Transformative changes have reshaped the law firm C-Suite over the past decade, nowhere more striking than in the area of technology and the responsibilities hoisted on the chief information officer.
When my firm conducted its first search for a law firm information technology professional, the position title was manager of information services and word processing. Don’t laugh; we’ve been recruiting technology professionals for nearly 30 years. With the advent of email and networks, the position quickly gained prominence as the title evolved to director of information technology and then chief information officer. One Am Law 100 CIO stated that 30 years ago, “The question was, do we need lawyers to have PCs?” Now, law firm CIOs are playing an increasingly strategic role, as law firms balance the cost of an investment in the best technology to set themselves apart, or even keep up with, their competitors.
The technology “umbrella” has become increasingly wider with more complex issues. Our firm’s Managing Director, John Lamar, who leads our Law Firm Practice Group, says that “client requirements for security and the corresponding security audits may interfere with what was previously a long-term client relationship. Add to that mix privacy, artificial intelligence, business interruption and knowledge management, against a backdrop of global expansion. Moreover, the demand that attorneys do all of this remotely, by tablet or mobile device, makes it indisputable that today’s law firm CIO is not a position for anyone faint of heart.”
One of the most interesting findings in our review of the Am Law 100 CIO talent bench is that more than 40 percent of the group has been with their firm for more than 10 years (although not that long in the CIO role), and that about 10 percent of the group has been in place for more than 20 years. At the other end of the spectrum, there are 37 Am Law 100 IT executives who have been with their firm for less than four years.
I am of firm belief that one reason for such a high degree of stability is that many successful Am Law 100 CIOs have broader skills than just information technology. They have the ability to see where the industry is moving and to communicate their observations to a diverse group of partners in a way that inspires trust and confidence. It should be noted that Am Law IT professionals are a tight-knit group whose members are more than willing to support and help each other.
The number of female CIOs of the Am Law 100 lags behind the Fortune 100, where 15 percent are women (down from 17 percent in 2015). Unlike the Fortune 500, most of the 12 female Am Law 100 CIOs have been in their roles for many years.
Ten percent of Am Law 100 CIOs have at least five years of law firm experience, and the figure would be greater except for several recent retirements. We have found that in recruiting CIOs, there can be some initial reluctance to look outside the industry. This reluctance stems more from partners than from administrative management. Some partners believe that those without law firm experience will not understand conflicts, the myriad industry-specific software, and attorneys themselves.
Having said that, many successful CIOs have, in fact, come from other industries–especially other segments of professional services. Many CIOs hired within the last five years have come from public accounting, consulting, advertising and similar professional service firms, and even from further afield in retail and real estate.
Law firms continue to increase the sophistication, impact, and strategic value-add of their business management capabilities–including technology. I believe turnover will continue in technology executive roles within the industry, especially as some of the most tenured leaders take retirement. Law firms have made significant improvements in management development and succession planning, which will provide an opportunity for those serving in number two positions. Those who have not prepared the second generation of leaders will be recruiting from outside the firm, and perhaps outside of the industry.
Jane Howze is managing director and founder of The Alexander Group, an international executive search firm. With more than 30 years experience in executive search, she has recruited executives worldwide in banking, energy, manufacturing, legal and professional services. She directs board searches for the firm and is actively involved in the firm’s diversity practice. She can be reached at email@example.com.