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Practice Innovations - Managing in a changing legal environment
Gray Rule
January 2011 | VOLUME 12, NUMBER 1spacer
Gray Rule
New Faces of the Future Firm


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Silvia Coulter, Managing Director, Law Firm Strategy and Structure, Hildebrandt Baker Robbins, Boston, MA
New Faces of the Future Firm
The new law firm business model-producing increased profit through greater efficiency from decreased revenues....

External forces are causing law firms to rethink their entire operations team. The impact of these forces on law firms has resulted in the need for a different business model—one that produces increased profits through greater efficiency from decreased revenues. This new model cannot be implemented without a strong team of top, talented business professionals responsible for their various strategies—talent management, technology, information, finance, and sales—elevated to the same level as the firm's business performance strategy. 

Change is happening fast and furiously. While law firms are not adapting to change as quickly as many of their business professionals would like, firms are still changing faster than ever before. Some of the changes firms are making today are found throughout the operations team. Not only are we seeing new faces in some of the usual positions—chief operating officer, chief technology officer, chief marketing officer/chief business development officer, chief knowledge officer, chief financial officer—we are seeing entirely new positions created to meet the demands of the ever-changing legal landscape. While many changes will mean new individuals in these positions, change also means investing in strong operations team members by sending them to advanced education programs. This article will take a closer look at the new faces in the usual positions and some of the skills required to land and keep these roles.1

The Demand Side

First, it bears mentioning that the demand or client side of the industry is putting new norms in place. Some may say it is the fault of the economic downturn, but those watching carefully know that these changes started taking place prior to the downturn and were only accelerated by the economy. These demands are causing firms to rethink everything from overall firm strategy to pricing strategies, promotion strategies, product/legal service strategies, and people. We focus here on the people and the changes that are happening now and are in the making. And, while there are many operations roles in law firms, our focus is on the changes taking place in the primary roles.

Shake-Up in the C-Suite and the New Faces We'll See

Described below are some of the current hires, which is a trend that will continue. The firms who were early adopters of these management models and who have been through round one are already making significant changes and further refining the roles they require to move them into a competitive position for the future.

Chief Human Resources Officer

The historic role of the human resources director was working with the managing partner or executive director of the firm to set policies regarding everything from employee benefits to hiring and retention strategies. The HR team was more of a "back-office" support team to the rest of the firm. It helped with hiring and recruiting for most of the positions except the lawyers, which were often left to the director of recruiting. The traditional HR role is being replaced by a savvy chief human resources officer (CHRO).

This individual will oversee all hiring, including legal professionals, business professionals, and support teams. The CHRO will put into place a process by which it will be easier to test for and hire service-minded individuals who can support every firm/client intersection and activity. Promotion from anywhere in the firm—lawyer ranks or support team—will be based on merit and accomplishments rather than on length of service. The CHRO will work closely with the chief talent officer (in small to midsized firms these functions will fall under one individual) to develop programs for advancing the skill level of each individual in the firm. Upward and downward evaluations will be implemented under this strong manager of people.

Skills required for the CHRO:

  • Master of Science (MS) degree in organizational development
  • Process improvement and process management
  • Key understanding of managing an organization across boundaries
  • Ability to plan for and implement a workforce that combines remote workers and offices

Chief Talent Officer

The focus will be on a strategic approach to talent management. The chief talent officer (CTO) has the responsibility of matching the pipeline of talent to the pipeline of client work. This is the person who has deep experience in the legal or professional services industry and is the internal consultant on all aspects of talent recruitment, development (training, mentoring, and coaching), deployment, evaluation, compensation, and promotion. This is not an administrative position. It is about aligning, developing, and implementing policies, procedures, protocols, and systems that produce the right people, at the right time, to deliver (and preferably exceed) client expectations. These CTOs have a seat at the strategic table and act as internal talent consultant to senior management. Their success is measured by their contribution to the firm's achieving its business performance goals. A CTO may be a lawyer, should have a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree with a focus on change or organizational management, and should be a recognized specialist in this area. One trend to note about this position is that we are beginning to see the CTO or director of professional development report directly to the HRO.

