In this podcast episode, Chris Fowler, the General Counsel Technology at BT, explains his role in supporting BT’s technology unit and its crucial infrastructure, including developing and managing network infrastructure and IT support for employees.

BT Group is a multinational telecommunications company based in London, providing a range of communications services including broadband, mobile, and IT solutions.


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Dom Burch: Welcome back to Legal Tech Made Simple with me, Dom Burch. I’m not a lawyer and I’m not a techie, which makes me perfectly qualified to make legal tech simple. Join me on this podcast as I interview expert legal engineers, software developers, law firms, and large corporations who are at the cutting edge of implementing legal technology. Now today, I’m absolutely delighted to be joined by Chris Fowler, who is the General Counsel for Technology at BT Group based in London. Chris is accountable for the legal support to technology, which is the unit in BT responsible for the design, delivery, and management of BT’s fixed and mobile network infrastructure. He’s also responsible for its research and development activities and its internal IT infrastructure. Blimey! Woah, Chris, I’d hate to see your business card. That is a hell of a lot on your plate.

Chris Fowler: Yeah, thanks, Dom. Well, I feel incredibly lucky because I work to support effectively the part of BT that, in simple terms, is at the heart of delivering everything we do. The core networks effectively are the highways and the motorways of the UK telecommunications infrastructure, which keep cities connected, allow banking, and allow healthcare. And when things inevitably don’t go to plan, it can have pretty serious implications. So, you know, it’s mission-critical infrastructure. It’s infrastructure that has to be developed. We’re busy rolling out 5G at the moment, the next generation of mobile networks. We also have to support the business in terms of giving them support around all of the IT that effectively supports BT and BT’s employees, which is even more crucial now when we’re all remotely working. And then finally, up at Dash Two Park and it’s which we’ve got one lawyer who supports our research and development team, who are looking at the next generation of technologies and how networking supports it such as how networking can support autonomous vehicles, driverless cars, and so forth. So it’s really exciting. I feel kind of pretty privileged. But also, you know, like you said earlier, if I think about it too much, I won’t sleep. It’s important stuff. It’s important to not only BT but also to the country. And especially at the moment, we all depend upon the broadband network to be able to do things that we’re doing and carry on working to the best we can.

Dom Burch: We laughed a little bit, didn’t we, in the election period when there was talk of free fibre-optic broadband and it being a service, but actually, people now working from home trying to manage their life, the kids and their workload wouldn’t even want to imagine not having a connection.

Chris Fowler: No, absolutely. One of the challenges for us is that the demand for data is insatiable. We see it in real time. So when a new edition of Fortnite or Call of Duty gets released, it has a big impact on the capacity of the broadband network to cope. But it’s been designed to deal with the launch of BT Sport. The current record capacity is something like 17.8 terabytes at the peak per second, which is pretty amazing. And it’s sort of a piece of technology, it’s pretty mind-blowing really when I see what needs to go into it to not only keep it going but also develop it and make sure it works with the other two big networks we’ve got, which are the fixed note network and the wifi network.

Dom Burch: It reminds me of when I was growing up as a kid and they used to talk about the strain on the electricity. You know, on FA Cup final day, as soon as it got to halftime, suddenly there’s a surge in people putting the kettle on. And I guess you have those Netflix moments now, don’t you? The release of Better Call Saul or whatever it is. As you said, the fortnight has just been released. You must, do you have to predict when those are coming? Are you keeping one eye on cultural events to know that there’s going to be surges from all the teenagers logging on at the same time?

Chris Fowler: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there’s a big team of people who are based down in Ipswich who are looking at it 24 hours a day, every day of the year, making sure that we can anticipate. The last big one was the Amazon sports release, but clearly, you see peaks now like you would have seen last night when everybody clapped for the NHS. Immediately after that, people will share the pictures on social networking and that creates capacity. The real challenge for the teams is how they have pre-provisioned that and they can anticipate that because we effectively have to invest every year in kind of building that capacity for what we anticipate is coming through. Five years ago, probably the peaks were driven by people surfing the internet. Now, as you say, we all use Netflix. We all, lots of us play PlayStation games. The way in which we interact with the broadband network has changed dramatically.

Dom Burch: So let’s bring it around to legal technology. What would your advice be for people who are, how do I navigate this? What should I do?

