Law firms are increasingly looking at a traditionally non-legal role — that of the chief strategy officer (CSO) — to help them better engage clients, develop key business opportunities and keep the firm on its own strategic path.
According to conversations with a trio of law firm chief strategy officers, the overall role of the CSO involves assisting firm leadership with developing and implementing a strategic vision, making sure that strategy is executed properly, and continuing to grow the firm and steer it in the right direction.
Debra Lawrence, CSO of Morgan Lewis, defines her role in a similar manner. “My role, and all the responsibilities that go along with it, is 100% about growing the firm, doing it in the right direction and in a very client-centric way,” Lawrence says.
Jason Bovis, CSO of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, agrees the CSO role has to be growth- and client-focused. “The ability for someone in a strategy position to identify ways the firm can increase growth, reduce or eliminate obstacles that inhibit growth, and work closely with the partnership to build strategies to support culture, client needs and growth objectives is ultimately the goal of a CSO,” says Bovis.
New to the Legal Industry
The specific role of Chief Strategy Officer is relatively new in the legal industry and little has been written about CSO’s utility within law firms. In fact, a search of all the Am Law 100 law firm websites showed that just seven law firms had official Chief Strategy Officers. Of course, firms without CSOs also implement strategy; however, it is often only a component of another C-suite executive’s role.
Like many CSOs, Bovis started in the business world and became interested in strategic planning and corporate growth. The business background is crucial for a CSO, Bovis explains, because that business acumen, when combined with legal acumen, helps tremendously with strategic decision-making. “The most important thing a law firm executive can bring to the table is an outside point of view,” he says.
Each of the three CSOs interviewed emphasized the importance of listening to the client and cited that task as a major component of their duties. Indeed, all three said that as their clients change and evolve, their legal service requirements are evolving as well. Thus, a large portion of a CSO’s time is spent catering to these needs and identifying possible future needs. At the same time, the CSO must work closely with the firm’s business development and marketing teams to make sure they have the necessary talent and resources to respond to changing client needs.
“We are always focused on where our clients need us to be, what industries we need to service, how those industries are changing from our clients’ perspective and how that presents us with an opportunity to service our clients in a different way,” says Morgan Lewis’ Lawrence.
Indeed, the CSO’s focus on growth and strategy within the firm also benefits the rest of the partnership, freeing them to focus elsewhere.
“Lawyers are asked to wear too many hats, so bringing in business professionals gives lawyers more time to do the things that they want to focus on: building their practices and serving their clients,” says Margaret Abeles, CSO of Hanson Bridgett, a firm with about 150 lawyers in offices throughout California.
With such an emphasis on working with others in the firm and with clients outside the firm, it’s little surprise that one of the major challenges that CSOs face is convincing people within the firm of the value of adapting to change and thinking differently. “I try to bring people along with the process, not come in and try to impose different ways of thinking, but instead, have conversations and illustrate how new ways of thinking can be effective,” Abeles explains.
Teaching Laterals Your Firm’s Strategy
Another important part of her role is making sure that new lateral acquisitions understand the larger firm strategy and are prepared to implement it, says Lawrence, adding that she credits much of the strategic success of the firm to the culture that their Chair implements within the firm. Even as Morgan Lewis is active in expanding practice areas, geographic areas, and acquiring other law firms to improve their market position, Lawrence says that their diverse background and commitment to culture is really what sets them apart. “The magnitude of lateral growth in recent years has prompted us to focus on how to best integrate new partners and help them bring the full strength of our firm to every client engagement,” she adds.
The fact that the culture at Morgan Lewis remains strong after so much sector and geographic growth underscores how well this strategy works for the firm. “We go to the market with a very sector-specific strategy, and in certain geographic markets there needs to be strategy around that as well,” Lawrence explains. “From where I sit, my responsibility is to make sure all those pieces are working together.”
Looking forward, many CSOs are likely to find themselves on the forefront of change happening in the legal industry and will be required to help firms adapt to it. That includes determining how lawyers can better use technology and innovation to improve their performance for clients.
In fact, the tech question was one that many CSOs grapple with. “Should technology development be a core function of a law firm?” asks Pillsbury’s Bovis. “Is it so essential to the delivery of the legal services that law firms should be employing tech developers? I think it is a reasonable question.”
In her view, Hanson Bridgett’s Abeles says the tech question is crucial, especially considering how new efficiencies and process improvement brought by technological innovation can greatly enhance how lawyers do their jobs and better serve their clients.
Still, for many CSOs, it all comes back to the client and what the client needs from the firm. “The global legal landscape is changing rapidly,” observes Lawrence. “It’s going to be hard for firms to approach change without listening to the client’s voice.”
Bovis agrees. “You might not always get the strategy right, but if you have the client voice in the room at the center of your discussions, you won’t be far off the mark.”