically create contractual documents for clients and, interestingly enough, the two major applications they use are Word and email. The world’s got very nervous about the governance of companies, and law firms need to reliably maintain not only documents, as we’ve always done in the past, but also a record of everything that’s happened with a client on email.

So partly as a matter of risk management, but partly because we are a large organisation that needs to be able to work effectively across borders, we wanted to create a system that would retain all the documents and emails that related to any transaction we were working on. We often do cross-border deals – Hong Kong, Brussels, New York and London might be involved in a deal, working 24 hours a day. So there are always offices open, with lawyers wanting access to all the documents relating to a matter: they can be much better informed of what the others involved are doing, they can keep clients aware of what’s going on and they can manage our risk by being sure we have documentation in place. This is kind of the ‘holy grail’ for law firms.

IA: Holy grails are not easy to find. How did you create such a system?

DB: We set down on this road four years ago to design and build a system that would do it. We adopted a content management system from Hummingbird, but reworked it quite considerably to create what we call a virtual file system. All the documentation is held electronically, so it is much more available than lawyers printing everything out – you can’t feasibly share paper around the world.

We’re probably the only law firm in the world, with one minor exception, to achieve the status of having a virtual file system, which we call Omnia.

We spent 18 months with senior lawyers here devising a completely new set of working practices to make them better at sharing information but more risk averse. We designed the system to support those working practices. So it wasn’t technology-led, it was process-led but technology supported.

IA: What did you learn from the pains and strains of implementing Omnia?

DB: I think we underestimated just how far short the existing document management systems were compared with where we wanted to be. You go out onto the market, none of the main players provide the sort of capability that we required, which was the ready storage of documents and emails together.

The way that you get a client’s email into the system with a minimum of fuss is to drag and drop it into the folder. But that’s impossible with document management systems as they’ve been built. You want to transfer the metadata automatically – all the stuff about client number, matter number, subject, author, and so on. We had to do a lot of work to build that sort of capability.

Our first system was attempting to use as much as possible of the standard technology that Hummingbird provided and, as far as the lawyers were concerned, it proved to be too slow, clumsy and cumbersome. We suffered a degree of rejection of the system on the first release.

So we basically had to bespoke build a very large part of the system in our second release, which had a major effect of improving people’s perception of the usability of the system. It became very Outlook-like in the way it behaved, and that’s the system that lawyers are used to working with, so it became much easier for them to accept. It performed much better. It will be another two years before we truly get to where we want to be, but we’re well down the road.

It’s critical for us to be able to archive out information quite quickly so we’re not overloading the document management system with vast volumes of email and attachments.

IA: It seems like Allen & Overy has a pretty positive view of technology as an enabler of competitive advantage.

DB: I would not say that it gives you a massive leading edge by having the right technology, but it gives you sufficient edge. Matter-centricity will be sine qua non in five years’ time but the firm was keen enough to invest in it in terms of risk management. Omnia is ISO17799 certified, which means we’re the only international law firm which has its document management system and processes certified to [such a high] level of standard operation. A lot of our clients are now saying, ‘I hear you have Omnia, tell us more about it.’ When we do pitches to try and win work, it’s one of the things we’re often asked to talk about; it reassures them.

Avatar photo

Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

Related Topics