Case study

Vodafone and Osborne Clarke

See how Vodafone head of legal Sarah Spooner turned to Osborne Clarke to rethink the processes involved in running the company’s huge property portfolio

In the second half of 2015 Vodafone began to review the workflow of its property legal team. The impetus behind the move was to get away from the in-house team’s immersion in every part of the property process, allied to a requirement across the business for greater efficiency, visibility of risk and digitization. The Vodafone head of legal Sarah Spooner turned to Osborne Clarke on the project.

Osborne Clarke had been appointed to the Vodafone legal panel the previous year, but had an association with the telecoms giant across a number of areas. Property litigation partner Leona Briggs and property partner Shane Toal, who handled the real estate aspects of the Vodafone relationship, brought in Dan Wright, an Osborne Clarke corporate partner who had just begun heading the firm’s innovation and product development team.

A daunting task

The scale of the task seemed daunting. Vodafone’s property team, which included solicitors Michael Kapsos and Lisa Goodenough, handled a substantial workload. The company has more than 10,000 properties including offices, retail outlets, technical sites and masts, mainly in England and Wales. All those estates had management issues; the work included renewing leases, acquiring or selling properties, acquiring rights in existing properties and litigation.

Three people – Kapsos, Goodenough and one paralegal – worked on property matters full-time, translating into approximately 5,500 hours per year of in-house resource.

Also working with Vodafone’s property team was Cushman & Wakefield director Alastair Lindsay.

At that point, Cushman had little day-to-day engagement with Osborne Clarke, largely because the property operation put Vodafone’s legal team at the center of the process, meaning it was embroiled in minutiae. The challenge, then, was to ensure that the work was allocated at the right level, both internally and externally, and that the in-house team could add value in what it did rather than simply acting as a daily postbox.

Vodafone Legal also wanted to collect data about the transactions and the estate, explains head of legal Sarah Spooner.

“We were keen to understand the average period from instruction to completion of a transaction, identify common themes or issues that may cause delays, and find efficiencies and improvements where possible,” she says. Furthermore, the legal team wanted to get more detail about the rights and obligations the company had across the estate.

The first stage in the transformation was process mapping.

“The underlying principle of all our discussions was— what would service delivery look like if it was designed from scratch? We identified the relevant individual stakeholders and discussed their needs in detail,” says Spooner. “We then started mapping out needs and identifying solutions such as streamlining a process, a playbook or standardized documents to provide the ideal service delivery.”

Vodafone Legal and Osborne Clarke had several workshops, meetings, calls and ad hoc discussions to get to the right starting point.

“It’s just the starting point although, as everyone involved knows, they can feed back ideas for improvement at any time,” points out Osborne Clarke partner Dan Wright. “The build-fast approach is key to keeping the system improving and working for all involved.”

On the technology side Osborne Clarke had already been developing advanced multi-party workflow capabilities through a single online presence within HighQ’s platform. The tool is accessible across devices and can present relevant property documentation and interactive calendars for project management. It also provides the workflows to run the work needed, show various live databases and dashboards of the state of play across all property and work types, and will shortly show graphic visualizations of that work and the patterns and issues within it.

“Importantly, the system goes beyond law,” says Wright. “The delivery of the legal work is a key part of the project, but that legal work forms only part of Vodafone’s broader operational needs in relation to property management.”

The project was therefore designed to include agents, surveyors and others, rather than constraining process improvements purely to the legal elements.

“This helps Vodafone’s legal team take operationally valuable tools into various other parts of their business,” Wright adds.

The system delivers bespoke email alerts to each user either when they need to know something or when they are the next party needed to act on the matter. Alerts are built to match Vodafone’s internal approvals processes, to try and hardwire the desired approach to risk management.

“A core principle of the system is the need for it to work for everyone involved,” says Osborne Clarke property litigation partner Leona Briggs. “Part of the build stage was to make sure useful and helpful elements were built in, often on a standalone basis, for all involved.”

One of the most important building blocks in the process was bringing Vodafone’s property documents online into a searchable database. For Osborne Clarke, this involved an element of bulk uploading and then volume scanning of relevant documentation. The documentation previously had multiple locations and, as part of the process of dealing with more properties online through the system, the team is creating a bespoke Vodaloneconfigured structure of common information types across all properties.

“Creating the core database takes time,” cautions Wright, “but that is well-invested for the benefits that then flow. The advance of technology in our industry sometimes needs a bridge to past practice and digitizing documentation is one such area. “Technology can’t do everything for us, and often works best when combined with human experience. A real analogue engagement with the source material is an extremely useful starting point. It helps ensure that the more tech-enabled delivery is built on a great foundation of correct and useful core data. Having that solid base is crucial, as we then layer on various tools and operational functionality for the client.”

