John R. Fernandez

John R. Fernandez
US Chief Innovation Officer and Partner

Last Updated: 11/11/2017

Executive Summary

Taking bold action and disrupting the status quo to drive strategic innovation have defined Fernandez's career as a senior leader in government, the private sector and now as US Chief Innovation Officer and Partner for Dentons, the largest law firm in the world. He is also the Global Chair of NextLaw Labs, a global collaborative innovation platform focused on developing, deploying, and investing in new technologies and processes to transform the practice of law around the world. Dentons is the group’s lead supporter and investor. Prior to joining Dentons in 2012, Fernandez served as President Barack Obama's Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development. Fernandez was appointed in 2009 to head the Economic Development Administration, where he was the chief architect of the administration's regional innovation strategies. During his tenure, he launched new coordinated federal initiatives to accelerate innovation-based growth strategies, including the "i6 Challenge" and the "Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge." Additionally, Fernandez re-engineered the business processes at the EDA, reducing grant-making decision cycles from 128 business days to less than 20. While at the U.S. Department of Commerce, Fernandez represented the United States government at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ("OECD") where he served as Chairman of the Territorial Development Policy Committee. Prior to his appointment, from 2007 to 2009, Fernandez led the new development and acquisition team at First Capital Group, an Indiana-based real estate investment firm. He played a critical role in expanding the firm's regional and national investment footprint. Fernandez also served as of counsel for an Indianapolis-based law firm, Krieg DeVault, where he advised private and governmental organizations on economic development, public finance and policy issues. Earlier, he was SVP at Finelight Strategic Marketing Communications from 2004 to 2007. Fernandez served as the mayor of Bloomington, Indiana, from 1996 to 2003. Fernandez holds a JD, MPA and BS from Indiana University, and his success was recognized with a 2014 Distinguished Alumni Award, the School of Public and Environmental Affairs' highest honor bestowed upon its graduates.



Personal Attributes and Interests

  • While attending Indiana University Bloomington, Fernandez was the a member of Dean’s Student Advisory Council, University Judicial Affairs Commission, and Chairman of Off-Campus Student Union.
  • He completed his Summer Law Program from Universidad Complutense de Madrid in 1992.
  • He also received the Eli Lilly Fellowship from Indiana University.
  • He was the Indiana University School of Law Fellow and President of International Law Association while attending Indiana University Maurer School of Law.
  • While working at the US Department of Commerce, Fernandez represented the United States government at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ("OECD"), where he served as Chairman of the Territorial Development Policy Committee.
  • From 1996 to 2003, he was a Board and Executive Committee Member at Bloomington Economic Development Corporation.
  • He was a member of Indiana Land Resources Council in 2003.
  • Between 1998 and 2003, he was a Member of Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Affairs.
  • In 2002, he was the Candidate and Democratic Party Nominee for Indiana Secretary of State.
  • From 2004 to 2006, he was a Gubernatorial Appointee at Indiana Commission for Higher Education.
  • He was the Co-founder and Chairman at Metropolitan Mayors Association from 2000 to 2001.
  • According to his LinkedIn profile he is associated with Hispanic Elected Local Officials at National League of Cities, Indiana State Bar Association and the United States Conference of Mayors.
  • He has been appointed to the governing council of the American Bar Association (ABA) Center for Innovation in 2017.
  • According to a December 2016 interview with Kathleen Killin when asked about the project he is most proud of and why Fernandez said, “That is a really hard question! Throughout my career I have been very fortunate to work with great organizations and communities of interest in the private and public sectors. I think the one constant in these various roles was an emphasis on being a change agent. And while I think it is hard to pick a single initiative or project, I think what I’m most proud of is that at each organization that I had the privilege to lead, I left these organizations stronger and positioned for even more success after I moved on.”
  • When asked about his perfect afternoon in Bloomington city he said, “Chillin’ with my wonderful family and friends around a hot grill and an ample supply of adult beverages!”
  • During an interview with Big Law Business in June 2015, when asked how did he end up in his current position Fernandez said, “If you look at my experience … I’ve always been part of a change-oriented agenda whether its head of a department, or a mayor of a city. Here at Dentons, it’s about elevating to what’s next. I’ve been able to take a forward looking agenda and turn it into plans that we can execute against. A lot of my work, in multiple roles, has been very steeped in public private partnerships, particularly in the economic development world, so much of that was about trying to foster innovation. That kind of constant thread in my work got (Dentons’ global chairman) Joe Andrew’s attention and [global CEO] Elliott Portnoy’s. I knew Joe from years ago as we had worked together in the political world. We got together in 2012 and had a conversation about this bold vision they have … of building the law firm of the future. It wasn’t just about getting bigger, it was about transforming the work they do. I think the vision they articulated is pretty bold. It’s always been about providing the right expertise in the right location and delivering the legal services with the highest value. We’re following our clients. Businesses are working in so many different geographies, having a law firm that can seamlessly work with you, and be in and part of the community … led us to think how can we can be more than just a law firm.  It’s clear that the legal industry has been a substantial laggard when it comes to deploying the type of technologies that so many other industries have embraced.”
  • According to a May 2016 the Law World article when asked why he decided to create NextLaw Labs he told “The traditional internal structure of law firms rarely integrates the processes required to nurture innovation. Thus the initiatives that transform the legal profession come mainly from entities that are not law firms. There are tremendous opportunities for the most innovative firms, and such opportunities require the establishment of new and different structures. NextLaw Labs was created to capitalize on this opportunity.”
  • Per his Twitter page, Fernandez is a fan of the late musician Tom Petty.

