#LegalTechLives with Kim Gardner, Executive Director at Shearman & Sterling LLP

Ava Chisling
August 16, 2017

Kim Gardner has served as Shearman & Sterling’s Executive Director since 2002. She joined the firm in 1998, initially as the firm’s first Chief Financial Officer. As a member of the Executive Group, Kim is involved in strategic planning, leadership development, practice management, performance management, driving innovation and global business services team leadership. Prior to joining Shearman & Sterling, Kim held various management positions in consulting and financial services, all based in New York City. She received her MBA from New York University and a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University. Kim resides in Connecticut with her husband and has a daughter in college.

Tell me about where you grew up and where you live/work today?

I grew up in a small town on the sandy shores of Lake Michigan. A few months after my college graduation, I flew alone to NYC for what I thought would be a one week visit, but instead, I cashed in my return airline ticket and made the Big Apple my home. Since earning my MBA at NYU, I have worked in management consulting, financial services and now the legal industry. I enjoyed living in Manhattan for 14 years but then moved to a commuter town in Connecticut on Long Island Sound. I love having access to both the range of urban experiences that NYC offers and the simplicity and community of small-town life in CT. I also love being close enough to Long Island Sound to walk to the beach or get to our boat within five minutes.

Who taught you an important lesson growing up that still resonates with you today?

My father has taught me many important life lessons that apply universally. Having served as a US Navy “Seebee” dismantling bases in the Pacific islands following World War II, he has always proudly personified that battalion’s “Can Do” motto. Dad taught me the importance of strength of character, eternal optimism and gritty perseverance, and above all, to never lose my sense of humor!

What are your main responsibilities as Executive Director?

Legal Tech Lives Kim Gardner

The role is quite broad and my responsibilities are global in nature so I get to work with people in all our offices around the world. My areas of focus have varied considerably over the years, depending upon the firm’s needs and priorities at the time.

When I joined Shearman & Sterling in 1998, it was as the firm’s first Chief Financial Officer so I was focused on improving financial performance and creating much more sophisticated management information and analytics. When promoted to Executive Director in 2002 (the firm’s first and only woman to hold that position), I initially focused on operational areas. Then, over the years, I became more involved with strategic planning and analysis, knowledge management, leadership development and performance improvement.

Today, my highest priority is helping the firm innovate the practice and support of law (such as through increasing our focus on legal tech). As we all know, the traditional law firm business model has been under tremendous pressure to change (although many in the industry don’t realize the full extent or urgency of the phenomenon, in my view), and change takes time in most law firms. As a senior business leader, it’s my job to serve as a catalyst for change.

Your firm Shearman & Sterling has been around for 140 years and has 20 offices worldwide. Is it possible to find a common thread that links hundreds of people from cultures as different as China, Brazil and Dubai? Is it important to have a shared thread?

Yes and yes! Our common bond is that we’re a very client-centric firm in all we do, and not just as a marketing slogan. Great firms with longevity know how to weave together a strong, vibrant fabric from a combination of both historical shared threads and complementary new strands that emerge with changing times and the influx of new people. Firms with healthy cultures recognize and celebrate the values and goals held in common, while they also respect and cultivate differences in perspectives to create a diverse and synergistic new “us.” Ongoing innovation is a critical component to success, and so is the “institutional glue” that comes from getting people together in person on a regular basis so that they truly get to know their colleagues across practices and offices.

With a firm as large as yours, is it hard to get consensus on adapting new technology? Do you do so country by country, office by office or some other way?

It’s not as hard as you might think. Generally speaking, our partners are very accepting of new technology as long as it adds value. It’s not difficult to find partners willing to vet and pilot new tools. In addition, we have a strong global IT team, and they play an important role in working with our lawyers and business services staff to understand and leverage our existing technology tools and help us spot new legal tech opportunities. All of our technology initiatives involve a global team in concert with our “One Firm” philosophy, as that gives us the best positioning to deliver seamless service to clients across practices and geographies.

As Executive Director, do you believe it is important that law firms continue to adopt new ways to practice law, from using AI like ROSS Intelligence to virtual offices and e-Discovery?

Yes, in fact I feel a sense of urgency and responsibility as a business leader at the firm to do all I can to help lead Shearman & Sterling’s innovation journey. The accelerating pace of technological advancement has already started to transform the legal industry and most other businesses, and I think we have just seen the tip of the iceberg. It is inevitable that AI tools like ROSS are going to alter and complement lawyers’ work, creating new efficiencies and opportunities for clients and law firms alike. I would tell potential law students and others considering legal industry careers that this is a wonderful time for those who are creative, entrepreneurial and visionary to make a real difference in bringing about necessary changes.

