Law Firm Strategy Execs Wield Uneven Clout

C-suite logo

Editor’s note: This article is the third in a series examining how executive-level positions are changing at law firms.

Law firms love to tout their strategic “visions,” but not many offer seats at the table for executives focused solely on strategy.

The role of chief strategy officer—increasingly common in corporate America—has been adopted by relatively few law firms. Consultants say perceptions of what the position entails and whether it’s necessary vary widely throughout the legal industry.

Morgan, Lewis & Bockius has had a CSO for about three years. Seyfarth Shaw added a CSO to its ranks for the first time in 2015. Kaye Scholer—now Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer—hired its first CSO in 2014 from Blank Rome. Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison created a CSO position last year.

More recently, Burr & Forman, a 300-lawyer regional firm based in Birmingham, Alabama, announced last month that Clinton Gary would be its new chief strategy and business development officer. And in April, Sedgwick LLP re-hired Patricia Williams, the firm’s one-time CFO, as its new CSO.

A few firms outside the Am Law 200 have CSOs as well, such as Gunster, a 400-lawyer Florida firm, and Matern Law Group, a small employment law firm in California.

Some have hired from within. Debra Lawrence, the chief strategy officer at Morgan Lewis, was elevated to that newly created position after Jami Wintz McKeon became firm chair in 2014. Lawrence was a business director for Morgan Lewis’ litigation practice for 20 years before becoming CSO.

Since then, the firm brought on 500 lawyers from Bingham McCutchen in late 2014, and more than 80 in March 2015 from Singapore-based Stamford Law. The firm was going through a rebranding initiative around that time as well. It also opened a Shanghai office in 2016.

“One-hundred percent of my role is about growing the firm, but in the right direction and in a very client-centric way,” Lawrence said. “My role both shapes and is subsequently shaped by the change.”

Different Approaches

Not all firm leaders are enchanted with the idea of a CSO. They may see strategy as the partnership’s responsibility, or a matter for marketing and business development.

Some may take an on-demand approach. In 2012 Blank Rome hired Beatrice Seravello as its first CSO from Dechert, where she had been firmwide practice group director, but she left for Kaye Scholer two years later.

Blank Rome created the job when it was reorganizing its departments and practice groups, said chairman Alan Hoffman. But it did not see a need to hire another CSO once the reorganization was complete.

The firm still has a director of strategic leadership, Donna Branca, who works with leadership on strategic objectives and initiatives. The CSO had overseen practice management, but that duty now falls to the business directors of the litigation and business departments, who report to the COO. The department heads each create a business plan at the beginning of each year, Hoffman said.

In his discussions with other law firm leaders, he said, conversations about strategy are common, but CSOs are not.

Most law firms have at least someone working on strategy development and execution, including lawyers and administrators, said Jim Wilber of Altman Weil. But that wasn’t always the case.

“Strategic planning in law firms was a new thing in 1990,” Wilber said. “Corporations did it but law firms didn’t.”

Since then, he said, the CSO roles have waxed and waned in the legal industry. It’s not like operations or technology, he said, where most firms really require a full-time administrator to handle day-to-day issues. And it can be difficult to put someone in that role and expect their influence to be widely accepted, he said.

Lawrence, of Morgan Lewis, said she recently attended a gathering for law firm CSOs, but few attendees actually had that title. Most were managing partners or other members of firm leadership, she said.

Amanda Brady of Major, Lindsey & Africa said firms have been slow to adopt or even understand the role of a strategy executive. In a 2014 article, Brady wrote that the CSO role was evolving quickly, but now, she said, even firms that have the title haven’t fully embraced it.

“I have some suspicions that some places just aren’t ready for full-on strategy,” Brady said.

‘Thinking Forward’

The responsibilities of law firm CSOs can vary greatly, and are often more focused on business development than the firm’s overall direction, Brady said. Sometimes strategic planning is rolled into other administrative positions focused on talent or business development.

“Firms think they have enough people weighing in on strategy … they’re not right,” Brady said. “While [lawyers] may well be experts in their industry, or their practice area, and they know their world, what they often don’t get to is what they don’t know. A chief strategy officer or someone whose job it is to look at a bigger picture will theoretically have the time to look above the trees.”

Law firm consultant Jeff Coburn said chief strategy officers can make their firms more profitable, and the role could be especially helpful at midsize firms of 100 to 200 lawyers, where there’s more competition and more variation firm to firm.

Some large firms already “have a visionary at the helm,” Coburn conceded, and may not need another person just to hold the CSO title. But strategy should not be lumped in with a marketing director’s duties, Coburn said, and it shouldn’t be handled by practicing lawyers alone.

“Lawyers are trained to think backwards—precedent, legal history, case law,” he said. “Strategy is about thinking forward.”

Copyright The Legal Intelligencer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.