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Law Firm Strategy Execs Wield Uneven Clout

The role of chief strategy officer (CSO) — 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.

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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 (CSO) — 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, AL, announced in May 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.”

‘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, Amanda Brady, of Major, Lindsey & Africa, 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.”

***** Lizzy McLellan writes about the Pennsylvania legal community and the business of law at firms of all sizes. Contact her at lmclellan@alm.com. On Twitter: @LizzyMcLellTLI.

The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of their clients or other attorneys in their firm.

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