Chief strategy officer role gains pace with appointments by Mishcon and Norton Rose Fulbright

The news that Mishcon de Reya has appointed Axiom’s respected UK managing director Nick West as its chief strategy officer (CSO) places the firm at the forefront of a trend that began in the US in around 2014 and is expected to cross the Atlantic – a development welcomed by business transformation consultants.

Part of a wider move by law firms to become more corporate in structure, West’s appointment comes just over a year after Norton Rose Fulbright appointed former Huron Consulting Group director John Cussons as director of strategic development – a notable appointment that has so far largely gone under the radar.

Other firms to have appointed a CSO include Kaye Scholer, which in 2014 hired its first-ever CSO, Beatrice Saravello, previously in the same role at Blank Rome LLP. In June 2015 Seyfarth Shaw also brought in its first CSO, Joshua Kubicki, who before then advised the firm in a consultancy capacity with Legal Transformation Institute.

Writing under the heading ‘Secret Weapon’ in September 2014 Law Journal Newsletters, Major Lindsey & Africa’s managing director and global practice leader Amanda Brady said: “..just as chief marketing and business development officers came to the fore following the recession, ‘chief strategy officers’ are making their way to the managing partner’s cabinet.”

Little detail is yet known about West’s role at Mishcon – one of the UK’s fastest growing law firms, which last year recorded a revenue growth of 13% to £110m from £97.8m. Over five years the firm has seen a total revenue increase of over 130%.

Certainly West, who oversaw a period of intense growth at Axiom after his arrival from LexisNexis in 2014, will be expected to review Mishcon’s processes and use of technology.

Commenting on his appointment, Mishcon de Reya’s Managing Partner, Kevin Gold, said: “As part of our 10-year vision, Nick will help us to reimagine what the law firm of the future will look like. He will also focus on improving the day-to-day business management of the firm at a departmental level. A key part of this will be a thorough examination and review of our systems and working practices.”

Cussons, meanwhile, who joined Norton Rose Fulbright from Huron in May 2014 as Integration and Implementation Manager, supporting integration projects globally, was appointed to the role of director of strategic development in December 2014.

While at Huron, Cussons specialised in consultancy to professional services with a focus on law firms, advising on areas including strategy, mergers and organisational effectiveness. Critically he supported law firm leadership in implementing significant and complex business transformation.

The move by law firms to create this kind of dedicated in-house resource comes in response to market pressures, both from clients and other law firm competitors, as the ‘jack of all trades’ partnership management model is tested and found wanting. At leading management consultants Janders Dean, US Director Andrew Baker said: “Expectations are changing around how firms interact with clients (in both digital and analog ways), how they track and manage work, how they price, how the legal supply chain is assembled, how firms market, how firms handle pursuits, the concept of firm “brand” and so on. We see only more pressure on the horizon, and that will require even more creativity from law firms. As a result of these pressures, CSOs, “chief client officers” and the like are starting to emerge. A trend? It’s early and there aren’t a lot of these positions, but we expect more activity in the next 18-24 months.”

The move is expected to make executing business transformation easier and Janders Dean founder and director Justin North added: “We see it as a good thing – dedicated resources with specific skill sets in areas of facilitating strategy formation and development, and/or facilitating the execution of a given strategy can surely only help firms become more successful – with the caveat of course that they are empowered by those above them, or engaged at a true peer-to-peer level. It is yet another piece of the management jigsaw that firms have finally found in the race to catch up with modern corporate governance.

“Firms should embrace a culture of recruiting and retaining the best talent for given areas, and empowering and trusting those resources. We’re seeing more firms adopt a positive approach of focussing on people’s true strengths and expertise. It means the inmates are less likely to run the asylum.”

The CSO model comes as IT directors and chief information officers continue to experience difficulties in properly engaging with senior management when it comes to technology and executing business transformation.

On one level, having someone on the board who understands the issues and has been brought in to drive change could make CIOs lives easier. However, firms will have to carefully navigate the internal politics that an overlap between the role of CSO and CIO must surely bring.