The Innovator – David Sutherland
I am the Research and Development Manager at DWF Ventures, the R&D arm of DWF. I work with the wider DWF business and clients to test and develop new products and services, combining specialist legal knowledge and expertise with emerging technologies. DWF Ventures is a test centre for ideas and a safe place to fail. In a nutshell, we start with a problem, break it down use various techniques, create designs and, finally, experiment with solutions derived from those designs.
This is the most varied role of my entire career and that’s probably what I enjoy about it the most. Each idea or problem is different and each individual works in different ways, so we will often need to tailor our approach for each piece of work. That’s not to say we start from scratch with every new project as we have a huge toolkit of methods to draw from, but part of this job is understanding that the people should always be at the forefront of any work we do, and a method that fits for one may not necessarily be the right fit for another.
I’ve been in this role now for a year and it has been a huge learning curve for me. I’m still learning to deconstruct problems, frame ideas and prototype solutions using a whole host of different methods and experimenting with new techniques that are new to me. Each project teaches me something new and helps me refine and further develop my skills.
How did I get here?
My journey to R&D Manager hasn’t been particularly straightforward and there wasn’t always a clear career path for me. I left university in 2007 and went into a stop-gap job within a manufacturing firm as part of a services team. This ended up lasting 5 years where I was in a supervisory/managerial role that I never really wanted. It was only when the area of the business I worked for was closing down that really motivated me to do something different.
I took some time off, went travelling and then went back to university to do my master’s degree, something I’d wanted to do for several years, but never ‘had the time’ because of my job. It was while I was back at university that I started a part-time role in a local school helping to collate the huge amounts of data available to transform that data into something useful. This job, although I didn’t know this at the time, helped me drive the direction of my career forward and led me to where I am today.
I have learnt a lot from this job which has been particularly useful in my current role. Firstly, it allowed me to understand the importance of good and clear data, and I took away two key and crucial learning points. Firstly, more is not better unless you can do something with it. Secondly, this job always reminds me how much pressure our clients are under to deliver results with (quite often) very limited resources.
From here I moved into the legal world. I joined Eversheds and worked in document production for a little while before moving into legal engineering at Pinsent Masons. It was at Pinsents that I was able to use learnings from my data job whilst learning new skills, including some basic coding. Coding was useful, but interactions with people really helped me develop further. Being able to engage with the lawyers to understand their needs, frustrations and pressures and to work with them to make their life a little easier paved the way for moving into Ventures and the R&D role.
Advice for others
My advice for people wanting to get into a legal tech role is to remember that this should always be about the people. Putting your end user first is key to developing a solution that works and delivers what it needs to. This isn’t to say that some amount of technical knowledge isn’t important. It is still a key component in being successful in this area. Yet good technical knowledge won’t go very far without the human element driving the whole process. Getting face-to-face time with people in the business to understand how they work, what they like and don’t like, and what they really need has been very valuable for me as it allows me to create designs and solutions with the individual’s needs being at the core of the work delivered.
It is useful to understand the value of what you can bring to the table. As someone who is not a lawyer, it is quite easy to feel like you are out of your depth. In actual fact, having different experiences and a different mind-set can really help with creativity, designing solutions and thinking outside of the box. Law firms have really started to embrace non-legal roles and understand the value these can bring to the business and their clients. It doesn’t matter where you are in your career or what your background is, there is something very special you can bring to any new role you take.