John R. Fernandez

John R. Fernandez
Global Chief Innovation Officer

Last Updated: 05/30/2018

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 Global 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 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.
  • 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).

Current Focus

  • 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.
  • Responsibilities: As Global Chief Innovation Officer, 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. 
  • Robot Lawyers: It is still unclear how artificial intelligence can have an impact on the legal world without some roles being made redundant, a May 2018 Lexology article said.  AI is usually specifically used to tackle monotonous and time-consuming tasks such as automatic document assembly, giving lawyers more time to focus on law.  Using AI to increase efficiency and productivity resonates with industry experts, the article said.  Lawyers need to know how many documents they have, what is in those documents, and how the documents are useful to them.  Once an AI tool has read these documents, those questions can be answered.  Thanks to AI, the industry is seeing a rise in highly skilled roles to monitor and improve the artificial intelligence programs that are in use.  It expands the scope for whole new teams of innovative lawyers who want to keep up with advancing technology.  Dentons recently established an innovation and venture arm, which has invested in numerous legal technology startups.  “Our industry is being disrupted, and we should do some of that ourselves, not just be a victim of it,”  said Fernandez.
  • Speaking Engagement: Fernandez addressed the innovative transformation currently taking place in the legal industry at Northwestern Law's global legal innovation summit in May 2018.
  • Awarded: Dentons' Budapest office received the Most Innovative Law Firm of the Year Award for Hungary for the third year in a row in April 2018.  The firm received the award at the IFLR European Awards, which are conferred annually by International Financial Law Review and honor Europe's most innovative firms and deals.  The award recognizes Dentons' achievements in Hungary and elsewhere in the CEE/SEE region, as well as the work that the Budapest team has done on major projects and transactions in the past year.  The IFLR award was given to Dentons just a day before the firm was named law firm of the year in both CEE and Russia at the Chambers Europe Awards 2018.  
  • New Job: In December 2017, Dentons named Fernandez its first global chief innovation officer.  “I am thrilled and honored to be appointed to this new position at a firm that has already made great strides towards innovation in delivering client services,” Fernandez said in a statement. “Already, Dentons is on its way to becoming synonymous with innovation in the legal profession.”  Those innovations include using tools and technologies “that law firms can develop to smartly capture” information then “curate it and provide clients with a vast amount of information … and deliver it in a very effective way that is almost a do-it-yourself way,” he said in a 2015 interview with BigLaw Business.  In August, Fernandez was appointed to a one-year term on the governing council of the American Bar Association Center for Innovation.  The 14-member governing council, together with its advisory council, directs the center's activities.  “Even before this appointment, in his role as chairman of Nextlaw Labs, John has helped Dentons become world-renowned as an innovator in the legal profession,” said Elliot Portnoy, Global CEO of Dentons. “Now we will unleash him to help us drive innovation in the firm across the entire globe.”
  • 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 that continues to provide relevant insights today, 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 startups, don’t fall in love with 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 continuing to profit from the status quo. Many will not adjust and in the long term these firms will see their market share decline.”

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, Indiana.
  • 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)
    • Global Chief Innovation Officer (2017-Present)

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)

Contact Information

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


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