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Do Large Law Firms Need a Chief Digital Officer?

by Guy Alvarez • May 8th, 2014 • Digital Marketing | Blog

chief digital officers in law firmsOver the last year, a new position has been created by many Fortune 1000 companies — the Chief Digital Officer.  The CDO joins the executive suite as an important new player charged with the responsibility  of defining the strategy for a company’s deployment and use of social and digital technology. According to a blog post in the MIT Sloan Management Review, “CDOs share a similar mandate: provide oversight and strategy, and create a big-picture view of how social and digital technologies can make a difference to the entire organization.” The post also mentions Tuck Rickards, who is a leader in the executive search firm Russell Reynolds’ Digital Transformation Practice. The MIT Review reports that Rickards’ firm has seen strong market interest in the CDO role emerge in the last 2 years, initially in the fields of retail and media.  According to Rickards,  CDOs are showing up across the board, in areas such as financial services, healthcare, manufacturing, although still primarily across the ranks of Fortune 1000 firms.

Of course, these are precisely the companies that make up the list of premiere clients for the AmLaw 100. While these Fortune 1000 companies take the lead in the deployment of social and digital technologies, the law firms that represent them are significantly lagging in this arena.  This was the primary finding of our recent Social Law Firm study  —  U.S. law firms remain at a very early use and deployment of Social Business technology and practices, which is characterized by a growing recognition of its importance for the limited purposes of external marketing and business development.  As part of their initial efforts to establish a social media presence, the majority of large law firms have demonstrated little more than a willingness to devote substantial resources to create valuable, non-promotional content to populate their social media properties.  However, in the majority of cases, large law firms are ineffective in their use of social media, achieving low levels of reach and engagement relative to the resources available and the market opportunity.  Moreover, the use of Social Business technologies and practices for internal collaboration and communication among large law firms is in its infancy. 

Should large law firms should consider hiring Chief Digital Officers as a way to keep pace with the rest of the corporate world and most importantly their clients? In our experience working with law firms, the responsibility for the strategy and deployment of social and digital technologies is typically dispersed among several different positions or departments, including a firm’s Chief Information Officer, Director of Communications, Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Knowledge Officer.  The drawback to this approach is that it can end up being patchwork rather than holistic and strategic.  Social and digital technologies must be managed in a strategic manner in order to achieve maximum effect. Social and digital technologies cut across an entire organization and impact the way a law firm deals with clients, prospects, employees, recruits, alumni and outside counsel. If a firm decides to transform itself into a Social Law Firm by using social business methods and tools, then they need someone at the highest levels of the organization to create the strategy and manage the transformation, coordinating effectively across pre-existing silos.

So what are the responsibilities of a Chief Digital Officer and how are they different from those of a CIO or CMO? According to Wikipedia The responsibilities of an organization’s CDO are varied and still evolving. The CDO is not only a digital expert, but also a seasoned general manager. As the role frequently is transformational, CDOs generally are responsible for the adoption of digital technologies across a business. As with most senior executive titles, the responsibilities are set by the organization’s board of directors or other authority, depending on the organization’s legal structure. The CDO is responsible for digital consumer experiences across all business touch points.

“The CDO’s responsibilities are to devise and execute social strategies that grow brand loyalty and advocacy on social networks by: 1)Determining who and where the influencers are; 2) Empowering the influencers with tools to drive the message and brand across the community and 3) Listening to the community, engaging in bi-directional dialogue with customers”

What if a law firm feels that the role of the CDO is already covered by the CIO or another senior executive at the law firm? Does it make sense to replicate their responsibility? According to  Vala Afshar, Chief Customer Officer and CMO at Enterasys, “if your CIO is already involved in the business strategy side of the house, is collaborative, open-minded, and works with a CEO that has a similar outlook, it may not be necessary to hire a CDO.” But, he adds, “in all cases, bringing in a CDO will “focus” the organization and will start initiating projects with a broader strategic direction of employing technology as the driver.

For those law firms that believe that the Chief Digital Officer is merely a fad that will go away, they should pay attention to what the analysts are predicting. As Gartner sees the future, “by 2015, 25 percent of organizations will have a Chief Digital Officer.” The reason is simple. Most CIO’s and to a lesser extent CMO’s do not currently have the knowledge and experience in the social and digital world. They don’t know how to strategically implement digital workplaces that will integrate with the overall business goals and objectives of a law firm as well as legacy systems and applications. “The Chief Digital Officer will prove to be the most exciting strategic role in the decade ahead, and IT leaders have the opportunity to be the leaders who will define it,” said David Willis, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. “The Chief Digital Officer plays in the place where the enterprise meets the customer, where the revenue is generated and the mission accomplished. They’re in charge of the digital business strategy. That’s a long way from running back office IT, and it’s full of opportunity.

So how does a law firm go about identifying who their Chief Digital Officer should be? Do they hire from within? Do they shift the role of the Chief Knowledge Officer to a Chief Digital Officer? Perhaps they look to their  lawyers who have demonstrated thought leadership and knowledge in the social and digital arena. A good example of this is David Payne who serves as Chief Digital Officer at Gannet Co. Mr.. Payne is a former associate at Gibson Dunn‘s, Washington D.C. office and a former U.S. Attorney. He rose through the ranks at Gannet when he demonstrated a clear understanding of the impact that digital and social technologies have in an organization. Regardless of how a law firm identifies how to fill this role, it is our conclusion that the time has come for law firms to hire Chief Digital Officers. Those firms that are wise enough to do so now will have a significant advantage over their competitors for many years to come.    

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