Skills required for the CTO:

  • MBA, Juris Doctor (JD), or MS degree in organizational development
  • Strong, proven leadership skills
  • Demonstrated ability to manage across global and remote worker platforms

Chief Technology Officer

The chief technology officer (CTO) is a sophisticated individual who may come from a company like Oracle, Microsoft, or Apple. He or she drives the engine by which the entire firm develops and delivers legal services, links to clients, and contacts worldwide. The CTO provides for work and communication 24/7, across the firm and across the globe, be it through a laptop, handheld device, iPad®, iPhone®, or any other device that could possibly be used to connect and communicate. The sophistication of this position has increased, and will continue to do so, to levels that ultimately will allow a firm to use technology as a key means of gaining competitive advantage. The CTO is a member of the leadership team and may have supervisory responsibility for information resources (if the firm does not have a chief knowledge officer), marketing technology, litigation support, and all client interactions through the firm's computer systems and technology networks.

The CTO focuses on the infrastructure but not the information—the hardware, software, and core applications such as e-mail. Few people seem to have knowledge about the information needs and the flow across the infrastructure.

The shift will be toward cloud computing and gradually outsourcing infrastructure outside the firm. This will be done using primary and secondary data centers in hosted facilities. The shift to the cloud may mean that firms give up some management. They will become a purchaser of services, a broker of commercial services that will support an increasing number of resources external to the firm.

Much less time will be spent on managing PCs on the desk; rather, the focus will be on managing passive monitors and keyboards. Everything else will be back in the data center managing virtual desktops. Ubiquitous connectivity is happening now, and one can see the expansion.

Skills required for the CTO:

  • Procurement and vendor management
  • Capacity planning and implementation
  • Emphasis on security and data privacy
  • Shift away from purely technical skills
  • Project management
  • Ability to translate business needs into requirements
  • People management

Chief Financial Officer

Tomorrow's chief financial officer (CFO) will be a sophisticated financial expert who oversees new roles such as pricing, project management, value billing, process improvement, and related key strategic issues around the revenue and cost streams. As this article was written, the Legal Sales and Service Organization's job bank had a posting for "Director, Global Pricing" for Baker & McKenzie. Jones Day just appointed a new leader from its chief operating officer ranks to be the director of billing and client service. Drinker Biddle has a new "director of value." Minnesota's Faegre & Benson has a former Deloitte Consulting finance expert whose title is "manager, strategic operations and financial analysis." In addition to profitability analyses and feasibility analyses, he is responsible for the strategic operations of the firm and reports to the CFO and has a dotted line reporting relationship to the managing partner. These are the directions in which firms are heading in order to be client facing and to ensure the firm remains profitable.

Skills required for the CFO:

  • Project management
  • Process improvement
  • Customer service
  • Financial analysis
  • People management

Chief Marketing Officer/Chief Business Development Officer

The role of the chief marketing officer (CMO) is quickly changing. Firms are beginning to follow in the footsteps of corporate America and divide the functions. Wilmer Hale was one of the first firms to appoint both a chief marketing officer and a chief business development officer and Nixon Peabody recently did the same. Many firms are centralizing the marketing and marketing operations functions and decentralizing the sales functions to support industry teams in key industry geographic markets. Why have your top sales people for the oil and gas industry in Boston where the tech markets are booming? Some of this splitting up of marketing and sales may seem at odds, but in fact, the areas are as different as ERISA and labor law even though both would fall under the labor and employment area. The CMO oversees public and media relations, marketing operations (client relationship management (CRM), website, internal communications), external messaging including advertising, and general marketing activities. The chief business development officer (CBDO) oversees the key client programs, client loyalty programs, and all sales activities, including requests for proposals, usually in conjunction with a centralized proposal manager who may report to the CMO. In some cases, the business development officer is a partner and the title may be sales partner. This will be the wave of the future.