Current Focus

  • Responsibilities: As U.S. Chief Innovation Officer and Partner, Fernandez collaborates with Dentons’ lawyers and professionals to drive the firm's innovation portfolio, including process, product and business model innovations. Working closely with the firm's leaders, Fernandez identifies and deploys client service solutions that fully capitalize on Dentons' diverse legal expertise, industry thought leadership, global footprint and entrepreneurial spirit. Fernandez also serves as Global Chair of NextLaw Labs. 
  • Firm snapshot: Dentons is a global law firm driven to provide clients a competitive edge in an increasingly complex and interconnected world. A top 20 firm on the Acritas 2014 Global Elite Brand Index, Dentons is committed to challenging the status quo in delivering consistent and uncompromising quality in new and inventive ways. Dentons' clients now benefit from approximately 2,600 lawyers and professionals in more than 75 locations spanning 50-plus countries across Africa, Asia Pacific, Canada, Central Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Russia, CIS and the Caucasus, the UK, and the US. The firm serves the local, regional and global needs of a broad spectrum of clients, including private and public corporations; governments and government agencies; small businesses and startups; entrepreneurs; and individuals.
    • NextLaw Labs snapshot: Nextlaw Labs is a business accelerator focused on investing in, developing and deploying new technologies to transform the practice of law. It is an autonomous, wholly owned subsidiary of global law firm Dentons with physical and virtual locations in technology centers worldwide. Through complementary and strategic partnerships with leading technology companies, startups, other business accelerators and established legal vendors, Nextlaw Labs invests in promising companies to develop a suite of new technologies that fundamentally change the practice of law, improving client service and enhancing client solutions.
  • Appointed to ABA Center for Innovation: Dentons announced in August 2017 that Fernandez had been appointed to the governing council of the American Bar Association (ABA) Center for Innovation. The 14-member governing council, in conjunction with its advisory council, direct the activities of the ABA Center for Innovation. Fernandez was appointed by new ABA president Hilarie Bass to a one-year term. Bass took over as president on Aug. 15. Launched in 2016 at the recommendation of the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services, the Center for Innovation is creating more accessible, efficient and effective legal services in the United States and around the globe. 
  • In his own words: In a December 2016 Q&A with the Ross Intelligence blog, Fernandez had a lot of opinions on various topics. When asked about what advice he had for founders in the early stages of their company, he said, “As for young start ups, don’t fall in love the your tech. Market relevance, solving real problems or exploiting real opportunities for your target customers is what matters most. The sooner you can get real input from the market, the sooner you can gain the insights that will enable you to iterate and grow your business.”
    • What he looks for in startup for NextLaw Labs: “Nextlaw Labs’ vision / strategy as a venture development platform operates much like any other VDO, we look at the strength of a start ups’ founders, soundness of the business plan, the tech stack, market opportunity and go-to-market strategy. While we strive to drive the larger legal tech ecosystem and the pace of innovation in the legal services industry generally, we do apply an additional filter to our evaluation process to specifically align our activities with our investor’s (Dentons) strategic priorities.”
    • Striking a balance in technology between economic and job growth: “No doubt a robust economy that provides a range of career opportunities for our people is vital to the long term success of our country and social stability. Innovation and automation that challenge incumbent market leaders is nothing new. Much of the current political angst we’re experience in the US (as well as many other countries) is fueled not just by disruptive innovation but also the impacts of globalization and the historic shift of economic power from ‘west to east.’ While the positive impacts of these various changes are significant, most governments have yet to figure out how to ensure that the benefits of these changes are more widely shared. This, I believe, is the central challenge of global leadership today.”
    • The law firm of the future: “I’m of the view that high quality legal services will certainly be more accessible and affordable as a result of digitization and advances in cognitive computing. Consequently, modern law firms will have to radically rethink their business models if they want to remain competitive and profitable. This is not an easy challenge for most large law firms as these businesses have long track records as profitable partnerships. It’s hard to drive business model innovation when your owners are continue to profit from the status quo. Many will not adjust and in the long term these firms will see their market share decline.”
  • NextLaw Labs enters on-demand economy with investment in Hire an Esquire: Nextlaw Labs announced it has expanded its portfolio in November 2016 with an investment in Hire an Esquire, a startup venture that is transforming the legal marketplace with on-demand workforce technology. With the investment, Nextlaw Labs continues to expand Dentons' vision of innovation by developing a suite of new technologies that fundamentally change the practice of law while significantly improving client service. The movement towards on-demand legal services is growing and will continue to shape the legal marketplace for years to come. According to a legal industry survey released this year, 56.1 percent of law firm leaders said their firms are using contract lawyers with 67.8 percent expecting an increase in contract lawyers to be a permanent trend. "As the global legal industry shifts toward a scalable and dynamic client-service model, it is critical for law firms to embrace the on-demand workforce," said John Fernandez, chief innovation officer of Dentons US and global chair for Nextlaw Labs. "Staying competitive in the on-demand economy include entrepreneurial work models and Hire an Esquire is set to change the game for the legal services market. We are delighted to be working with their leadership team to drive and shape the future." Founded in 2011 in response to the rise of the on-demand workforce, Hire an Esquire is an online technology platform that automates the legal staffing process by reducing overhead and increasing market transparency.  Hire an Esquire marks Nextlaw Labs' eighth global investment in the past 18 months since Dentons launched the legal technology investor and accelerator. Hire an Esquire joins an elite group of legal technology innovators that includes Canadian developer ROSS Intelligence, which leverages IBM Watson-powered cognitive computing to refine expert legal research; UK-based Apperio, a startup focused on streamlining matter management; South African startup Libryo, a SaaS (software as a service) platform enabling users to understand legal obligations in any situation; Doxly, a US-based secure, cloud-based platform designed to simplify corporate legal transactions; Clause, a US-based data driven smart contracting platform that leverages the Internet of Things; Qualmet, a US legal service quality metrics platform; and a Brexit contract review solution developed in partnership with RAVN Systems.
  • Dentons named “Most Innovative Firm”: Dentons announced in September 2016 that it  has been named "Most Innovative Non UK-headquartered Firm" by The Lawyer at its 2016 Business Leadership Awards. The Firm took home the honor for a series of innovative client service initiatives which are disrupting the legal profession, including Nextlaw Labs and the Nextlaw Global Referral Network. This award is the latest in a series of honors for Nextlaw Labs and the first award recognizing the Firm's recently launched Nextlaw Global Referral Network.  In May 2016, Dentons announced the launch of the Network, which enables member law firms to easily connect and track referrals via an online platform. The Lawyer's Business Leadership award win follows Dentons' win at the Legal Week Innovation Awards for "International Law Firm Innovation" in May 2016, and the Financial Times' recognition of Dentons as the “Most Innovative North American Law Firm” in late 2015.

