A platform for change: Dentons global chief innovation officer John Fernandez on his new role

Appointed as Dentons first-ever global chief innovation officer on December 13, we caught up with John Fernandez to find out some of the objectives of the new role and how he will progress Dentons’ innovation agenda.
Based in Washington D.C., prior to joining Dentons, Fernandez (pictured) was Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development under President Obama and was one of the chief architects of President Obama’s regional innovation strategies. At Dentons, he collaborated with Dentons’ leadership on the founding of Nextlaw Labs, a wholly-owned subsidiary that focuses on developing and investing in new technology with the ambition to transform the practice of law.
Here he outlines the desire to create a global infrastructure to help accelerate innovation; says working with clients presents a huge opportunity to revisit law firm service delivery models; and that he’s bullish on technology such as AI transforming the legal sector.
What’s the reason behind the creation of the global CIO role?
We feel quite positive about the impact of NextLaw related initiatives and have many innovative partners and professionals around the world and innovation initiatives happening in various regions. We wanted to do more and do it globally. We’re trying to bring together more of a global infrastructure that can help accelerate innovation across the global Dentons platform. We’ve not had a global innovation function, it’s been bottom up, and we think we can get better leverage of the learning and knowledge sharing by bringing together many of these activities currently underway around the world.
So many of our global clients operate cross-border and we have a tremendous opportunity to look at our service delivery models and processes in the delivery of services so we can improve the value of the service we’re delivering.
What we’ve found is that there is tremendous feedback from clients of NextLaw working together on delivery modules. We have a portfolio of ten companies we’ve invested in and had a great response, with clients wanting to work more directly. Within Dentons we do need to look at the infrastructure of how to bring together the right talent and coordinate with [global chief information officer] Marcel [Henri] and his team to ensure smooth integration and, as with any organisation, prioritise the allocation of resource to have the greatest impact for our organisation. While we’re extremely happy with the progress we’ve made, there still remain many areas where we can improve, and part of that is by building a more global function around innovation.
Do you have a global innovation committee?
We don’t have a global committee formally, but we have multidisciplinary groups working together on large project innovations. We have a CEO from Australia, Steve Healy and UK CEO Jeremy Cohen, who are two top leaders supporting the effort with me. We also have a few initiatives that have broad global teams that are organised around delivering on them. We don’t have a formal committee per se but have efforts – whether we bring together innovation professionals or knowledge professionals – from across various offices as well as practice sectors.
What is the key to successful global innovation initiatives?
The key is to bring together multidisciplinary teams working with Business Development. Most organisations have a difficult time building innovation as part of a sustained effort and creating an environment where people can experiment and where they know everything is not going to work. You have to build, as part of the DNA of the firm, a multi-year process and you have to start building the infrastructure: look at some of the process impediments and ask, ‘how can we understand from a workflow perspective where the impediments are?’
You also have to navigate data privacy issues – we have to navigate those same issues and if we can identify potential impediments and come up with solutions we can accelerate more innovation and build better structures to identify opportunities and accelerate initiatives that will have a high ROI on the client side.
It takes a sustained effort to build a culture that supports the constant innovation to challenge the status quo in the industry and our firm.
Will you continue to be involved with NextLaw Labs?
I will continue to be very involved with NextLaw Labs and the NextLaw portfolio. It’s an important part of our infrastructure and we’re relying on Labs and the new leadership with Marie Bernard to expand the reach and numbers of our innovators and build further talent. We have a tremendous number of brilliant people at Dentons and want to make sure we’re providing a service to help them bring forward innovations that improve client service. When you’re engaged with the client you need to have the capability to drive those innovation efforts.
Is much law firm ‘innovation’ around the likes of AI still largely just talk right now?
I think we’re starting to see more practical applications. I’m very bullish that those kinds of technologies are going to transform our service delivery models. The rationale for a position like mine is that you’ve got to look at things from the perspective of your business models and how you are recognising and rewarding teams. That’s where there a lot of heavy thinking is taking place across the industry.
In the main, most firms haven’t innovated their business model and with the advent of new technology, you need to sort that out and look at the entire supply chain and start to apply different pricing and delivery models to each element of the supply chain. As firms continue to build experience and structure their business and engagement with clients, the uptake is going to increase. We’re only early days in fully appreciating the enormous potential for delivering services not just cheaper but better – where machine learning is going to be most impactful.
We have to look at the business model in terms of talent and how we are delivering that talent and pricing that works. I think it would be premature to think of that in terms of changing the partnership model but as we look at how we change the delivery model, there’s going to be implications for how you structure the business to maximise opportunity.