Those of us in the consulting and executive search industry have witnessed a dramatic, exciting, and positive evolution of law firm management and strategy. As law firms have become more strategic and dare we say—visionary, the types of administrative leaders that firms recruit have changed as well. Nowhere is this more visible than the role of the Chief Talent Officer which has become increasingly important to a firm’s growth, employee retention and culture.
This critical leadership role has become an essential member of the C-suite for progressive law firms and works closely with Chief Operating Officers, firm Chairs, Managing Partners, Executive Committee members and Practice Leaders.
The Alexander Group’s Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer Amanda Brady, discusses the how law firms have embraced this role and how the addition of a CTO can change the trajectory of a firm.
Q: What happened that led to the importance of a Chief Talent Officer?
A: After the recession of 2008, and even more so after 2015, many law firms had to compete much more intentionally for clients. Many clients no longer automatically referred work to firms that had serviced them for years. To compete effectively, law firms shifted their profitability focus from office centric to practice centric. They began to focus on how to manage those practices in a way that would profitably retain existing clients and attract new ones.
Consequently, as a result of needing to go to market differently than in the past and differently from practice to practice, firms have created and invested in new roles to support these strategic initiatives. Practice management, pricing, diversity, security, innovation, knowledge management. The list goes on.
As firms established different practices they acknowledged that a litigation practice and the way it is marketed and managed differs from tax, real estate, corporate etc. Each practice needed to focus on specific pricing, knowledge management, and processes for successfully managing the client relationship.
With different practice groups established, law firms determined that these practices needed administrative leaders to manage the practice marketing, finance and operations, leaving the lawyers to deliver exceptional legal services.
At the same time, law firms began to distinguish between marketing and business development. With marketing focused on content and business development relating to client relationships, these two positions called for professionals with different skill sets.
Other positions that have come of age in the last fifteen years include leaders in pricing, diversity, security, innovation and strategy.
With these newly created functions and an increased focus on professional development, culture and employee retention came the need for Chief Talent Officer or a Chief People Officer to guide a talent strategy that holistically addresses the people-related needs of firms. This person would be responsible for not just the lawyers but also the staff and sophisticated talent that supports the lawyers and You have to make sure all of the pieces of the operation come together to have a successful business strategy.
Q: Talk about the traditional law firm structure before the rise of the CTO position.
A: Traditionally in law firms, human resources was responsible for staff hiring and management while lawyers led hiring, professional development and continuing education of attorneys. It was a bifurcated system that assumed only a tangential relationship between the skills of staff and business professionals and firm growth. In that world, at that time, lawyer talent was all that mattered. and human resource leaders were not included in the strategy for law firm growth.
Partners and partner committees were responsible for coaching and mentoring the lawyers, and they separated the two, and only a few firms were combining both areas, understanding it was all about the talent.
The Chief Talent/People Officer for a progressive firm directs not only professional staff recruiting and management, but also the attorneys, because ultimately it is a one firm strategy.
Now, savvy law firms realize that not only must they recruit and retain the best attorneys, but it is imperative to recruit and retain the right support and administrative team to ensure the end product and all that reaches the client is of the highest quality. Getting both the attorney and business professional recruiting and retention strategies and tactics correct creates a synergy that fuels growth, creates a positive culture and ultimately assures a firm’s success in a highly competitive environment.
While some firms still separate non lawyers from lawyers, we see this fast becoming an artifact of the legal industry. It is just not as effective as a one firm, one employee population model.
Q: What does this mean from an executive recruiting perspective?
A: We started conducting searches for the top administrative leaders--then called executive directors—more than 30 years ago. That role has evolved into firms hiring strategic, business-minded Chief Operating Officers who stand at the apex of law firm transformations. Likewise, the evolution of the talent equation in the law firm industry has followed the trend of meeting and delivering increasingly sophisticated needs to what was once a staid, precedent focused industry.
As with other roles, we’ve followed the trends of the Chief Talent Officer as it has become a strategist who understands the firm and its goals for all manner of talent acquisition and growth against the backdrop of a firm’s practices and culture. We believe this position will continue to have short- and long-term impact by providing law firms the critical foundation for improved culture, diversity, operational efficiencies, and commercial success.
I find it immensely rewarding to partner with our clients to help them identify key leaders in talent, operations, diversity, finance, pricing, practice management, marketing, business development, technology and knowledge management. And now, innovation and the new world of generative AI.
It is an exciting time for law firms, and this is one position that has short- and long-term impact.
They must do this with the firm’s finances, technology and existing talent in mind.
Over the years we have worked on a number of searches for practice management leaders. No two are the same! I particularly enjoy brainstorming with clients to identify both traditional and out of the box candidates. Ten years ago, we recruited a practice leader for a client’s financial institution practice. He had no law firm experience yet under his leadership, his practice group is consistently the most profitable in the firm.
And of course, we have helped clients recruit pricing, diversity, finance, business development, technology, knowledge management leaders. But the position we see as providing a foundation for improved culture, diversity, and strategic attorney and non-attorney hires is the Chief Talent Officer. Pursue commercial success
An outstanding Chief Talent Officer is a strategist who understands the firm and its goals for attorney and non-attorney talent acquisition and growth against the backdrop of the firm’s practices and culture. They must do this with the firm’s finances, technology and existing talent in mind. The Chief Talent Officer today is a strategic partner to the Chief Operating Officer the Chairman, Executive Committee and Practice Leaders.
Because of the strategic and broad reach of the Chief Talent Officer position, law firms are open to both managers from within and outside the legal industry. It's incredibly rewarding to partner with our clients to identify these leaders. It is an exciting time for law firms, and this is one position that has short- and long-term impact.
Hear more from Amanda Brady at the KM & Innovation for Legal Conference in New York, Friday, Oct. 13 where she is a featured panel speaker discussing succession planning in KM and innovation leadership.