Chris Fowler: I mean, it’s a really good point. We’ve, you know, as a legal team of over 300 people, we’ve worked in this area a little bit for the last five years. And to be truthful, we’ve developed specific use cases for specific teams. And I think what we’ve realised now is especially as most organisations are moving to the cloud, you need to have a proper strategy. If you’re not aware of what your overall company’s architectural control framework is, is it inevitably following the Microsoft suite or is it more following other routes? I find that if you don’t get that basic right and you don’t understand your own company’s security policies and how they apply to information security, you can find it nigh on impossible to get anything in, let alone how you navigate. In terms of how you navigate, we’ve got a team of people in the BT legal team headed by a guy called David Griffin, who we bought in specifically to have a three-year strategy on core building blocks that the entire function will adopt. We started off with spend management. We’ll be moving on very shortly to document management, then matter management, and then effectively document automation, which I think will follow thereafter, and lifecycle contract management will follow. And I think you’ve got to look at it functionally. I think there’s a real danger that if you look at it in isolation, you’ll end up with lots of Heath Robinson type applications and turn around about a year later and wonder, well, why don’t all these things talk to each other? But I’d say this is not a problem that’s unique to legal. This is a problem that the broader IT industry is facing and has to look into for a long while. It’s a challenge for our broader industry. We’ve developed lots and lots of systems within BT to all reflect individual use cases. And now the broader business is looking at going, actually, we’ve got to simplify this IT a lot more, we’ve got to make it way more human-centric, we’ve got to develop agile squads, we’ve got to develop stuff that’s almost ready but not perfect. We’ve got to go to this agile methodology, whereby not a waterfall methodology where there’s a huge drop of functionality, but you do it gradually, but to do that, you’ve got to have a really good strategy and a two to three-year plan, which will follow. And I feel sometimes we fall into that inevitable trap in legal, which is we look at the first thing that solves the immediate problem. We don’t take a step back and go, well, actually, where’s this going to take us department as a whole? And I do think whatever it is, whatever your size is, you need to have a well-thought-out IT strategy that is consistent with where your company’s going. And also, I think you need to look at your own company as well. If I look at BT, we manage interactions with customers. We have a case management system. It’s not called a case management system, but we have a case management system of sorts. I think looking into your own organization and seeing what sort of applications they’ve got and how they can be adapted for your use is absolutely crucial. But I think as well, think about it what’s the problem you’re looking to solve? And what’s the two to three-year vision? Because if you just look and buy the next thing that comes along, I fear in six months time, you’ll be wondering why it doesn’t link in with another application you may have bought.

Dom Burch: There’s a horrible phrase, but we use it a lot: “Don’t try and put lipstick on a pig.” Don’t bring extra complexity in if you haven’t sorted out the process.

Chris Fowler: I completely agree. I look at what’s happened to us recently, and the situation we’re currently in has driven a massive uptick in the use of Microsoft Teams. It’s not because we didn’t have that application there; it was there. It’s been launched about a year now. The team’s been out to use it, but of course, because we’re all working at home to encourage people to connect, the use of that has gone through the roof. People who are using it, who I’m dealing with on a day-to-day basis, we didn’t touch it in the last six to nine months. Getting that really driving that user adoption in my mind and breaking down what sometimes are very simple barriers. We had a great one whereby people said, “Well, the reason I don’t like Teams is there’s no phone number.” Well, we managed to fix that so we could offer a dial-in for it. So people who couldn’t connect via their laptop for whatever reason could then dial in, and all of a sudden, people started using it a lot more. People started downloading it to their mobile devices. I think there are an awful lot of what I would call simple user adoption barriers, which you can easily knock over. If you get people using it, then you can start to take everyone on that similar journey.

Dom Burch: It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you this morning. We’ve done it via Teams, and it’s worked relatively okay. I’m sitting here on a 4G signal because the Wi-Fi has given up. I’m pleased to say it has nothing to do with BT, one of your rivals, so I won’t be asking you for service advice. But just to finish, what’s your hope for the industry, the legal industry that you’ve been a part of, for a while? What’s your hope in relation to legal tech over the next, say, 6 to 12 months? I won’t push you further out than that.

Chris Fowler: Yeah, no, sure. I still come back to a really simple view is that if you look at what technology has done in other industries, whether it’s the airline industry or the hotel industry, it’s reduced the cost to people. It’s made it more accessible. In my mind, my big aspiration and my big hope for legal tech is actually making access to legal services a lot more prevalent than it currently is. Now, I do think that what’s the real reason we’re here for and why? That’s why when I met some of the people who work in some of the places like Singapore, they were very driven by access to justice because using a lawyer is very expensive. Personally, I think if we can get a few applications really well-grounded that the whole industry is using, it will inevitably mean that costs will be reduced. And I think that can only be good because it means more people will have access, and fewer people will be shut out. So that will be my overall hope. And my other hope really is just that events, like we’re currently in, will inevitably mean we adopt it more. We’re prepared to take a few more risks and a few more gambles with it because I think the current environment has shown us that we can carry on working if we need technology to enable us to do that. And I think looking at things a little bit more from what do we, what can we do that that’s good enough, not necessarily needs to be perfect in all occasions. And I think technology is a massive enabler for that.

Dom Burch: Chris, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much.

Chris Fowler: No problem.