Tom Trujillo – Senior Legal Industry Adviser and former COO at Bank of America’s Legal Department*

#BakersDozen is a series of interviews with leading professionals in the fields of law, consulting, finance, tech, and more.


*Since conducting this interview, Tom has begun a new role as Deputy General Counsel & COO with Wells Fargo’s Law Department – and we offer him hearty congratulations on his appointment.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be in (or a customer of) the legal business?

I grew up as part of a large family in Michigan and went to school there through law school.  During my undergraduate program, I took a business law class. It really captured my interest and got me thinking about going to law school.  After undergrad, I worked for a few years as an IT consultant, but knew I wanted to go to law school, which I subsequently did.  Upon graduating from Michigan, I began practicing at a firm in Detroit, and after a few years, I moved in-house.  I have continued in-house, holding various positions at a few different companies.

What do you do for a living right now?

At the end of 2016, I left my COO role at Bank of America’s Legal Department.  Rather than jumping right in to something else, I have opted to take some time with my family while doing some independent consulting to law firms and law departments.  It allows me to use my unique experience and skill sets to help other organizations move forward strategically while allowing me to gain insights into new organizations, new issues, and new solutions.

What has been your greatest triumph and your greatest success in the legal services field and what did you learn from each?

I’ve had a lot of great experiences during my career, and I’d like to think I’ve had a lot of successes in various settings.  Generally, I’d say that some of my most notable accomplishments have been building some great teams, but more importantly, helping to develop some great leaders. I have worked with a lot of people throughout my career, and it’s very rewarding to see how some of them have developed into exceptional leaders and to have played some role in helping them to do that.

On business front, I think some of my most memorable accomplishments have been helping various organizations move through extremely challenging times.  The most recent and perhaps most challenging was during my tenure at Bank of America. I was tasked with building out the COO function while in the midst of the financial crisis (and its impact on the bank’s legal department).  I had to build something that really had not been built before while moving at lightning speed due to the environment.  It was a monumental task to say the least, but I was fortunate to have a boss that fully supported the efforts and was able to bring in a great team to get it done.

As for what I’ve learned from these efforts…candidly, it is that, as a leader, you need to set a vision and then enable your team to help accomplish it.  You have to trust in your team and be open to their input.  You may not always agree on things –sometimes you’ll adopt their positions and sometimes you’ll have to choose your own solution– but it is the openness and dialogue that is critical.  You can’t accomplish great successes on your own, and if you don’t have the support of your team, you’re pretty much dead in the water.

Do you think the legal industry is headed in the right direction, the wrong direction – or which direction?

I generally think the legal industry is headed in the right direction, albeit perhaps at a slower pace than perhaps it should.  If you think about the changes that have impacted other professional services such as consulting, you can see that the legal industry needs to adapt in order to grow in various ways, whether it is the pricing of legal services, the delivery model, or any of the other various aspects of the legal service industry.    Law departments, with the momentum they have built via the growth in the operations functions, are driving a lot of the changes.  Law firms are the next frontier of change, although they seem to be slower at making changes than, say, the consulting firms were during their transformative period.

Who – or what – inspires you – and why?

It’s probably fair to say that I draw inspiration from a lot of different sources.  Candidly, sometimes it’s my family when I see them take on and tackle very difficult challenges, my kids being a great example in that regard.  Sometimes it’s other professionals whom I know, respect, and admire.  I see how they approach opportunities and set their mind to succeed.  What they are able to accomplish—and importantly, how they go about it—are a great source of inspiration.  And at other times, I get inspiration from books I read.  I love to read about historical figures or events and to glean what I can from them about leadership, success, team building, problem solving, communication, etc.

What advice would you give to the younger generation contemplating law as a career?

They should go in to it with eyes wide open.  Being a lawyer is not necessarily an easy career to pursue.  It is very demanding and challenging. And there are many, many paths to pursue within the legal industry.  Be open to trying new things—you don’t know what you don’t know, and the only way to learn new things is to try new things.  Being open to it and always give it your best shot—don’t compromise on effort.

How ready for change do you think the legal industry is?

As I mentioned above, I think certain parts of the industry are ready for change.  Certainly in-house law departments are.  Other vendors in the industry such as LPOs, etc., are driving change.  The big test will be with the law firms, and they fall along a continuum.  There are firms that are clearly ready for change and are driving out changes as we speak.  Other firms probably recognize the need for change, yet are still holding back at the moment.  The key for all of them will be to truly understand their firm, their positioning in the market, what it is that their particular firm needs to focus on this regard, and then to marshal the forces and execute.

Is more – or different – leadership required? In what ways?

I’m not sure that it’s different leadership as much as it is a different mentality.  What needs to happen is a shift – you can’t solve new problems by continuing to do what you’ve always done.  The question is:  does your leadership have the willingness to try something new and to see it through?  Sometimes a change in leadership can help drive change in culture or behavior, but I’ve also seen veteran leaders succeed in this regard because they remain open minded, curious, and willing to think honestly and strategically with a long-term view.

How deep do you think will be the inroads of technology in the industry?

Without a doubt, technology will continue to develop in the legal industry, and its adoption will pick up. Clients expect it and will be demanding it.  They see the benefits in terms of efficiency, pricing, quality, etc.  In an industry where the gold standard is still the human touch, and billable hours are the financial yard stick, adopting technology has been somewhat slow.  But you see it gathering some momentum and I think it will continue to do so.