Previously, all property-related actions had been carried out by email which meant that the in-house legal team had to ensure all necessary information was provided correctly at the outset. The in-house team also had to provide updates. The new system allows Cushman & Wakefield and other external partners access to the property portal and, through that, they can instruct Osborne Clarke by providing information and obtain updates about their matters. The portal is a central point where all matters are held and can be accessed at all times.

Each piece of property work needed is now specified, instructed and managed online. Workflows are built around the initial choice of work required and these workflows then alert, and require input from, relevant stakeholders at relevant times. The system also enables each stakeholder to automate the production of various documents needed during the process. This allows Vodafone and all other parties to leverage and benefit from information input by others.

The key process improvement was that Vodafone Legal previously had to initiate all instructions for property work, but now all matters can be started only by the company’s external agents and surveyors.

“As the system embeds requests for the right information to be provided for any piece of work being instructed, we’ve been able to remove the need for the Vodafone’s legal team to police and pass on instructions,” says Osborne Clarke’s Toal. “We all invested the time in designing a system that ensures appropriate input – in building the system we have made it hard to do the wrong thing and easy to do the right thing.”

This means that the agents can use data in the system and then input the remaining required information for each instruction. Osborne Clarke gets alerted to the instruction and Vodafone Legal is notified at the same time. The in-house team can step in if it wants to – for example, if the deal does not fit in with a new element of strategy. However, in normal circumstances it is just a notification that work is in progress and that the in-house team can expect an approval request and some documentation for signing in the near future. This allows Vodafone Legal to focus on more strategic or otherwise operationally beneficial work.

Meanwhile, Vodafone Legal team members can access levels of information according to their roles.

“They can always deep-dive to further levels of detail, but we try to make sure that the information is brought to the user rather than them having to go and find it,” explains Osborne Clarke’s Briggs.

Osborne Clarke is currently experimenting with data visualization with the existing data on the system. The challenge of visualization is ensuring everything people see is helpful to them. That means configuring lots of dashboards to present to agents, surveyors, managers or lawyers the information most useful to them.

“Our next stages are to take some workflow data – especially that around value, dates, or decision points—and present it in more graphical form,” says Wright. “There’s no ‘right’ way of doing it, it’s about trying various ways and finding the ones that help us and the client make best use of the information.”

Adds Spooner: “It’s all about helping ensure that the relationship between data points and emergent trends is seen more readily. This can help decision making and also input into the core process flows and strategy underlying the work to build a cycle of improvement.”

As an ongoing hygiene project the playbooks, process and standardized documents are regularly reviewed and updated. The team has also tweaked functionality for specific projects that have mini-portals and specific reporting and data captures.

Expanding the process

Following the success of the property project Osborne Clarke is beginning to roll out the process to other service lines in Vodafone, such as corporate and employment; plans include bringing the management of the Scottish estate onto the same platform.

Key advice

• Do not get wowed by new tech and add it for tech’s sake. Regardless of how clever the tech is, it is equally important to be sensible, helpful and easy at the point of use. No-one needs bells and whistles, however shiny, if they do not add value.

• Creating the playbook in the first instance is the part of the process that gets leveraged going forwards, so this should not be skimped.

• A sign of success is that the system is never complete; there is always some way it can be improved and deliver further value.

• Do not let current processes drive your plan. Engage with stakeholders early on and make sure your plan is adaptable to changes.

Vodafone has also seen the potential for applicability in service lines across jurisdictions. “While property law aspects will differ, fundamental processes are often sufficiently similar to be able to build a single platform from which large corporates can manage international portfolios,” says Spooner. “This gives each jurisdiction what they need while allowing a central group an often much-wanted window on activity and current positions.”

Osborne Clarke is also applying the principles of the project to other clients across the management of disputes and new approaches to corporate and banking deal management, as well as contract and asset management platforms.

“This is a good example of how a relatively simple project can have disproportionate value to us and the client – simply from having documentation in one place,” says Wright. “This is especially so if that place is where you also manage and execute the agent, legal and management work needed, as well as the data analytics on present and past deals.”

The other outcomes are clearly quantifiable. External cost has remained flat but the accessibility and visibility of data has improved the quality and consistency of output. More dramatically, Vodafone’s internal resource costs have fallen from three full-time employees to half of one.

Vodafone and Osborne Clarke now have meaningful KPIs; rather than just looking at volume they can measure quality and consistency. Finally, all sides assert that the data is helpful in planning for and structuring projects in terms of process, timings, work, documentation, and cost.

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