Conversations with #BigLaw Chief Innovation Officers (CINOs)

What’s on the minds of these new legal industry pioneers?

Jun 26, 2018 · 8 min read
“Graffiti words read "Together, we create!" below small windows on a brick wall” by "My Life Through A Lens" on Unsplash

Sometimes I get so pissed about the nonsense that plays out in the #BigLaw echo chamber. Folks with little to no skin in the game, opining about what should or should be done inside the BigLaw market. But that reaction is fleeting because one of the perks of being a recent C-suite leader within BigLaw, one of the new breed to focus on strategy as well as innovation, is that folks reach out to pick my brain, share experiences, and otherwise chat about what is actually happening. I love being at the coalface of creating competitive advantage and always get amped to talk with others who love it as well. The BigLaw CINOs are the point of the spear in the BigLaw innovation arms race and while we can all debate just what the heck innovation actually means, these folks are hammering it out on a daily basis. It is a brutal, invigorating, inspiring, and stressful role.

These conversations range in terms of how they play out. Honestly, it is easy for me to rush to judgment and start to create my own biases during each of these chats. But that is what most people do, and I work hard to empathize and add value where I can. I remind myself that every CINO and their firm are on their own journey. My own was different from all the others and so each CINO is living in a unique environment with different challenges and opportunities.

To be honest, some of these chats are confusing as it is clear that the role has not been really thought out by anyone. Others quite frankly are frustrating as the person seems to “know it all” and is waiting for the firm (and the world) to catch up. Thankfully though a handful are awesome dialogues wherein we share insights, thoughts on how to succeed, and share tidbits on surviving and thriving inside BigLaw as one of these leaders (hint: just as innovation and strategy are unevenly understood and appreciated within a firm, so too will these roles) (a related hint: do not seek the spotlight but do not linger in the shadows).

Here are the basic varieties of chats I have been having.

VERSION 1

Me: “Congratulations on the new role. It’s a great opportunity. It says a lot that the firm sees the value in having it and that you have the goods to be the first.”

New CINO: “Thanks. Yeah it is going to be interesting. I have a great relationship with the Managing Partner. He is the one who hired me. I have met with the firms’ innovation committee a few times and they have a lot of ideas. Also, the CIO and I sat down and he was sharing some of the challenges that he has had with getting more tech into the firm. I haven’t met the CFO yet. To be honest, nobody has really introduced us. I get to build a small team here once I am up and running in the role.”

Me: “Yeah it is going to be a whirlwind for a bit.”

New CINO: “Right. It is fun, but I can see there is a lot to do. So, thanks again for connecting. I was hoping to pick your brain on a few things.”

Me: : “Shoot.”

New CINO: “What’s your advice on where to focus and not focus?”

From here I always offer up the following:

The power of business cases to help mitigate pet projects and vanity plays -CINOs must learn and know the business of the firm, meaning knowing what practice groups there are, how they are performing, and what client segments are key to the firm. The reason is that any project that is directly related to strengthening these will always be more defensible than those that are loosely tied to them. A strong CINO will be able to shape the business case of any project accordingly and present it to leadership in a manner reflective of its strategic worth. Yes, there is both art and science to this but it’s an area where any CINO must have utter confidence and competence.

VERSION 2

Me: “Congratulations on the new role. It’s a great opportunity. It says a lot that the firm sees the value in having it and that you have the goods to be the first.”

New CINO: “Thank you. I was formally a CIO and so this role is not much of a change for me. The firm wants to really be a leader in innovation and find ways of making technology work for the firm and its clients in new ways, that’s why they brought me on. I have experience doing this from my prior role and have implemented an AI solution previously while deploying machine learning in a number of areas. I think that the firm has a lot of catching up to do but I can get it there.”

Me: “Ok. What is your setup like? How are you positioned in the firm?”

New CINO: “As in who do I report to?”

