fivehundred magazine > Interview with... > Dr. Benjamin Parameswaran: It would be short-sighted to limit innovation to just tech and tools

Dr. Benjamin Parameswaran: It would be short-sighted to limit innovation to just tech and tools

Dr. Benjamin Parameswaran: It would be short-sighted to limit innovation to just tech and tools interview image

The managing partner of DLA Piper in Germany talks about his firm’s recent growth, the competition for talent, and looking out for the next big trend

Dr Parameswaran, you joined the firm almost a decade ago and have been managing partner for six years. In your opinion, what’s changed most within that time?

Having started as a greenfield operation in Germany only 15 years ago without building on a legacy firm, we are now very well established in the German legal market and are solidly among the top 20 law firms in Germany, with over 240 lawyers. In many practice areas such as technology, media, data protection, insurance, and mid-market M&A we are now top tier ranked. Many of our lawyers are ranked as leaders in their field as well. Our client base reflects those developments too: we now represent 19 of the DAX30 companies in Germany as well as many other German and international blue-chip companies.

And how did we achieve this? Five years ago we asked ourselves: where do we want to be in 2020 – in the German market as much as with a view to relevant financial performance indicators. We identified our core strengths and the requirements to build an even more collaborative firm culture that supports our values. Requiring partners to focus on their core areas of specialisation, and fostering and incentivising closer interdisciplinary cooperation, was of key importance. It was essential to get the buy-in from our German partners for what we called our Roadmap 2020. While growth in the early years of DLA Piper in Germany often simply implied buying turnover, we now only grow with lateral hires in selected areas where we still have gaps in our service offering and we look very closely that the lateral hire fits on a personal level too.

What are the biggest challenges facing firms of your calibre in Germany right now?

One of the biggest challenges is the competition for talent. Over the past few years recruiting top-notch lawyers has become increasingly difficult. To secure the best talent we offer a variety of programmes, such as our DLA Piper LAB, which offers courses for associates, senior associates, and counsel, in the areas of legal excellence and economic skills, management, and leadership as well as people skills. We also offer regular training in the legal tech field.

“Wherever possible, we now increasingly promote our own talent from within the firm”

Wherever possible, we now increasingly promote our own talent from within the firm. We are very proud to have promoted five lawyers from our own ranks to partner this financial year.

Developing our young talent into partners is a top priority for our established partners. This involves sharing client relationships and developing a sustainable financial business case with the support of the partnership in Germany and internationally.

Moreover, the search for the next big topic will be crucial for all major law firms in Germany. After massive trends like compliance, GDPR, or mass litigation around diesel that has boosted fee income of many law firms over the last couple of years, it will be key to identify new hot trends early on and to develop strategies accordingly.

What does innovation mean to you and how can firms be better at it?

There is a lot of talk at the moment about legal tech and how it will influence the way we work and especially our clients’ demands for our services. We are already applying a number of tools to support us both in getting standard tasks done in more efficient and highly reliable ways, but also to improve the way we can collaborate within our teams and with clients. However, it would be short-sighted to limit innovation to just tech and tools. The field is much broader and requires an extensive set of know-how and skills. We always try to propose the most suitable solution for our clients’ needs. That may include bringing in dedicated project management or doing an in-depth analysis of processes in order to reshape them and make them more efficient. We have understood early on that while the law will always be at the center of what we are doing, multidisciplinary teams will put us in the best position to service our clients well.

Therefore, we formed a Change Council at the beginning of 2019 and set up a radical change agenda that focuses on four priority areas: data, client experience, digital technology and advisory services. We have assigned a change team to each area which is in charge of developing and executing radical ideas. One really exciting development we are working on is how we are now applying design thinking throughout the business. We have been using the design thinking methodology and approach during our radical change sessions and have realised that the mentality that underpins design thinking is crucial to us being able to create the radical change we want to see in all of our priority areas. The techniques encourage creativity and curiosity. We are creating and embedding a design thinking approach that all our people can use to solve problems and to work with clients and each other. Importantly, design thinking is wholly client/user-centric. With our people and our clients as the starting point, we build highly tailored and intuitive solutions. At each step, we ask: what will the user experience be, and how do we improve it, what is the client seeking and how do we deliver that in the best way?

Has new technology affected the way you interact with your clients and the services you can provide them? In your opinion, how will technology further impact the legal profession in the future?

AI-based technology has made us more competitive, especially in regards to project business where a lot of standardised work occurs. Another advantage is the accuracy of AI; for example, in due diligence it has currently attained a value of some 95%, and is therefore statistically superior to the average lawyer. So we use the technology as an add-on for our clients to reduce costs and ensure our high-quality standard. Those who do not invest in this technology are not part of the future but belong to the past and will fall behind.

“Diversity and inclusion is something we put front and center. Each and every one of our colleagues has special strengths and talents that we value”

What are your firm’s policies on diversity and inclusion?

Diversity and inclusion is something we put front and center. Each and every one of our colleagues has special strengths and talents that we value. We want to create an inclusive environment that supports our employees and gives them space for creativity and innovation.

One example is Iris, our global LGBT+ network. The group is open to all lawyers and staff of the firm and its overall aim is to promote an inclusive work environment for all of our colleagues. It creates networking opportunities both within the firm and externally, such as the European Iris Summit that took place in Frankfurt in 2019 for the first time, which helped to raise our profile as an open and inclusive LGBT+ employer. We also work jointly with clients on LGBT+ initiatives.

In 2010, we launched The Leadership Alliance for Women (LAW) programme. Gender balance in leadership is an issue that stands to affect all people and all types of business. As such, LAW does not promote any form of membership, but instead is open to all, for the benefit of all, internally and externally. Last year we hosted a number of LAW networking events that brought together a wide range of female participants.

What have you found is the best way to retain talent – both at partner and associate levels?

A few years ago we introduced our values – be supportive, be collaborative, be bold, and be exceptional. We want to actively promote inclusion, consider the well-being of our colleagues, share knowledge and insights, and respect everyone’s contribution. We also encourage our employees to develop and pursue new ideas and foster entrepreneurial spirit so that we can deliver the highest standard of legal advice and develop a deep understanding of our clients’ business needs. Being a value-driven organisation, we truly want our people to not only do great international legal work but to also support them beyond their job in the narrow sense and, most importantly, we want them to be happy at DLA Piper.

The common theme I hear from our lawyers and staff around what makes DLA Piper an exceptional place to work is the entrepreneurial yet collaborative spirit and the ability to move things forward. We do not have a set budget for business development initiatives for every lawyer, but if an associate proposes a credible project, we equip them with the necessary means to pursue it. If somebody brings up an idea of how to improve our client services, internal processes or the working environment, we will evaluate and potentially implement it irrespective of any hierarchical thinking. This isn’t always easy, but our evaluations and attrition numbers show that the effort really pays off.

What advice would you give to the next generation of partners ready to rise the ranks?

Firstly, they will need to have an entrepreneurial way of thinking and be open to new ideas and change. Clients are no longer looking for lone wolves. They want experienced lawyers who collaborate – internally with their colleagues as well as externally with their client teams – to get the best results.

Secondly, there is no doubt that digitalisation and AI will influence our profession in the future. Get yourselves up-to-speed on legal tech and new tools to drive efficiency – for the sake of our clients.