In this interview for the My CIO Career series, Michael Rinehart of Dechert LLP explains how he engages colleagues to identify new ideas – and embraces a fail-fast approach to learning what delivers value.
Michael Rinehart’s objective as CIO of Dechert LLP: build the best law firm IT department. His strategy relies on driving innovation, supporting transformation and seeking top talent. Rinehart has a roadmap for achieving success in each of those areas, too. For example he encourages teams to experiment with ChatGPT and embraces the fail-fast approach that helps his organization adopt successes and glean lessons from pilots that do not deliver value.
In addition to sharing lessons about his firm’s innovation efforts, Rinehart discusses how his engineering background established a problem-solving foundation that he carries into his IT leadership philosophy.
Mary K. Pratt: How do you ensure IT aligns to your firm’s strategic plans?
Michael Rinehart: We align both our IT investments and our innovation investments to our firm’s strategic priorities. Then we capture them as annual objectives across the various functions and cascade them into our annual performance review process. From there we define high-level business cases, expected outcomes and plans to achieve them. We then monitor and execute throughout the year.
Specifically, in addition to our ongoing investments in cybersecurity, risk management and initiatives to drive more internal efficiencies, we are doing a lot in digital enablement to support our new hybrid-work model, focusing on how we make people productive and effective everywhere and enable the ways people collaborate today through, for example, video-based meetings.
We also are looking to leverage emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, generative AI, ChatGPT and robotic process automation to help our firm become more productive and to deliver innovative legal services to our clients.
The legal industry is not known for embracing bleeding-edge technology. Has that presented challenges as you drive transformation?
The pandemic has driven us, and people across all industries, to think differently. We cannot work the way we used to. I could focus on the pain side of all that, or as a technology leader, I can ask, “OK, how does this situation enable change?” So I looked at the pandemic as an opportunity to leapfrog forward.
I also want to point out that our firm leadership values innovation; innovation is one of the firm’s strategic pillars. The firm is very receptive to new ideas, and innovation is part of my role. However, Dechert is a law firm at the end of the day, and its leaders do not want to be too risky. So we make sure we are not going to fail slow or fail big. We embrace the fail-fast mentality.
For example, in our innovation team we do a very iterative, agile approach to try out new ideas, get them out to users to test, and see if they might add value. Only later will we spend the time and effort to make it a true production solution. ChatGPT is an example where we moved fast, got folks trained, tried some things and got moving quickly. We have tried things that some thought would be useful, only to find out it did not work as expected and then moved away from it.
How do you engage talent to drive innovation and transformation?
We have a process where we reach out to new hires three months after they join the firm and ask if in their prior experiences they worked with solutions that we could bring here. We gather new ideas and innovations through this process.
My IT team and I cannot be defensive. We need to be very open, and we need to acknowledge that we are not the world’s best at everything, even though that is the goal.
Here is an example. An employee shared how he had seen a firm use automation for simple, routine tasks, such as converting an attachment from PDF form into Word. So we sought ideas on those little tasks people would rather have a system do for them. We started by rolling out two automated tasks. Now we are up to 10, and we have prioritized an additional 20 or 30 beyond that. Also, we are now automating more rigorous, complex tasks.
You have said that you want to create the world’s best law firm IT department. Can you share an element that you believe is critical for achieving this objective?
To build the top law firm IT department, I must win at the talent war.
To do that, I must retain all the great people I have and give people career-path opportunities. I also must foster a culture that helps them succeed by supporting teamwork and a collaborative environment.
There are many activities I do under that talent umbrella. For example, I ask people who join the firm what they think, and I am unafraid to ask existing people what they think. We have 22 offices globally. I fly around to them periodically, and I chat with people who are frustrated. I would rather them share with me their frustrations, so I can understand and deal with their concerns. I listen to their thoughts, and where it makes sense to pursue one of their suggestions for improvement, I do.
I also want to stress, when I speak about winning at the talent war, I am referencing Dechert LLP globally and not just IT. We challenge ourselves with questions such as “How can we retain people? Is there any technology that would make folks sticky here? Are there behaviors we can bake into our culture to retain folks? When onboarding new people, how could we make that experience exceptional and thus increase our chances of retaining folks long term?”
We also ask employees these same questions and then sort through all the ideas, select what we feel are the best ones, implement them, and then evaluate the results.
Your education and early career are in mechanical engineering. How did that background lead you to, and prepare you for, an IT career?
After college I worked at a big oil and gas consulting company for 2½ years. I then went into a refinery in the field for a handful of years. I was working in project management, then capital project management and ultimately reliability engineering.
Those last two experiences were great to have, and they transitioned well into the IT space. They led me to a startup e-commerce consulting company. The company was growing rapidly but was struggling with predictable results. The company would do a lot of project-based work but it was not able to deliver on what it expected to deliver. As much as it seemed like an odd leap, I felt I could add value because my prior capital project management experience was laser-focused on accuracy and predictability. I drew on that skill at the consulting company, and I was able to put in processes and controls to make sure we would deliver on what we said we would.
All engineering degrees create a good mind for problem-solving. They teach how to break complex tasks down into smaller, achievable tasks and then to solve for those smaller items. That thought process is very useful in IT and as a CIO. In mechanical engineering, that approach is used to design a better system. In IT, it is used to design a better solution.
What was the most impactful move you made in your career?
The most impactful move I made was leaving reliability engineering. I left an organization with hundreds of thousands of people around the globe to work at a 30-person e-commerce custom-built IT shop. It was a big leap. But I was young, and I just jumped in and thought, “It will work out.” Looking back, I see that the move was a massive risk. However, it worked out great. Both the engineering work and the IT experience at a small startup were great foundations for me to become CIO.
What successful leadership strategy would you share with others coming up the ranks?
Surround yourself with people smarter than you are and do not be threatened by that. You cannot be the best at all the functions underneath the CIO organization, nor should you even try to be; that would be foolish. I think what you can be is a strong leader and enable success through bringing in the right people for the right positions and empowering them to add maximum value. Empowering them might mean their roles get bigger over time, and it means honestly thinking about succession planning.