Exclusive: Freshfields appoints Christopher Smith as CIO 

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has appointed Christopher Smith as its chief information officer, we can reveal. Smith, who is based in New York, will lead the magic circle firm’s information technology division globally. Between May 2021 and now he has held the role of chief data officer at Freshfields. However, he was originally brought in as a consultant in November 2020 by former IT chief Charlotte Baldwin, to help evaluate Freshfields’ existing tech stack and attitudes to IT across the firm.

Smith has worked in legal technology for well over 20 years. Much of that was as the director of technology and knowledge management at white shoe New York firm Sullivan & Cromwell, where he latterly held the role of chief knowledge management and innovation officer.

Speaking to Legal IT Insider about whether it is significant that he comes from a KM background, Smith said: “Yes, I do think it is significant, although the KM role I built at my previous firm was more tech orientated.” He added: “KM means something different in the US and is more about systems and information flow than hands-on lawyering. I’ve always had a different perspective and one of the advantages it gives me is that I really have an understanding of lawyers and what they think and do. Yes, I have the tech chops, but the most important thing is to understand the business and how lawyers think.”

Smith says the other factor that makes him suited to the CIO role is his experience in leading technology organisations, commenting: “I’m used to motivating technologists so they have an exciting engagement, because they are a different kind of individual.”

Freshfields is widely regarded as making inroads in the United States having launched in Silicon Valley in the pandemic and made significant recent hires in New York. The appointment of a New York-based CIO cannot be viewed as coincidental, and Smith says: “It signifies that we’re global and is a testament to the firm’s commitment to the United States,” adding: “I can be effective wherever I am and am comfortable moving back and forth.”

Freshfields has 4,959 employees globally, so Smith is certainly likely to have to do a significant amount of back and forth, particularly as he observes: “People talk about the alignment of technology with the business but as a firm we prefer technology to be in the midst of what we do, not just aligned with us.”

His role will be to build on the infrastructure put in place by Baldwin, who specialises in operational transformation. That infrastructure includes having gone live six months ago across the firm on the iManage Cloud; moved to an Office 365 environment; implemented Salesforce for client relationship management; and implemented Microsoft Teams across the firm.

Smith said: “We are significantly in the cloud and went through the transition to a virtual workforce very well. Charlotte has done an amazing job and I am aware that I absolutely have to maintain that platform of work that she has put in place.”

Smith formally started on 1 March and says that much of his first 30 days has been about listening to people and what is working well. He says: “The good thing is that things are working very well. The opportunity now is to move from a period of transformation to one where we can rapidly move through smaller projects at a velocity that you can’t achieve on these larger applications.”

Managing and leveraging the firm’s data will be key, and Smith says: “It is important that we become a more data driven organisation and let hard data guide our decisions rather than a narrative about what looks good and feels right. The question is how do we go from being a hundreds of years old hugely successful business to looking at what the data is telling us, and how much of a lever is that.”

Smith’s priority will be to create a central data environment, ensuring that the firm has data interoperability and maintains its data integrity. That will include working with Collibra for data cataloguing and looking at data warehouse options. Smith says: “You have best in breed business applications and they all have different interfaces and ways of doing things, but you need interoperability at the data layer in case you need to react and snap in a different CRM or accounting system.”

Smith is unlikely to be rushing out to buy the latest AI tool for the sake of it and comments: “There was a lot of smoke about AI for a while but IBM pulling back on Watson in the medical field has made people realise that its harder than people think. The real question is when to use machine learning and predictive modelling and what we do as a law firm is often more complex than what AI is good for.”

Freshfields uses Kira Systems (now part of Litera) and has a data science team but Smith concludes: “I’m not running around beating a drum saying AI. There is a tremendous amount of value from good clean tech and more value in our lawyers understanding what they have and the power of the platform than throwing too much new stuff at them.

“We have really done a lot and there is a runway of work to embrace that as our lawyers see fit, and to listen and watch how the lawyers put it to use.”

In a statement, Freshfields managing partner Alan Mason said: “Technology, digital and data are critical components in our global strategy and over the past few years we have achieved a great deal through a focus on the digital transformation of our business. As we pivot to a post-digital transformation phase, Chris will play an integral role in ensuring the firm continues to deliver cutting-edge technology that supports the provision of exceptional client service.”