A Chat with Bryan Cave Innovation Chief Katie DeBord

In this monthly series, legal recruiting expert Amanda K. Brady from Major Lindsey & Africa interviews law firm management from Am Law 200 firms about how they navigate an increasingly competitive business environment. Discussions delve into how these key management roles are changing and introduce the people who aspire to improve and advance the business of law.

Next in this series is a conversation with Katie DeBord, chief innovation officer at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP. DeBord began her career as a CIA intelligence analyst until she transitioned into litigating. In 2015, she left her role as a litigation partner for Bryan Cave and became its chief innovation officer.

Q: Explain what you do in your role as chief innovation officer.

A: I lead global innovation strategy and co-lead our legal operations consultancy division. As a firm, we are focused on anticipating the future of legal service delivery, and on delivering innovative legal solutions to clients that, among other things, incorporate our legal expertise with process and technology. The idea is to allow clients to more efficiently operationalize that legal advice back into their business.

Q: Prior to joining Bryan Cave, you worked as a trial attorney. How does that influence your approach in your current role?

A: From the moment I started practicing, I understood the importance of technology and how it could help me practice better. When I entered this role, I was excited about the profound impact that technology can have on legal practice, and decided to learn more technical concepts in order to successfully lead the software development team.

As my role evolved, my experience and perspective as a former litigator allowed me to better understand the challenges our clients face and help our lawyers understand and react to those challenges appropriately. It also helped me impart the idea that the business relationship should be considered holistically, and lawyers’ solutions should solve for both the business and legal operations objectives. Lawyers who understand that part of their job is knowing how to help the law department operate better are much better-suited to meet their clients’ needs.

Q: What is the Business Academy, and what is the most important lesson the firm’s attorneys learn from it?

A; The [Bryan Cave] Business Academy is a three-day innovation training program geared toward junior associates. It teaches associates how to consider the client’s perspective, understand their challenges and how they deliver legal services. We provide associates with a unique training experience by varying the content and programming based on their level.

As part of our firm’s embrace of innovation and creativity, our associates participated in a hackathon this past year, which forced them to think outside of the box. It’s important for them to know that we don’t punish failure or reject new ideas.

The Business Academy allows us to interact with our clients in a new way by involving them in the process. They sit on the panel that evaluates the pitches, and they provide feedback on what works, what is impactful and what needs improvement. This allows the associates to get access to client feedback and insight into the client’s daily struggles in a way that they generally aren’t exposed to.

Q: How has your role evolved since you joined Bryan Cave?

A: I am fortunate that I work for a firm with a strong history and culture of innovation, and I came into a role that already had an established framework. That allowed me to roll out our consultancy division in 2016. Now, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner is a newly merged firm and I’m very excited that we now have even more innovation muscle to flex. Both legacy firms have supported and invested in legal innovation.

As we mature, we’re focusing on the concept of end-to-end legal services. This combines our process improvement and technology teams with our lawyers to cohesively work together to provide engineered services to their clients.

My role is ever-evolving and I must ensure we are actively identifying new opportunities to push us forward. I am now focusing on utilizing process improvement and technology to deliver a differentiated value to our clients.

Q: What aspect of your role have you found most challenging?

A: The most challenging aspect is making deliberate decisions around the allocation of resources. I try to allocate resources following Google’s principle: 70 percent of resources and investment go to innovating core service areas, 20 percent to an adjacent area and 10 percent to transformative services.

However, I believe that what we now consider “adjacent areas” will soon become core legal services. For example, our legal operations consultancy work, which is now considered “adjacent” to core legal services, will soon be part of our core legal services model.

Q: What attracted you to the legal industry?

A: Working as a CIA analyst at a young age gave me perspective on how varying people struggle and live across the world. I realized that the law is a cornerstone of our society and impacts people’s lives in ways that they don’t even realize. I wanted to have expertise in the law and not have to look to others for it.

Q: If you weren’t in law firm management, what career would you have?

A: Given my current position and experience, I would consider teaching. My career path shifted dramatically over the past few years, my perspective has shifted, and teaching creates an opportunity to educate future lawyers about innovation.

Q: What does leadership mean to you?

A: Leadership means leading by example. Energizing people to come up with new ideas and empowering people to lead. It means having credibility and compassion, and ensuring that you have diverse thought and perspective in every big decision that you make.

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