Updated: Aug 10
Kenny Robertson is head of Head of the Outsourcing, Technology & IP legal team at RBS. He has led on some of the largest technology outsourcing projects in the UK and is additionally responsible for the bank’s roll out and adoption of legal technology. He holds a Masters in IT & Telecommunications Law and regularly presents at legal conferences in the UK. He is involved in a number of the bank’s legal outreach initiatives, and Chairs the Law Society of Scotland’s Wellbeing Committee. At the 2019 Scottish Legal Awards, his team was named In-House Team of the Year, with Kenny named In-House Lawyer of the Year.
Tell me a little about your background and how you came to be in the position that you have now.
I’ve never felt there was ever much of a plan to my career, and when I was younger I didn’t have a burning ambition to become a lawyer. There were no lawyers in my family growing up, but when it became clear my limited talent was never going to allow me to make it as a footballer, I went to law school.
Like most lawyers in the UK, I trained at a law firm in private practice, and stayed on at the firm for a couple of years after I qualified, as an IP lawyer. I was fortunate to work for a partner at one point who spoke often about working in-house. It wasn’t something I had previously thought about much, but the prospect of spending more time with clients and building stronger relationships with them and developing a better understanding of their plans and priorities, was attractive. So, I moved to a software company, just outside Glasgow in the UK. I had a fantastic time there – I worked with a young and progressive leadership team and learned a huge amount which, fourteen years after leaving, I still fall back on every day. After a couple of years, I moved to Edinburgh to join The Royal Bank of Scotland, eventually progressing to lead the team I joined. We support complex outsourcing deals with suppliers, much of the bank’s innovation work and we manage the bank’s IP. The team is mainly based in Edinburgh at the bank’s headquarters, but we also have some lawyers in India and Poland. I’m incredibly lucky to work in the team that I do: it’s full of talented, decent and committed people who want to do the best for each other, the bank and our customers.
How do you innovate within your role?
I think a key enabler for innovation (amongst other things) is getting the culture right. We have invested time thinking about what kind of team we are, what kind of team we want to be, and how we might get there. As a result, we’ve boiled down our culture to three “pillars”, one of which relates to promoting a progressive mind-set. Central to this is trying to identify innovation, from wherever it arises, and trial it within the team. As an example, for a couple of years we’ve been working with design thinking. In and of itself design thinking has benefitted the team through using empathy to develop a better understanding of issues and creating a platform for ideation and prototyping. It’s also aligned us far more with our innovation stakeholders, who work with design thinking on a daily basis. Being able to hold a conversation about double-diamonds and so on has made us a much more interesting support function! It’s also been fun and democratised the team: there’s a palpable energy at an ideation session and being able to crowd-source ideas from a group of bright people produces far richer answers than anything any one of us would produce on our own.
We’ve also made a point of taking advantage of the wealth of content from thought leaders which is now available online and through podcasts. Professor Cat Moon is someone I’ve got to know, having first met her at a conference in Toronto a couple of years ago. I admire Cat and we’ve adopted much of her work on failure camp. Introducing and putting a premium on psychological safety has underpinned the culture we have as a team, bringing an open-ness and an acceptance that while we’ll always give our best, sometimes things will go wrong and it’s okay to share failure. Piercing the notion of lawyerly perfection has helped our focus on wellbeing, and through sharing ‘intelligent failure’, supported the bank’s drive to sustain a generative risk culture.
We also have made a point of being curious about how other industries operate. We’ve looked at how aviation and healthcare have used psychological safety to mitigate risk, and how each industry has used basic checklists to elevate performance levels. We’ve explored how third parties have used techniques such as behavioural economics or nudge theory to exert influence, and looked at what we can learn from how marketers go about understanding and prioritising customer experience.
I think it’s important to be clear on what levers you have, to proactively collaborate and generate as broad perspectives as possible. Law firms sit across a disparate range of clients, generating insights about market trends, which can be a rich source of ideas and inspiration. There needs to be an investment of time and effort on both sides to understand the value in this, but if you can be open with firms about what your strategy, culture and priorities are, firms sharing their insights with you can be a differentiator.
Critically, we know we won’t always get it right, but, going back to the culture point, we have a platform where prototyping new ideas is welcomed and supported, even when they sometimes don’t deliver what we’d hoped. I think it’s always going to be an uphill struggle to meaningfully innovate within any team where a positive, progressive culture is absent.
What are your views on legal tech within the legal industry and also within your field of finance and banking?
Legal tech presents opportunities to transform what is, in many ways, still an analogue industry. We are in the process of identifying and automating as many manual, repetitive processes as possible, to free up resource to operate in areas which add the most value. I’m excited by the wealth of untapped opportunity in relation to data analytics in particular, from refining going-in risk positions in contracts to better supporting the bank’s diversity and inclusion objectives through capturing more and higher quality billing data from law firms.
Like most large in-house departments, we are still working through what the optimal tech model looks like, from a combination of all or some proprietary solutions, niche legal tech providers, law firms or incumbent providers of technology to the bank. We are fortunate that the bank has a large and mature technology stack, which has developed into a first port of call when we are looking for tech solutions.
There’s an appetite to understand the benefits and efficiencies technology can bring, but this can be coupled with a healthy cynicism around some of the (over-stated) AI capabilities which are occasionally made by both firms and legal tech providers. In my experience there’s also a greater understanding that better and more efficient technology adoption does not need to equate to expensive, large scale technology transformation projects. Casey Flaherty, Alex Hamilton and others have highlighted for a while that there are quick, inexpensive, wins available through lawyers developing a better mastery of common software tools such as Word and, to an even greater extent, Excel.
For lawyers wanting to be best prepared to practice going forward, how would you advise them?
I encourage my own team to think as broadly about their role as possible, rather than badging themselves as niche specialists. I see us as there to develop solutions for clients or internal stakeholders, and I agree entirely with those who see the future of the profession as encompassing a breadth of skills, some of which won’t sit within the technical legal sphere. Competency models such as the Delta Lawyer Model or O Shaped lawyers provide a useful framework to understand how these areas interact with each other. As an example, be curious about what legal operations is all about, why it has emerged as a growth area and how developing some of their skills (around process mapping, project management or data analytics for instance) would support the service you provide. I have always seen working as lawyer as a contact sport – I don’t think we are going to get a full understanding of the businesses we support if the investment isn’t made both in asking the right questions and in building relationships. Some lawyers are better than others at this, but I see emotional intelligence and empathy as only becoming more critical in the profession going forward.
To progress beyond our comfort zones requires a degree of bravery, and inevitably there will be the occasional setback. Being resilient, forgiving yourself, and being able to accept it’s not always going to go in a straight line is important. I think it’s also critical to be coachable. Nobody particularly enjoys receiving feedback which is highlighting areas which could be improved, but having a relationship with a coach, manager or mentor who will tell you the truth is important, as is being mature and confident enough to absorb and digest what they are saying. I am a big fan of holding the mirror up, too. Many of us know what we need to work on, and it’s easy to side-step an uncomfortable conversation with yourself or relegate actions you know you really ought to take.
And lastly, keep a sense of humour and sense of perspective. There will be tough times and stressful times, and clients and stakeholders will sometimes be unreasonable and demanding and narky. But we are working in a great job, at a great time, so please make the most of it!