“It is inevitable that AI tools like ROSS are going to alter and complement lawyers’ work, creating new efficiencies and opportunities for clients and law firms alike.”

How do you feel about the different ways clients can now access basic legal services, from online contracts to flat fee e-consultations? Do you feel this is part of the future of legal services or will they only serve niche markets?

Generally speaking, clients behave in an economically rational manner and turn to the best means of addressing their legal service needs. We see clients changing their buying behaviors to retain more of the work and send work requiring outside counsel to providers with the best value-to-cost ratios. Going forward, this will keep morphing as clients seek better, faster, cheaper results, and technology will play a growing role in this.

It is inevitable that even in the most traditional and conservative of law firms and in-house legal departments, we’ll see increased willingness to turn to AI rather than relying solely on humans for legal analysis and services. It will be difficult to compete without AI tools, not just because other law firms are investing in them, but also because clients are doing so and because it will reduce risks and costs while freeing up the lawyers to focus on higher value aspects of serving clients.

Why do you think it is important companies have women in top management roles (if you do)? Do you think diversity changes the DNA of the company?

To achieve a high performing team capable of world-class client service and the ability to advise on complex legal and business matters over a sustained period, I believe you need a diverse range of perspectives to help reduce a team’s blind spots in navigating the issues and challenges. I see diversity as a source of strength leading to more informed decisions and better results, and it’s all the more important if you have a global, diverse client base and operate across many practice areas and markets. We are very committed to ongoing improvement of diversity and inclusion and have launched a major firm-wide initiative to help guide our efforts.

Your background is in business. What makes running a law office different from any other business? Or perhaps it is similar?

What we are trying to accomplish is similar: world-class client service, ability to attract and retain top talent, and a profitable business model. How we do that can be quite different given the partnership structure, global footprint, and matrix management approach (meaning most people have — in effect — many reporting lines rather than one boss). I love the challenge of serving as a senior business leader in a global law firm. I get to work with brilliant people around the world, both those with law degrees and others, and have built a team that is comfortable performing in this collegial but fast-paced and demanding environment.

Unlike the super-sized law firms that are organized in more of a corporate or franchise mode, we have managed to retain the collaborative nature of a partnership, while also operating in an efficient, businesslike manner.

“It will be difficult to compete without AI tools, not just because other law firms are investing in them, but also because clients are doing so and because it will reduce risks and costs while freeing up the lawyers to focus on higher value aspects of serving clients.”

Since you are surrounded by lawyers, which fictional TV lawyer reminds you most of your co-workers?

I’d love to give you a snappy, humorous answer to this one. However, the reality is that having worked closely with hundreds of our talented lawyers (and business services people) over the years, I can say that all are much more professional and committed than those flashy fictional TV lawyers. However, this is not to say they are boring! In fact, one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job has been getting to know these impressive people and learn of their interests and accomplishments outside the law.

Your firm has a practice in Mongolia. What is the most interesting place you have traveled to and why?

Traveling on business, it is always impressive to witness the multidimensional effects of rapid growth in so many Asian economies. My most interesting personal trip was the one I took with my family last year that involved travel to four countries from which most of our ancestors came: Sweden, Germany, the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic. I am fascinated with learning all I can about history and the people who came before me.

Someone who shall remain anonymous describes you as “down to earth.” What are your guilty pleasures luxury-wise?

Yes, I hear that a lot about being down to earth — I attribute that to my Midwestern upbringing. When I have a bit of spare time I enjoy visiting art fairs and galleries, whether in my home region of the Northeast or on vacations. I love viewing the paintings and other forms of artwork, and considering how the artists’ life influences and inspirations may have shaped the results.

Here is a question I ask everyone: What invention would you like to have right now?! I’ve heard hoverboard and robot mechanic, among others.

How about a Time Expander where you simply push a button to indicate whether you’d like to insert an additional hour, day, week or month here and there to help with getting it all done?

Bringing Gmail’s Calendar to life!

Thank you very much for your time and your insight, Kim Gardner. Both are appreciated.

Ava Chisling

Ava is an award-winning lawyer and editor who counsels creative types, writes about pop culture/tech+law and sometimes creates ad campaigns. She is Quebec counsel for Momentum Law.