He’s been in-house for less than three years, but Imdad Ali has already taken on what would be considered massive change management projects at BMO Financial Group.
Ali was nominated for the Tomorrow’s Leader award by Bindu Cudjoe, deputy general counsel and chief administrative officer at BMO.
“Imdad brings a strong business focus to his legal practice in part from the years he spent negotiating complex procurement agreements for clients in the bank,” Cudjoe said in her nomination. “He also draws on tools and skills from a variety of areas including project management, negotiation, and management consulting.
60 Second Snapshot
The lawyer:Imdad Ali
The company:BMO Financial Group
- • Called to bar in the U.K. in 2008 and Canada in 2014
- • Joined BMO's legal, corporate, and compliance group in 2012
- • Certified as a barrister-at-law, England and Wales
- • LLM Legal Practice - Inns of Court School of Law, City University of London
- • LLB in commerical law from University of Westminster
- • BA Radio and Television Arts, Ryerson University
“This unique combination of skills allows Imdad to move seamlessly between legal practice and meeting strategic objectives. He embraces and advocates for constant improvement in how we work (through technology and other means), which creates an infectious environment for those around him to join and support.“
Ali joined the bank’s legal, corporate, and compliance group in 2012 and took on a strategic role in two initiatives focused on stronger risk management while streamlining for efficiencies through innovation. In two years, he helped take the bank from using more than 1,000 law firms across North America to less than 200. He led the end-to-end restructuring of the bank’s enterprise external counsel program and quarterbacked the co-ordination of internal stakeholders including legal, finance, strategic sourcing, and accounts payable.
BMO was focused on finding efficiencies and law firm spend was one of them.
“We sat back and said what’s the best way to do this? The main goal was to reduce spend, but we quickly realized there were also a lot of broken processes in the whole external counsel program as well,” says Ali who was called to the bar in the U.K. in 2008 and in Canada in 2014.
The bank was wrestling with issues of lost and unpaid invoices, a lack of detail in the invoices received from law firms, and different processes in place across the bank, making it difficult to track spending.
“We needed to consolidate it,” he says. “One of the things that drives the bank ultimately is that we want to make sure our customers are getting the best out of their experience. Even though we in legal don’t always work directly with customers, I think the benefit to them would be the preferred pricing we get from law firms when they’re doing business with us,” he says.
Ali came from a background in strategic sourcing and was familiar with working through strategies that brought costs down.
“With my legal background, it was a perfect fit for me for the type of work we would be dealing with,” he says.
He says the legal team looked at the initiative in three parts:
- • The technology to support the process.
- • Rationalization of the firms from the more than 1,000 it was using.
- • A strong change management approach.
The team approached the search for the right technology tool and rationalization of firms in parallel.
“When I think back on it, it was ambitious,” recalls Ali.
“I was sitting in the centre of the entire project and really just helping on all fronts,” he says. “It needed to happen in parallel because individually these steps would have taken at least a year each, and if we had done them one after the other, we would have missed our targets for when we wanted to deliver.”
A comprehensive request for proposal process involved consideration of three different technology systems: an internal accounts payable system that allowed them to manage invoices more carefully; Serengeti from Thomson Reuters; and TyMetrix 360. BMO ultimately chose TyMetrix for a number of reasons, in part, he says, because of the experience other financial institutions in Canada had with the product.
“It was also an end-to-end solution and not just for law firm billing, but it has an overall matter management system,” Ali says.
“We wanted to move to a system where all of our legal files would be moved into this system, and when the file had a billing or external firm component, it would be more seamless.”
In reviewing the more than 1,000 law firms BMO was using, Ali’s team began by engaging an external consultant to help and build a review model so there was clear buy-in from the department and business units.
“It was not the decision of a bunch of lawyers saying, ‘We’re going to stop using these firms and only use these firms.’ It was based on objective criteria — based on their rates, their ability to commit to alternative fee arrangements, how they were planning to resource files, and commitment to innovating and changing,” he says.
“We were really focused on the innovation piece because we wanted to know what firms were doing around this looming challenge of the billable hour,” says Ali. “Some firms were really specific to say, ‘We don’t do AFAs’ and that was really telling. We said ‘OK, well we don’t know if we want to do business with firms that are not going to be committed to doing alternative fee arrangements in the majority of the work we do with them’.”
Ali also looked at legal project management and whether the firms were properly managing files and relationships.
The first cut was done based on a consideration of spend. That reduced the number by half, and then they surveyed various customer groups about law firm use such as the capital markets group.
“As we started to see the firm scoring, we started to realize there were firms that get what we’re trying to do and then there are firms a little behind the eight ball on some of this,” he says.
BMO did go back to some of the firms to see if they wanted to respond differently to the survey on issues such as AFAs. Some declined saying they were not going to change their approach. Some did change to work with BMO.
BMO also rolled out a retainer agreement that insisted on every law firm signing the same agreement regarding project management, commitment to innovation, diversity in their law firms and the way they were resourcing files.
The law firm panel review is now a “living, breathing thing” and the bank constantly reviews it to make sure the firms are consistently providing value, says Ali. If the firms are not delivering based on the retainer, the bank looks to potentially remove or add firms as required.
All the panel firms now run TyMetrix 360, and BMO can track the life cycle of a file at certain stages.
As a result of all the changes, the bank has seen a dramatic increase in compliance with the program. “Everyone is now going through one process and the firms know they can’t bill us outside the process, and if they try to, the invoice is going to be rejected,” he says.
The retainer letters in combination with the billing system force the billing to align to what we agreed to, whereas before, you’d have a situation where a firm would have a different hourly rate and not catch it unless someone was reviewing line by line.”
Lawyers at the firms that do work for BMO have TyMetrix loaded into the system at the only rate they can charge against. The rates are reviewable every year. Ali says the bank is working toward 100-per-cent use of AFAs. “We are trying to hit that, but we know it’s not doable in all cases,” he says.
When Ali took on the role of legal counsel and senior adviser on the technology & operations legal team, a significant change he introduced was to bring in a contracts liaison under his supervision. In less than a year, it diverted more than 30 per cent of lower-risk matters to be managed more efficiently without senior lawyer review, allowing senior legal resources to focus on more high-risk, complex, and strategic matters.