Skills required for the CMO:

  • Public relations
  • Social networking
  • Media management
  • Website management
  • CRM deployment and management
  • Intelligence—competitive, market, industry
  • Writing
  • Management

Skills required for the CBDO:

  • Sales
  • Writing skills
  • Management

Chief Practice Management Officer

Not many firms have a chief practice management officer (CPMO). Wilmer Hale may have been the first. This is a growing role and one that requires top people with analysis and management skills. Without a lot of resources to choose from in the market, most firms are investing in their people to help create strong leaders. Wilmer Hale's co-managing partner, William Lee, said, "We believe in investing in our top people. We sent our practice management officer to the Harvard Executive Education program." With the stakes rising for top performance in this area, it's critical for firms to make this investment. Some CPMOs have a JD and some have an MBA or other advanced executive education degree. This is a key role and will become a top strategic role at firms in the future no matter the size—from small firms to the top firms in the world.

Skills required for the CPMO:

  • MBA or advanced education
  • Process improvement
  • Project management
  • Knowledge about business development

Chief Knowledge Officer/Chief Information Officer

In 1988 it was the word-processing manager. Ten years ago it was the director of technology. Today and heading into tomorrow, it will be the chief knowledge officer (CKO) and the chief information officer (CIO). In large firms these are two individuals (or we see it heading that way). The library was always seen as the key information resource area of the firm. The library team was, and often still is, managed by an individual who possessed an advanced degree most often in library science. The library was the key to creating a successful legal work product with its vast access to volumes of information (initially in book format; later in online format) and legal work product and precedence, rules and regulatory data, and much more. Information resources are now being viewed as the key to developing and delivering the legal work product in an efficient, cost-effective manner. On the client side of this equation, consistency of the deliverable is critical and clients seek out those firm brands that they know mean top quality for the best price. With the pressure from the demand side causing great changes in how information is viewed in law firms, we see the CKO or CIO role as one of the most critical for which firms are hiring. The CKO or CIO oversees these and other growing needs: strategic intelligence, competitive intelligence, market/industry intelligence, and key client intelligence. In addition, the CKO often possesses a JD, an MBA, or other related advanced degree. The CKO is required to understand the role that process improvement and project management play in the development and delivery of the legal work product. This person, like the CTO, is part of the strategic leadership of the team. Roles reporting to the CKO/CIO may include marketing intelligence, library, knowledge management, database/CRM management and product/service development (also a new role), and last, research and development (an area we see expanding, although just a few key pacesetter firms are currently investing heavily in it).

Some hold strongly to the view that the chief knowledge officer has to be a lawyer. CKOs have to understand the legal process from the lawyers' perspective and the challenges the lawyers are facing in terms of serving clients. They need to be focused on information architecture and data modeling so they can design a cohesive information architecture that unifies the information produced within the firm, and facilitates its flow across systems for delivery to the lawyers and ultimately the clients. They need to be process engineers so they can design the work processes that consume and produce information. CKOs also need to be very aware of content management systems. Their teams will consist of large-scale content managers dealing with the capture of the classification and the storage, maintenance, and delivery of information content. They must be sufficiently aware of technology to communicate effectively with the technologists who will be providing a platform for a lot of these functions. So why is a JD necessary? It is needed in order for the lawyers to trust this individual at all. This description of the CKO relates to the CIO role as well, and if a firm has both positions, the CIO will worry about how the information flows from all of the back-office systems—finance, conflict, records, marketing, library. Data plus context is information.

Skills required for the CKO and CIO:

  • Strong communication skills
  • Fostering interactions between people for knowledge exchange
  • JD preferred
  • Process improvement
  • Project management

These changes may clearly threaten those who currently hold positions in these areas. The best advice is to take your own professional development seriously and if the firm will not pay for your education, invest in your future yourself. It will be critical to your success and will also help the firm succeed.


1. Sally Gonzalez, Hildebrandt Baker Robbins, and Terri Mottershead, Mottershead Consulting, contributed to this article.

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