Talent development in the legal sector: A conversation with Caroline Firstbrook, former COO at Clifford Chance
Professional & Technology Services

Talent development in the legal sector: A conversation with Caroline Firstbrook, former COO at Clifford Chance

Caroline Firstbrook, the former COO at law firm Clifford Chance, shares her perspective on bringing in talent from outside the industry and how AI will impact the traditional law firm model.
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In this episode of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Laila Coffey speaks to Caroline Firstbrook, an award-winning people leader and former COO at Clifford Chance, an international law firm. Firstbrook shares a bit about her leadership journey, focusing on the skills and capabilities she needed to develop or add to her team at Clifford Chance. Regarding searching for talent, she shares her perspective on bringing talent in from outside the professional services industry and how she helped those individuals adapt. She also shares what changes she is proudest of during her time at Clifford Chance, and offers her insights on the long- and short-term impacts of AI and ChatGPT on the traditional law firm model, as well as what new skills and capabilities or ways of working together law firms will need to work effectively as AI influence grows.

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Laila Coffey: Hello, I'm Laila Coffey, principal at Heidrick & Struggles’ London office and a member of the Legal and Corporate Offices practices for Europe and Africa. In today's podcast, I'm excited to speak to Caroline Firstbrook. Caroline is an award-winning chief operating officer and people leader. As the outgoing global COO at Clifford Chance, Caroline had responsibility for all non-legal activities in the firm, including facilities, IT, finance, HR, business development, and a wide range of business support functions. Caroline sat on the executive leadership group and was chair of the executive operations group. She has a background in strategy consulting, having worked for Monitor Company in Europe for 12 years and led Accenture's European strategy practice for six years. Caroline brings extensive experience as an entrepreneur and previously founded companies in agribusiness, biotech, and professional services. 

Caroline, welcome and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. 

Caroline Firstbrook: Thank you. 

Laila Coffey: I'm going to kick off and start with a focus around key challenges. Caroline, could you walk us through the capabilities you've needed in your career journey to date and how you developed them?

Caroline Firstbrook: Sure. As you have heard, I've changed organizations quite a few times. In my consulting career, I worked with quite a wide variety of client organizations. And so, I think one of the keys when you move around like that is you have to be a fast learner. You have to quickly identify, as you go into an organization, what's important, what really drives change, what drives results, and how you impact that. 

The second thing to understand is who you need to know. In organizations, building those relationships is incredibly important. You get everything done through your social capital, and so building the right relationships and behaving in the right ways that work within that organization becomes very important. Cultures and behavioral norms could really vary between organizations, and so you have to understand that and behave in ways that seem appropriate. 

I often said to people as they joined Clifford Chance that joining a law firm is a little bit like joining a country club. There are certain ways to behave and certain ways not to behave, and if you transgress, people will have questions about you. And so, I think figuring that out and then building the relationships with the right people becomes very important. 

And then, the third thing I would say—and this is really important—is play to your strengths. You may come into a role where you're actually not ideally suited, but if you can quickly identify those aspects of the role that you do well (and then delegate the bits that are perhaps not your greatest strengths), you'll have more impact and you'll be able to accomplish a lot more. 

So, when I was at Clifford Chance, for example, I thought of my role as 50% percent operational leadership and 50% strategy project. I'm a very experienced strategy consultant; thinking of it that way—what changes do we need to make? Where's this industry going? What is going to need to be different in the in the next five years?—was really helpful to me. Then, I was able to frame that in ways that helped people understand the need for change. I drew very strongly on my strategy consulting career. But equally, I dealt with a lot of operational management, and I was able to draw on that. For those areas where my team was stronger with deep functional expertise or deep technical expertise, I found it very important to delegate to them and let them be the experts that they could be. So, everybody was bringing their A-game to the whole plan.

Laila Coffey: Talk us through some of the key challenges you faced in the role at Clifford Chance, and really focus in on any skills or capabilities you needed to develop or add to your team to address some of these challenges.

Caroline Firstbrook: One of the things that was quite eye-opening when I joined Clifford Chance was that, compared to an organization like Accenture, for example, the adoption of best practices and a commercial discipline was much lower, and I think that's true of the legal industry generally. And so, I could see there were many opportunities to take best practices from elsewhere, introduce them, and create beneficial change, because many of the people who I was working with had never worked elsewhere. 

Creating that case for change was really important. And so, as I looked at the team and we had a number of roles that we had to replace—we replaced the CFO, we eventually replaced the chief people officer—it was really helpful to start looking externally, outside the legal industry for people who could come in with that knowledge of what good looks like, what best practices are, who could come in and start to make those changes within their teams. That was really helpful. 

I think the other thing to understand about a partnership is the challenges of consensus building. So, at Clifford Chance, you have 550 partners who all think of themselves as owners of the business, with a stake in any outcome and a voice that needs to be heard. And so, getting that consensus can be really challenging. 

