Good Things and Great Sacrifices

Arnold & Porter’s Michael Folkes discusses taking one step back and two steps forward on his journey to becoming CIO of a multinational law firm

New York City was the only place for Michael Folkes.

In school, he dreamed of being an airline pilot, but the necessary education was prohibitively expensive. He considered air traffic control but realized he could spend years trying to work his way to a position in a major city. He began to seek out a career track that could meet all his conditions: urban opportunities, room for growth, and access.

“I went to the library and went through this huge book of careers. This was 1986-87, so PCs weren’t in homes yet,” Folkes remembers. “But the prediction was that every business would have to adopt computer technology, and eventually it would be in every home.”

Michael Folkes Arnold & Porter
Michael Folkes, Arnold & Porter Photo: Courtesy of Arnold & Porter

He set upon the path to his current role as CIO of New York’s Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP in a retail store, packing peripherals for home computing. As he advanced, he began to relish the business-side and managerial aspects of the field, proceeding to supervisory and directorial positions in television and then in law.

“I found I was really good with people,” Folkes says. “I had a real interest in the business aspect, not just the technology that kept things running but rather how what I do can be beneficial to the organization.”

Folkes was in his twelfth year as IT director at a New York law firm when leadership undertook a merger. At the outset, Folkes was told privately that he was one of two candidates for the single CIO position. The other individual had an advanced degree in business administration, so despite his longevity and practical experience, Folkes was not offered the position. Nonetheless, he successfully coordinated and managed the IT integration between the two firms.

The rejection put his career trajectory into sharp focus. He focused on one specific, concrete goal: to earn a C-suite role at a major firm in New York City. To get there, he would need CIO experience, so he took on the role at Stradley Ronon in Philadelphia, looking to learn what he needed to get himself back to New York.

Folkes commuted between Philadelphia and New York for eight-and-a-half years. “I have the most understanding wife ever,” he says. “She always knew this was just a phase, and she carried the weight of the family. I’d come home Friday night and we’d have a date; every Saturday, we did something with the kids. On Sunday, we would have dinner together before I left for Philadelphia.”

For the final two years splitting time between the two cities, he was also completing an executive MBA from Hofstra University on Long Island: leaving Philadelphia Friday night, going to school all Saturday, studying on Sunday, and returning to Philadelphia before work on Monday. Folkes had no personal life and no time to sleep but stayed committed and refused to doubt himself.

He graduated in 2014. With C-suite experience and a fresh MBA, he felt ready to find his place back in New York City. Still, he was concerned whether his experience in a mid-sized firm in a mid-sized city would keep him competitive.

“I always try to remain positive: whatever I believe in, I can achieve,” Folkes says. “It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t make it; my only concern was whether I’d make it to a large law firm, or if I’d have to move to another vertical.”

During his application process at Arnold & Porter, the hiring manager called and informed him that the firm was about to undergo a major merger. Folkes would enter the role close to a deadline, facing a steep workload and significant pressure. Nevertheless, he took the call as a favorable sign, and knew from experience that he could face any challenge with the right mind-set. He had spent more than eight years living away from his wife and children to earn a job like the one on offer—any challenge on the other side would be conquerable.

He was right.

“It was a rough three months, but we made our deadline and the launch was flawless,” Folkes remembers. “I consider myself very lucky to be with an organization that has such outstanding leadership. On a regular basis, I find myself asking how we got such great people—we’re an organization where everyone is very smart, and things move very smoothly.”

Folkes and his team are now exploring applications of machine learning and artificial intelligence in the legal practice. For instance, an AI parsing contracts could do weeks’ worth of work in only a few days, reducing the number of total man-hours it takes to effectively practice law.

The deepest sacrifices are behind him; today the whole family lives in New York, and the victory is sweeter for the pain of the battle.

“You go through these pain points and it feels like it will take forever—but once it’s behind you it’s like it never happened,” he says. “Good things happen through great sacrifices.”

Alphaserve Technologies would like to congratulate Michael Folkes for this well-deserved recognition of his leadership and transformative work in the legal industry. It has been a pleasure to partner with Michael, and Arnold & Porter, to provide cutting-edge technology solutions and become the catalyst for innovation.