In ten years, do you see an industry much as it is – or do you see new players, new technology and an altered state?

I think you will see new players and technology developing over the next ten years.  Just within the last few years, you’ve already seen some significant developments in terms of players – alternate sources of legal talent beyond law firms, outsourcing, etc.  I think the consulting firms will continue to pick up certain permissible parts of the work in the legal industry.  And technology will continue to advance and be adopted in order to meet client needs and expectations.  Consolidation is likely to continue among the firms and other vendors.  I can’t predict exactly where all of this will go, but one thing is certain:  the industry won’t be stagnating.

Are consultants and lawyers looking increasingly similar? Should the distinction continue?

As I mentioned above, I think lawyers and consultants will be in more direct competition. Obviously, in the US, there are rules that limit what consultants can do, but the line of demarcation between them will continue to shrink.

What are your thoughts on the increasing availability of data to guide client-side procurement of legal services?

I am a big believer in using data to help guide decisions.  But I think it’s a tool that is “directional” not “decisional”.  By that I mean that the data can help provide some insights into services provided by legal providers (pricing, geography, and to some degree quality), and can even help to narrow down some choices, but there is an element subjectivity and judgment that you need to apply as well.  Keep in mind that when you are choosing who will be your legal provider, you are investing in a relationship.  It’s rarely a one-time engagement.  Typically, you are trying to build something that is sustainable.  Understanding who your partner is in this relationship is key (how are they to deal with? Are they flexible and creative in their approach?  Do they understand my business and my environment?  What new thoughts do they bring to the table?  How are they developing their talent? Are they investing in their future?  How are they changing to meet the changes in the industry?  And, frankly, do I like them enough to deal with them all the time?).  In my opinion, combining the objective data with the subjective assessment is what will yield the best results.

What’s the one most significant factor that will drive change in your view?

Clients.  Plain and simple.  Clients are under a lot of pressure these days.  GCs are expected to run their law departments more and more like a business.  They no longer get a free pass from the CEO, CFO, and their business partners.  While managing risks and protecting the company is still primary, managing costs and developing new legal support models is very important.  With these demands on them, they will likewise seek changes in their legal service providers to aid them in hitting their goals.

Are we seeing the demise of the “profession” and the real emergence of the “business” of law?

Yes, to some degree I think that is true.  However, I don’t think it’s a complete shift in that regard.  Certainly the business models and service delivery models of legal service providers need to change.  However, at the core, the need for sound (expert) legal advice that helps to solve important business issues remains the same and thus the “profession” of a lawyer remains unchanged in that regard.

What do you consider is the greatest challenge facing the industry?

As I mentioned above, I think it is the willingness of law firms to change to meet client needs and expectations.

What do you see as the greatest opportunity for the sector looking forward?

Ironically, it’s probably the same as the biggest challenge:  the willingness of law firms to change!  If I were running a firm, I’d embrace this challenge.  What client wouldn’t love you if you came to them and said “I’ve heard you loud and clear.  And here are the 5 things we are doing to meet your needs?”!  Those out front are going to set the direction that the others will need to follow.

Do you think law can improve its track record on diversity and inclusion? How?

This is the million dollar question, isn’t it?!  You hear a lot of talk about diversity and inclusion, yet it seems like the profession continues to have the same discussion year after year.    Things will change only when the discussion turns into actions:  how do law firms attract, train, develop, and retain diverse talent?  The same question is true for law departments – how do they attract, train, develop and retain diverse talent?  It can’t just be a discussion of aspirational goals and some measurement of where they are in terms of diversity – there needs to be a specific action plan around what they are going to do to change the status quo and then honestly measure their performance against it.

If you had to do it all over again, would you? Or what would you do differently?

Yes, because my complete lack of musical talent would otherwise keep me from joining a rock band

If a law firm was a startup pitching for investors, would you be an investor?

It would depend on the firm…as I mentioned above…some firms are leading the way to the future, and those are the ones I would support!

Wildcard questions:

If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?

Since a lack of musical talent would prevent me from being in a rock band, and since writers are usually starving artists, I’d probably do some kind of consulting work.

What would you like to be known for?

As a great father, husband, and friend.

What would surprise everyone if they knew (they may now).

That I am the youngest of 15 kids, raised in an ~1200 sq ft, 3 bedroom house just outside of Detroit.  Yeah, it was a bit hectic growing up.

What’s your favorite hobby or activity outside of law?

Everyone says this, but it is very true for me:  I love to spend time with my family.  I treasure every moment.  Beyond that, I love to read, play golf and spend time with friends.  And despite my complete lack of natural musical ability, I spend time trying to learn songs on the guitar.

What’s your favorite sports team?

University of Michigan Wolverines.  Go Blue!!

What’s your favorite city?

I honestly can’t say I have one.  I truly enjoy many (such as NYC, SanFran, London), and there are so many that I have not seen (throughout Europe and other places).

What’s your favorite food?

I’m pretty eclectic in this regard…I love to try all sorts of new foods.  Seafood is always at the top of my list, regardless of the general ethnicity of the dish.

What’s your nickname – and why?

You’ll never get this out of me