It's more challenging in a law firm because lawyers are by nature very risk-averse, very conservative, and very skeptical. They will always challenge any plans, and you need to be very prepared with a convincing case for change if you do want to bring in change. And so, the way we did that was kind of twofold: where we didn't think consultation was strictly necessary, we sometimes just introduced change—and then apologized later if people asked, “What happened here? Why are we suddenly doing this in a new way?”

But where we did need to have consensus, patience was really important. People want to be heard; you need to make sure you talk to the right people, particularly the key opinion leaders. A couple of very powerful partners can block anything, really, and so you need to get round to them. You need to create champions for change from amongst the partnership. 

I would say that the challenge for me was that I'm very action-oriented, so I had to exercise a level of patience that was perhaps not natural to me. But, if you don't try to move too quickly, but rather slowly and steadily, you can have a huge amount of impact.

Laila Coffey: I'd like to double-click on a point you made there around bringing people in from outside of industry and bringing new ideas in. When you looked for talent outside of the legal sector, did you stick to professional services more broadly? Or did you look outside of that and in industry, and if you did, how did those individuals adapt to joining a partnership model?

Caroline Firstbrook: So, for any role we also looked internally (we were always open to internal candidates), but we looked externally both within professional services and beyond. I think professional services, particularly the partnership model and understanding how to operate in that model, is helpful. But we brought in people from the pharmaceutical industry, from media, and from banking into very senior c-level roles at the firm. They all brought really interesting perspectives, but there was an adjustment process for each of them to understand how to work in a partnership, how to get the rhythm and the culture of the partnership. 

One in particular (I won't name names), but one of one of the new joiners wanted to move much more quickly than the partnership was going to be able to do. I used to say it's a bit like trying to pull a seatbelt out really quickly. You’ve got to go slowly; otherwise, it's just going to lock. And if you push people too fast, they just dig in their heels. They need to be taken on the journey with you. 

But those external perspectives were great. And it was very important that they were from organizations that people really respected, so that they could say, “Oh ok, well this is how they did it there. I guess we should listen to this and pay attention.” That that was very helpful.

Laila Coffey: In 2021, Caroline, you were awarded the FT Innovative Lawyer Change-Makers Award in recognition of the impact that you had at Clifford Chance. What change were you proudest of during your tenure at the firm?

Caroline Firstbrook: I was very honored to be awarded—very honored and very surprised, because we actually didn't financially support the award, and so we weren't expecting to win anything. But a couple of people nominated me, and so I got entered. 

But I think there were three areas of change that I would say had the most impact. The first was around commercial discipline. So, as I mentioned earlier, when comparing Clifford Chance—or frankly any law firm—to an organization like Accenture, the level of commercial discipline is much lower. Timesheets are recorded more slowly, people are much more relaxed about billing and collecting, pricing is done in very idiosyncratic ways. 

We got hold of that and started to improve the whole working capital management. We improved the speed of recording time and sending out bills and collecting on those bills. We also brought in a professional pricing function to help partners negotiate with big clients where they're not necessarily the best people to say no to clients. So, that was one area. 

The second was around legal service delivery, bringing in things like legal project management, low-cost delivery centers, improving the adoption of legal technology to automate things, and taking partners out of the mix in some things so that we could bring in lower-cost people to do those things that partners might have wanted to do. That was very important, and there's a lot more coming there. 

The third was around operating models. Clifford Chance is quite unusual in that we have a captive shared service center in India. Over the course of my seven years, we substantially grew the team out in India and moved a lot more roles out there—typically, at about 25% of the cost of the onshore role.

Building the confidence of the firm that those roles could be moved offshore and could be done at a distance was a challenge—although, I have to say, the pandemic really helped on that because, you know, everybody was working at a distance. You couldn't really say the model wouldn't work. And, underpinning all of that, I would say I was very proud of building an incredibly strong business professionals team. That team was able to drive a consistent and continuous change program across the firm. 

You can't rely on partners to drive change because they're rightly focused on clients. Internal initiatives, you know, can sort of have a very start/stop nature if the partners alone are leading. If you can bring the business professionals in alongside and have them driving those change programs, then you get that much more consistent, steady change, which I think was what we saw. I was incredibly proud of the team that we built there.

Laila Coffey: I'm going to shift the conversation now to looking forward in the legal sector right now. There's much heated discussion around the impact of AI and ChatGPT, in particular, on the traditional law firm model. What do you predict the impact will be both in the short and long term in the legal sector?

Caroline Firstbrook: Well, first of all, I need to say I am not an expert in ChatGPT, although I'm not sure that anyone is yet; we're all kind of finding our feet. This is also a huge topic and one that, you know, I can only touch briefly on in a in a short podcast. But I do think that generative AI, ChatGPT, and other similar programs are going to be transformative for the legal industry, and they're going to change it in a couple of different ways. 

