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Law Firm Leaders: We Look at the Am Law 100 CIOs

In 2016, we wrote extensively about the transformative changes that have occurred in law firms over the past decade, and how the role of the law firm CMO has evolved to include branding, business development, strategy, and even pricing. During the coming year, we will be writing about other law firm executive roles and the experience and profile of those holding these roles. Let's start with the CIO role.

When we conducted our first search for a law firm information technology professional, the position title was Manager of Information Services and Word Processing. Don't laugh. Remember, we have 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 with the cost of an investment in the base level technology to keep even with their competitors.

The law firm CIO role is not for the faint of heart.

The technology "umbrella" has become increasingly wider with more complex issues. Managing Director John Lamar, who leads our Law Firm Practice Group, states 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, let's not forget that attorneys do all this work remotely, by tablet or mobile device. The law firm CIO role is not for the faint of heart."

So what can we say about the CIOs of Am Law 100 firms?

One of the most interesting findings of our review of the Am Law 100 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.

We believe one reason for such a high degree of stability is that many of the 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.

Women CIOs Account for Over 10 Percent, But...

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.

Backgrounds of CIOs

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.

Looking ahead

Law firms continue to increase the sophistication, impact, and strategic value-add of their business management capabilities—including technology. We predict that turnover will continue in technology executive roles within the industry, especially as some of the most tenured leaders reach retirement age. 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.

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Jane Howze

Jane S. Howze, J.D.

Managing Director