Me: “Yes but also how were you introduced to the partners? How was the role introduced? Did you control the message or did someone else? What are people’s expectations of you?”

New CINO: “Well I report into the Innovation Committee and to the Managing Partner. As for the communication of who I am and what the role is, yes there was a memo that went out internally. I am not sure if everyone got it or not. To be honest, I am not worried about it. I have already started a mini-R&D team and lab where we are bringing in a robotics vendor to help us stand up a new solution.”

Me: “Sounds interesting. What business line is it for? Is there a specific market opportunity you guys are going after with that?”

Typically, the reply I get has to do with something related to technical feasibility and desirability as determined by the CINO and a partner or small group of them. It tends to be what I would call a pet project with little discernable market validity or viability, meaning this project may get a few people excited but deliver little in terms of measurable business impact or in generating positive press inside the firm in the eyes of other equity partners. So, I try to share some thoughts on:

Resource scarcity and sponsor fatigue. A CINO must always remember to use their scarce resources judiciously. It is all too easy to get spread too thin and go chasing ideas down proverbial rabbit holes. This leads to people getting distracted, feeling like there are too many competing concerns, and starve them of clear wins and stacking successes. For the sponsor of the CINO, it also means that political capital can get diluted and less potent the more the CINO tackles non-strategic or pet projects. An early, easy win counts for a lot but making sure it is the right kind of win matters more in the long run.

VERSION 3

Me: “Congratulations on the new role. It’s a great opportunity. It says a lot that the firm sees the value in having it and that you have the goods to be the first.”

New CINO: “Thanks. I am really looking forward to this. I feel good about what I bring to the table and how I have been positioned so far. The firm and the leaders seem genuinely invested in making some serious changes. I know it is going to still be challenging and frustrating sometimes, but this is a solid firm with really great people and a decent culture. I am looking forward to tackling some big things and small things while not getting ahead of myself.”

Me: “This is terrific. I can hear your enthusiasm and energy in your voice. What’s cooking that got you to reach out to me? What can I do for you?”

New CINO: “I wanted to ask you for your thoughts on the other business leaders in the firm, like the CFO, CIO and COO. What was your experience like and what are you hearing from others in terms of how these roles are reacting to other CINOs? I have a great team myself, but I know I will need help and support from these folks. At the very least the last thing I want to do is build my own silo. I am just not sure how best to work with them and form a good collaborative bond with them.”

Me: [chuckles] “Yup well now you hit on one of the most overlooked yet most influential aspects impacting a day in the life of a CINO. It is awesome that you are thinking about this now. These folks cannot make you fail per se, but they certainly can make life a pain for you. Same thing goes for them though. Depending on how you act, you could easily, even unknowingly, make life a huge pain for them.”

C-suite collaboration and communication is the corner stone of any high performing organization. In the corporate world, if the C-suite is disconnected, infighting, and unaligned, corporate performance will take a hit. The CINO is the newest party guest and therefore will be viewed with both interest and caution from other C-suite leaders. CINOs will do well to remember that the onus rests with them to show up prepared to share, listen, learn, and be patient. The last thing any of the other C-suite leaders needs is a showboat blowhard or conversely a cagey unseen unheard so-called leader who appears to only show up in meetings standing next to the managing partner. Given many CINOs are coming from the CIO-suite in firms, they should already be acclimated to this dynamic, but the downside is that they also may carry biases toward the other C-suite leaders. I tend to say, give everyone a blank sheet of paper to start over. The CINO role is new regardless of who is in it and the pioneers in the roles now will do much to define how it will fit in with the best of the business leadership.

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Josh Kubicki is an award-winning legal industry leader and intrapreneur. He has recently co-founded the first business design studio for #BigLaw with his co-founder and legal industry pioneer, Kim Craig. Learn more at BoldDuckStudio.com

You can connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Joshua Kubicki

Written by

Business designer for the legal markets. Co-founder of Bold Duck Studio. It all starts with the user and builds from there.

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