First of all, the way legal services are delivered will change. The access and ability to draft documents, to search databases in a very user-friendly and effective way, is massively improved now. And so, people should be able to, with a very user-friendly interface, say “Please develop me a document that does the following things based on this law and these kinds of precedents.” Then they can say, “Now generate a program that will write those things for me,” or, “Identify all of the variables within this document that I can then input to create a repeatable template for this.” So, there's a lot of things that can be done that used to be done by associates which will now be done (or the first steps that that will be done) by AI. 

The second thing is, of course, the support model is going to change enormously. All the big IT organizations that provide those core applications, like Microsoft, are now building in AI layers to those applications. So, for example, Office365 will have an AI layer. Let's give an example: You're on a Teams call, and now you have AI that says, “Three people haven't spoken yet,” or it takes the minutes and then sends out the actions, and then follows up on the actions. These things are all well within the realm of possibility. 

So, they're replacing people who do those jobs right now. These programs can manage the meeting: the meeting is running over, we only allocated five minutes for this and we've gone ten, for instance. All these things suddenly become possible. I think that's the second thing that's going to change the way law firms operate. 

I think what's going to be interesting is how fast law firms adapt, because I think they are, as I said before, very change-resistant. I think the other thing that makes them nervous is these tasks are the tasks that the trainees do, and the way in which they learned the business of law. If they are taken out of the trainees’ hands, how do you train those trainees? 

So, there may be some firms who take it more slowly than others might, and I think the pressure will come from their clients. What I'm hearing is that these applications are being targeted first to in-house legal teams who have a huge pressure on costs and need to find ways to be more efficient. Those legal teams, once they understand what could be done, will be pressuring the law firms to adopt the same thing. So, I think the law firms will have to figure it out quite quickly and that's going to be quite a challenge for them.

Laila Coffey: And what new skills and capabilities or ways of working together will law firms need to work effectively as AI influence grows?

Caroline Firstbrook: I think one of the most important things is that the role of technologists, of non-lawyers, and a range of other people who are going to be critical to making these new applications successful just becomes much more important. And so, law firms are going to have to operate in a much more multidisciplinary way. They're going to have to recognize and acknowledge the very important role that these non-lawyers are playing, and that's different from the way many law firms have been operating. They tend to operate as a sort of a two-tier culture: there’s lawyers, and then there is business support, as they're often called. Actually, the role of those technologists has become incredibly important. 

I think the second thing is this is going to be expensive. All those AI layers that are going to be put in? Microsoft's going to be charging for that. Law firms are going to have to invest in new applications, they're going to have to invest in some of these capabilities, build their technology teams, and law firms don't like to spend money. That's a challenge. And so that's going to be something they have to do. 

The third thing is that they're going to have to be more willing to change and willing to experiment. I think the most successful firms will take this technology and make it available to everyone, and then just let them try it out and try different ways to use it and try different applications. I'm hearing about that all the time: so-and-so has now figured out a way to complete his timesheets to using ChatGPT, and somebody else has now completely replaced their assistant with an artificial AI-powered support. And so, I think letting people experiment and fostering that innovation internally will be critical as well.

Laila Coffey: And, if I now take more of a helicopter view on the sector, what other trends do you see in the legal sector and what leadership and talent implications come with those trends?

Caroline Firstbrook: First of all, following up on some of the implications for AI more generally, I think the billable hour—which has been, you know, pretty resilient, although under some pressure for the last few years—I think AI is going to accelerate the decline of the billable hour. How do you bill for an AI that has just replaced hundreds of hours of junior lawyer time? You have to start looking at billing for results and not billing for input. Firms who've already started to work out how to work with fixed pricing or other more creative commercial models than the billable hour will, I think, be in the lead.

I think the war for talent will continue. But talent is not just going to be lawyers; it's also going to be those other critical technology professionals and other business professionals who are part of the wider team. I think that connects back to this idea of law firms working in a multidisciplinary way and the professionalization of management, which I think has been taking place—although it always goes in waves. You will see a firm professionalizing, and then the next managing partner comes in and says, “Oh, put lawyers back in charge.” So, you get these kinds of waves. Well, I think the professionalization of management is going to be critical now, particularly with some of these new capabilities. 

And I think, finally, the war for talent is just going to continue. The old ways of, “Work 2400 hours a year, and maybe at some point you'll make partner”? People just don't want to do that anymore. They don't want to be treated the way, in many firms, people have been treated in the past. 

That emphasis on wellness, that emphasis on diversity and inclusion—candidates are looking for firms to invest much more in their personal development and their professional development. They're looking for clear statements of purpose and values that they can identify with. I think that's going to become continually more important, and the firms that don't get that will lose the best talent and that'll be to their detriment.

Laila Coffey: Fantastic. Thank you very much, Caroline, for your thoughts today and for making the time to speak with us.

Caroline Firstbrook: It's been a pleasure. Thanks very much.

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About the interviewer

Laila Coffey (lcoffey@heidrick.com) is a principal in Heidrick & Struggles’ London office and a member of the global Legal, Risk, Compliance & Government Affairs Practice and the Corporate Officers Practice in Europe & Africa.

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