As part of our Women in Legal Tech event on the 2nd & 3rd November, we are releasing a series of interviews with inspiring women. Their stories offer advice and guidance for anyone thinking of entering the world of legal tech. Following the event, we will be collating all of the interviews in a free e-book. Keep an eye on our social media to get your copy.
More details of the Women in Legal Tech event can be found here.
Meredith Mendes is the COO of Jenner and Block, a US based international law firm. Having initially trained as a lawyer, Meredith moved into the world of finance, becoming CFO to a number of companies including Edelman, before returning to the legal world as Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer. Meredith is a strong proponent of underlying financial and data analysis.
Meredith spoke to us about the impact of technology on the legal world. She also discussed how clients are driving change and offered tips about fostering innovation in firms.
What route did you take to become a COO of Jenner & Block?
Actually, it was totally random. Some people plan to become a COO, but I never intended to end up in my current role. Attending business school didn’t occur to me immediately after college, so I went to law school and became an attorney. During my early years of practice I realized that I hated litigation! Eventually I became a CFO after attending business school and earning my CPA while working as an investment banker. I worked for several different companies and liked the work.
One day I responded to an advertisement for a COO position at Jenner & Block in the Wall Street Journal. The firm liked that I came from a non-legal industry as it gave me insight into business drivers and a different perspective. I’ve been able to focus on profitability and matter management here at Jenner, as well as some technology-enabled solutions like VDI, which enables a uniform to the user IT experience globally to bring them up to the speed of the corporate space, which is more advanced in many ways than the legal sector.
What are your top priorities as a COO in such a large law firm? Is it increasing efficiency, cutting costs or streamlining processes?
First and foremost, my priority was to revamp our space and how we work. Besides what I consider hygiene; ensuring that everything runs smoothly and that there are no impediments to the business processes; the big thing for me is analytics and transparency. Financial insight is absolutely necessary in the legal world. That is why I have focused on bringing that insight into every aspect of the business. At Jenner we have legal project management software, created in-house, and have implemented a task and phase code system which enables our lawyers to better budget their matters and retrieve meaningful accurate information. All of our lawyers will have self-service dashboards, and a drill down with client and matter information which is available in real time to our lawyers and for our clients.
You previously worked as a CFO for Edelman. Do you think innovation in firms is driven by their clients i.e. external companies or by the firms themselves?
I do believe it is driven by clients generally. Lawyers are inherently service oriented and want to please their clients. Too often, lawyers are concerned about the level of risk associated with innovation. However, we also see where firms make a move and test new software, that often leads to a bandwagon effect where more firms join the pilot phase. Innovation is often based on what other law firms are doing or if clients are asking for it.
However, I don’t believe that it is procurement that drives innovation. It’s the in-house lawyers who are on the other side and being squeezed to run the business with tighter budgets. Procurement is borne out by that margin squeeze.
You are a sought-after speaker on topics pertaining to law and professional services firm management such as legal project management, leading change, real estate management and global operations. What would be your advice for people seeking to drive change in their firms?
I never try to do things top down. As Steve Jobs says, you must make things that people want. He knew people’s needs better than they did. For me that means innovating in pockets. Test ideas and solutions in small numbers with team members and ensure that the innovation meets a need. If there is grass roots support then you can adopt the innovation in a wider sense.
How do you see technology impacting C-level executives?
I think innovation does have a big impact on executives. It can be different for each person, but for me, I prioritize financial analysis and data. Without data analysis, I wouldn’t have the oversight I currently have as a COO. I would be less able to make decisions I know are backed up by data.
What piece of technology/software has made the biggest impact on your working life in the last five years?
As I said, I’m very financially oriented so the biggest impact has come from the finance side. This means billing systems, data warehouses, relational databases and business intelligence tools, I spend a lot of time with this software. I can streamline workflow and avoid duplicating work, which is a huge benefit.
What do you see as the biggest challenge for legal tech in the next five years?
I believe the courts need to push legal tech more. The courts need to legislate to determine acceptable standards for machine intelligence and insight, to codify the industry better. There’s a lot about this industry which is less predictable that people would have you believe. We need human interaction to ensure that AI is getting it right. This requires courts to push innovation and lawyers to get past some of their risk adversity. .
If you were to start your own technology or legal tech business what would it be?
I think that it would be on the AI side. Probably a tool to analyze big data in terms of identifying what resources are necessary, and identifying why the differences between similar processes so the fees and budgeting can be analyzed with more accuracy.
Do you have a good work/life balance? And does technology help you with that?
I love doing my job, which inevitably means I work very hard. It can be difficult to juggle private and work life. I think technology could do more to help me with that.
What advice would you like to have had during your career (that you had to find out for yourself)?
I wish someone had told me about the importance of keeping up networks and doing outside activities. I think competence is table stakes. Getting out and meeting people and trying to make a name for yourself is key – particularly for women who are not as comfortable touting their successes and capabilities as men. I have three daughters and I think instilling confidence in them and the ability to self-advocate is the most important advice I can give them.