Inside the C-suite.
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With an eye on human capital, more law firms are putting talent management leaders in the C-suite to drive comprehensive growth strategies.

The chief talent officer has become a more common role at large law firms, industry watchers said, as firms of all sizes focus more attention on training and integrating lawyers, increasing diversity and growing through lateral hiring.

“A law firm’s most important asset is its people,” said Molly Peckman, a consultant who helps firms with their talent management strategies. “They’re recognizing it is such an important driver of firm success.”

Amanda Brady, who heads Major, Lindsey & Africa’s law firm management practice, predicted that the influence and importance of talent executives will only grow.

“Now, on the talent side, there’s a recognition that it is not just about benefit plans and hiring secretaries and paralegals or copy staff, that human resources is and should play a big role in the firm’s strategy,” Brady said.

When law firms emphasize talent acquisition and development, it requires cooperation from every other C-suite position—especially marketing and business development—said Jean Durling, chief talent officer at Fox Rothschild. Finance is relevant too, given compensation matters, as is industry intelligence on the kinds of lawyer skill sets that are available, and what professionals with those skills are looking for in a firm.

“There’s been a shift toward a broader reach for the role,” Durling said.

Lateral Growth

Part of what’s driving the CTO trend is an increased focus on growth through lateral recruiting.

“Now, since about the only, one of the only, effective ways for a firm to grow is to bring in partners from other firms who have business … that’s become the pre-eminent need in terms of talent and recruiting,” said Jim Wilber of Altman Weil.

Fox Rothschild’s Durling agreed. She said at her firm and plenty of others, lateral hiring has taken off in recent years, and demand for chief talent executives has grown with it.

“When I took the role at Fox, there were probably less than five” firms with formal CTO positions, she said, describing the situation about eight years ago. “There are many more at this point.”

Still, plenty of firms are holding off creating CTO positions. Frank D’Amore of Attorney Career Catalysts in Philadelphia said the CTO idea is still “in its infancy.”

In fact, D’Amore said, oftentimes when he is working with a firm, it’s the managing partner or CEO on the front lines of a lateral hire or acquisition.

Others noted that there are limitations to what a CTO can accomplish—especially when it comes to wooing new talent directly. That’s still usually a job for external recruiters.

“There’s just an icky—and in some people’s view unethical—place if one firm starts directly calling people at another firm,” Brady said. “There has to be an intermediary … it allows them an arm’s-length relationship.”

What’s in a Name

Corporations have long employed chief talent officers, noted Altman Weil’s Wilber. Law firms may approach the position somewhat differently, he said, but they like to use the corporate-sounding chief designation.

“It’s another sign of law firms emulating the businesses they represent,” D’Amore said. “It’s really been a way of consolidating a number of functions under one person.”

But whether that consolidation actually happens varies firm to firm, Peckman said. She was previously the global director of legal talent at Dechert, which recently hired its first chief talent officer, combining Peckman’s former job with some duties of the chief human resources officer.

It makes sense to align all of those functions, Peckman said, rather than allowing people-related functions—such as recruiting, diversity and training—to be siloed from one another.

“Over the years I’ve seen firms put these functions together, pull them apart, and put them back together again,” Peckman said. “Really, the best firms have strategic plans that are actually thought out that include talent management.”

Such a plan might include a CTO, she said, but the title itself may not be important. What is necessary, she said, is for firms to have someone with a broad base of experience in the legal industry, the ability to integrate other administrative functions within the firm and a good rapport with firm leaders.

“For the role to be successful, it has to be someone who can influence management to really implement change if needed—or at least to integrate things,” Peckman said.