Biographical Highlights

  • Fernandez earned a BS degree in policy administration, public personnel and labor relations in 1985 and a Master of Public Administration degree in urban management in 1989 both from School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington.
  • He also holds a Juris Doctor from Indiana University Maurer School of Law (1990-1992).
  • He began his career as a Litigator in private practice.
  • He was Law Clerk for Indiana Supreme Court Justice Roger DeBruler.
  • From 1996 to 2003, he served as the Mayor for City of Bloomington.
  • Between 2004 and 2007, he served as the Senior Vice President of Business Development at Finelight Strategic Marketing Communications.
  • He also served as Of Counsel at Krieg DeVault LLP from 2004 to 2009.
  • In 2007, he joined First Capital Group, Inc. as Senior Vice President and Partner, a position he held until 2009.
  • He was the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development at US Department of Commerce, from 2009 to 2012.
  • He nominated by President Obama and confirmed unanimously by the United States Senate to lead the Economic Development Administration (EDA).
  • He also served as Chief Architect of the Obama Administration’s inter-agency regional economic development strategies, creating strategic vision and providing executive leadership.
  • Fernandez joined Dentons in 2012 and has since held the following positions:
    - Partner and Director, Innovation Strategies
    - US Chief Innovation Officer and Partner, Public Policy and Regulation Group (2012-Present)
    - COO, Wirthlin, a Dentons Innovation Group Partnership LLC (2013-2015)
    - Member, Management Committee, Wirthlin, a Dentons Innovation Group Partnership LLC (2013-Present)
    - Global Chair, Nextlaw Labs, LLC (2015-Present)
  • In 2012, he was a recipient of the Association of University Research Parks Excalibur Award.     
  • In 2014, he was honored with the Distinguished Alumni Award by IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA).

Other Boards and Organizations

  • Former Member, Bloomington Common Council, City of Bloomington
  • Former President, Bloomington Common Council, City of Bloomington
  • Member, Policy Council, EIG (2016-Present)
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Contact Information

1900 K Street NW.
Washington, DC, 20006
United States


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