John Fernandez joined Dentons as U.S. Chief Innovation Officer and a partner in the firm’s public policy and regulation group in April 2012 after serving as head of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration.
In his career , Fernandez also led new development and acquisitions at an Indiana-based real estate investment firm, First Capital Investment Group, served as of counsel for Krieg DeVault, an Indianapolis-based law firm advising private and governmental organizations on economic development, public finance and policy issues, and as the mayor of Bloomington, Indiana, from 1996 to 2003.
Recently, Dentons announced the launch of NextLaw Labs, a legal tech accelerator based in the Bay Area that is going to work with the firm’s clients and its lawyers to develop new products. Fernandez will serve as the global chair of NextLaw, a position that will require him to identify the most promising investment opportunities. In an interview, he explained how he landed his current position and what kinds of technologies he’s eyeing. Below is a lightly edited transcript of his interview with Big Law Business.
It wasn’t just about getting bigger, it was about transforming the work they do. I think the vision they articulated is pretty bold.
I think a lot of law firms are thinking about how they use engineering processes.
I take credit for trying to stir up a lot of ideas.
It’s not about man versus machine. It’s about man plus machine. If you do it right, you grow market share and the man increases.
Big Law Business: You have a pretty diverse background. How did you end up in your current position?
Fernandez: If you look at my experience … I’ve always been part of a change-oriented agenda whether its head of a department, or a mayor of a city. Here at Dentons, it’s about elevating to what’s next. I’ve been able to take a forward looking agenda and turn it into plans that we can execute against.
A lot of my work, in multiple roles, has been very steeped in public private partnerships, particularly in the economic development world, so much of that was about trying to foster innovation. That kind of constant thread in my work got [Dentons’ global chairman] Joe Andrew’s attention and [global CEO] Elliott Portnoy’s. I knew Joe from years ago as we had worked together in the political world.
We got together in 2012 and had a conversation about this bold vision they have … of building the law firm of the future. It wasn’t just about getting bigger, it was about transforming the work they do. I think the vision they articulated is pretty bold. It’s always been about providing the right expertise in the right location and delivering the legal services with the highest value. We’re following our clients. Businesses are working in so many different geographies, having a law firm that can seamlessly work with you, and be in and part of the community … led us to think how can we can be more than just a law firm. It’s clear that the legal industry has been a substantial laggard when it comes to deploying the type of technologies that so many other industries have embraced.
Big Law Business: What types of technologies are you thinking about in particular?
Fernandez: Most lawyers don’t work much differently than lawyers did 30 years ago in terms of actually delivering the legal services. There’s so much opportunity … to increase quality through consistency. I think a lot of law firms are thinking about how they use engineering processes.
Big Law Business: Advanced engineering sounds complex. What is it exactly?
Fernandez: It’s streamlining the process so it’s more predictable. It’s about streamlining from a predictability point of view. Being smart about how we structure the work from the front end of the engagement … we can build some predictability that enhances the services we give our clients. Not everything needs to be a bespoke handmade suit .
Big Law Business: What are some ways you’ve already implemented these ideas?
Fernandez: I don’t take credit for the stuff. I take credit for trying to stir up a lot of ideas. Dentons already had a strong group of professionals who were already entrepreneurial by nature. It’s a matter of building on their successes, trying to build on that culture.
We’ve rolled out a program that brings in non-legal professionals, MBA types, to provide some of the due diligence activities that heretofore we were using lawyers for.There’s a lot of thinking around that kind of hybrid model that I think can be scaled into different areas of our work.
We’ve built up the foundation for R&D. We’re building up individual analytic tools, in a way that can really enhance our work, and helps us all think about how we manage the work. At the business level, NextLaw labs is a big investment of ours and it’s a big step forward.
Big Law Business: Has Dentons’ investment in new technologies increased during your tenure?
Fernandez: Nominally yes. A lot of it is thinking about how we’re already investing in resources. Think about something as basic to operating a law firm as real estate. In Chicago, we did a complete rethink of space plans. We moved our offices in the same building and we created a footprint that was simultaneously smaller than our previous footprint but also built around collaboration and kind of that open environment where people can have those chance encounters that can spark innovation. It’s actually designed to facilitate this kind of culture of engagements.
We’re investing in NextLaw Labs and that’s a piece of what we are doing. It’s a modest investment … we won’t say exactly what it is, but it’s certainly more than a couple million dollars.
Where we can add a lot of value is not necessarily spending money but by thinking about how we can deploy our resources. It’s about using existing resources in a different way.
Big Law Business: Are you thinking about entering the ‘information as a legal service’ market, and selling standardized information to clients?
Fernandez: There are opportunities for that kind of expert systems development. That’s something we’re certainly very interested in. I think there’s a lot of work in the future that law firms can be very efficient at delivering where you’re integrating the insights with the knowledge and the know-how. I think there’s expectations in this Google world, where you can type in a search and get just a phenomenal amount of information instantaneously, that there’s tools and technologies that law firms can develop to smartly capture that information, curate it and provide clients with a vast amount of information .. and deliver it in a very effective way that is almost a do-it-yourself way.
Big Law Business: Do you worry that any of the new technologies will force Dentons to shrink because more work will be automated?
Fernandez: No. It’s not about man versus machine. It’s about man plus machine. If you do it right, you grow market share and the man increases. The complexity of the world our clients operate in is not going to become simpler, it’s going to become more complex.
What’s difficult is the business model of our law firms hasn’t changed much. That’s why you see so much push back and pressure from general counsels on the cost side.