CIO Spotlight: Kimberly A Verska, Culhane Meadows PLLC

"Don't follow the well-trodden path. Instead do something unconventional, as you never know what doors might be opened in that space."

Name: Kimberly A. Verska

Company: Culhane Meadows PLLC

Job title: Managing Partner (Atlanta office) & Chief Information Officer

Time in current role: 5 years

Location: Atlanta, GA

Education: I had a B.S. in Linguistics from Georgetown University, then a JD from Harvard Law School. I am certified as an Information Privacy Professional (US) through the International Association of Privacy Professionals.

Kimberly A. Verska is the Chief Information Officer and Atlanta Office Managing Partner of the cloud-based law firm Culhane Meadows, PLLC. She has practiced technology and privacy law for over 20 years, previously at two AmLaw 500 law firms and now at Culhane Meadows, the largest, woman-owned general practice law firm in the US. Verska is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Georgetown University.


What was your first job? When I was 16, I worked in a furniture factory sanding boards for a summer to save for a stereo. This quickly convinced me that I needed to avoid jobs involving time-clocks and use of my muscles to earn money.

Did you always want to work in IT? No, I came into this role via a non-traditional path. I originally studied foreign languages and Russian in particular. When I began practicing law 23 years ago, I saw data privacy law as one of the most promising areas for future growth, and I gravitated towards that almost immediately. This, and my focus on IP licensing law, led to my appointment as CIO of our 50+ partner law firm.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. Becoming CIO of a law firm necessarily involves a different career path than that of a traditional CIO. The main difference is that outside of the biggest law firms, C-suite officers also maintain their law practices. As such, I became a CIO mainly by being a successful attorney who also had a strong interest in law firm entrepreneurship. Once I was working as a managing partner in a mid-size law firm, my technology and privacy-related law practice made my appointment as CIO a natural fit.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organization in the coming year? Culhane Meadows is unlike traditional law firms in that we are entirely cloud-based, but we are like those firms in that many of our clients are Fortune 1000 companies of the highest levels of business sophistication. This means we must meet (or exceed) industry standards of performance – including in the areas of security and information processing – without the norms of a secure physical office. As such, we must continually re-examine our technology and information-handling policies to ensure they are up-to-date given changes in technology offerings and the law.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? My charge is and forever will be to maintain information systems that are responsive to the needs of the organization while ensuring a high level of security. Fortunately, this task is shared between me and the law firm’s Chief Technology Officer, who is another of my partners.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? In the US, data privacy has not come to the fore as rapidly as it has in the EU. However, in light of rapidly-advancing changes in the business world and the law, I predict that this area will garner far more attention in the near future. Smaller and non-digital businesses are just beginning to appoint Chief Privacy Officers (CPOs), but without a CPO, the responsibility for compliance with the increasing number of laws on data handling is likely to devolve to the CIO. Careful attention to the types of data and the uses an organization makes of that data is very different than acquisition and maintenance of IT systems, so I would recommend that the CPO role either be broken out, or that the CIO should be more expressly tasked with data privacy compliance responsibilities.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasize customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? While cloud-based law firms like Culhane Meadows are few in number, we are confident that this business model will be increasingly prominent in the legal services industry due to its advantages on both of sides of this coin. While many businesses must balance high-touch customer expectations with the need to cut costs to increase efficiency, we find that there is so much needless overhead in the legal services industry that our “digital” cost-cutting to eliminate the trappings of traditional law offices is overwhelmingly welcomed by our clients, who receive the same high-touch legal services for a lower price.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? Cloud-based law firms first arose just over 10 years ago, and as such, we are in our early growth stage. From our inception, we have incorporated IT into the very fabric of how we practice law, so it would not be possible to break out the value of the IT that we use. That being said, we are unlike many businesses that are undergoing a transformation to “digital” in order to attract customers, as we rely strictly on referrals and word of mouth to attract our customer base.

What does good culture fit look like in your organization? How do you cultivate it? As any businessperson well knows, lawyers are a bit of a different breed than your average employee, and since we operate as a partnership, we cannot issue top-down marching orders as easily as most businesses. As such, we look for partners who are willing to take direction for the good of the firm, or even to give of their time to the firm without compensation. We are able to find it through careful recruiting practices, where each “hire” requires multiple interviews.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? One of the biggest challenges of going without a traditional law firm office is that attorneys are used to snapping their fingers and having IT person show up to fix all their technology problems. We have employed an outsourced IT helpdesk, which works for most issues we encounter.

What's the best career advice you ever received? One of my college professors once told me not to follow the well-trodden path, and instead do something unconventional, as you never know what doors might be opened in that space. That worked well for me, as working in Russia for two years during and after college probably gave me an interesting enough background to get into Harvard Law, which was probably a large contributor to my current career success.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. If I can make a joke in this process, lawyers generally don’t retire until they are forced out the door due to senility. I’ve purchased any equity stake in the Culhane Meadows partnership, and I don’t foresee leaving anytime soon.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? My advice to any kind of aspiring leader would be to read widely in the area of interest, as well as in emerging areas (and for IT, this might be areas such as blockchain or initial coin offerings). This goes hand-in-hand with listening closely to customers and colleagues about their problems and concerns in the field, and working hard to be a problem-solver.

What has been your greatest career achievement? For a number of years, I’ve been among the top rainmakers in the law firms I’ve worked at. I enjoy helping my clients solve their legal problems and do their deals by matching them with the most capable lawyers in the needed areas. I think I bring the right degree of practicality and legal savvy to the process, so the clients tend to stick with me.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Clearly this will be wildly different than the answers most CIOs would give, but I would choose to take my first year out of law school working for a judge in a trial court instead of heading directly to a big law firm. I missed out on a great part of seeing “how the sausage is made” in the legal world.

 

What are you reading now? I usually have at least five books going at any given time, usually in the areas of non-fiction, science fiction or chick lit. Two of the non-fiction books I’m reading now are 1491 (a history of the Americas before Columbus, since I just visited Bolivia) and A Brief History of Disease, Science and Medicine.

Most people don't know that I… have a “thing” for societal infrastructure and seeing it in action. Touring a power plant or Boeing’s airplane factory, or watching shipping containers come in at a port. It’s all the things that make our world work so well that people take for granted in their everyday lives.

In my spare time, I like to… work on my Ancestry tree. I’ve got 3000 people in it and counting.

Ask me to do anything but… plan a party. I actually made it a condition of my becoming a manager at this firm, since I had to do this at the last firm. I’m not terrible at this, but it produces too much anxiety for me.