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Where are all the lawyer-CEOS?

GCs are quick to trumpet their intimate understanding of business needs.
But in the UK there are surprisingly few who become business leaders.


B U S I N E S S     T H I N K I N G

How is your maths? According to 2013 research by recruitment firm Robert Half (quoted in Management Today), 52% of FTSE 100 CEOs have a finance background, 21% have an engineering background, 9% are from retail or hospitality, 8% are from marketing or advertising and 4% are from technology. If you are the stereotypical in-house lawyer, it’s likely you are scratching your head to establish the remainder. To put you out of your misery, this leaves 6%. Perhaps there are lawyers in that 6%? However, the typical FTSE 100 CEO is a 53-year-old accountant. You probably know him (yes, as a rule they are male). If you are anything like me, working directly for him as his general counsel probably represented the pinnacle of your ambition.

It’s true that some CEOs have law degrees. They are not lawyers, but they have studied law seriously, and it seems not to have dampened their ambitions. Practising lawyers working in business, on the other hand, settle for career second best and we settle for it gladly, whereas accountants can plausibly expect to become the boss, or at least for the boss to rise from their ranks.

The FTSE 100 doesn’t matter that much. There are lots of great organisations outside it, not least the FTSE 250, VC-backed businesses and foreign-owned businesses. I would love to see evidence of lawyer-CEOs in any of these organisations, but I know of only three. This notwithstanding that in 19 years of practice I have met hundreds (maybe thousands) of lawyers working in businesses, and they tend to be keenly intelligent, well trained and driven.

Is it something about practising the law or being an in-house lawyer that creates a poverty of ambition and opportunity? Why do other professionals outperform lawyers in the career stakes?

Here are some explanations that I dislike:

It’s the pervasive nature of what accountants do. Numbers and money flow through all parts of a business and this allows accountants precious insight, making it easy for them to succeed. I hear lawyers say this a lot and it sounds plausible but there are two problems with it. First, lawyers in business also have pervasive access to their organisations (if you don’t, speak to your GC) and second, if it is true, then how are the 48% non-finance CEOs making it?

There is professional apartheid and a bias against the appointment of lawyers as CEOs. It’s not that I don’t buy this one (in fact I think it is completely plausible) but, rather, if that prejudice exists, it’s entirely our fault because we have not demanded to be considered as CEOs.

Here are some explanations that I like:

The stereotypical lawyer’s love of words and language, and hatred of numbers, is so great that it is considered acceptable to admit near-innumeracy. I wince when I hear lawyers say this because I know it means that they are only half the lawyers they should be in their current roles, and they are excluding themselves from serious senior management debate, and thereby limiting their potential to become more than just lawyers. If you can’t add up or understand any accounting principles, at least have the decency not to admit it in public!

Lawyers tend to be unwilling to leave behind their skills. They believe that by taking on general management responsibilities, their legal skills will start to rust. Lawyers need to check once in a while whether their training and experience have actually become a career millstone.

We see ourselves, and others see us, as detached. We love to play the critical friend who is set apart from the business. Although this is necessary from time to time for professional purposes, lawyers tend to over-egg it. Think about it for a minute. It hardly endears us to others when we destroy an idea with dispassionate, clinical precision, without staying in the room to suffer with non-lawyers as they scramble for an alternative. Put another way, we congratulate ourselves too much for knowing the real meaning of the word ‘disinterest’.

Here is the explanation that I like the most:

We use the ‘in-house’ tag mindlessly, and in doing so we sleepwalk through a career-long analysis of ‘success’ that never moves beyond a comparison with private practice lawyers. If we represent a better, cheaper and quicker alternative, then we are successful. There are two problems with this constant comparison:

First, let’s say you come out on the right side of this analysis consistently throughout your career. Does this make you CEO material? Hardly. Comparing well in this test is very easy. Once you have been a senior business lawyer for a short while, if you can’t demonstrate that your legal team represents a better, cheaper and quicker alternative to wheeling in external firms, you are a cretin.

Second, where’s the ‘in-house’ accountancy department, or the ‘in-house’ marketing team? They don’t exist, and that’s precisely because other professionals are less worried about comparisons with their former selves or external providers, less concerned about leaving their old skills behind and learning new ones, and more centred on contributing to general business success. This fuels the personal ambition that is missing among lawyers.

"I would love to see evidence of lawyer-CEOs in any of these organisations, but I know of only three."

Why is it important for lawyers to aspire to become CEOs?

Lawyers can do extremely well in business, so maybe it doesn’t matter much that the top job is beyond their reach. I would argue it does for three reasons. First, poverty of ambition creates a self-fulfilling cap on progression for those of us who have left private practice. Second, when trying to hire a talented lawyer for our business, we are hamstrung because we can’t have a plausible discussion about the stratospheric career possibilities that might exist if we were instead recruiting an accountant, an engineer or a marketeer. Finally, this matters to the UK’s boardrooms because an entire professional skill set is missing from the very top echelon of UK business.

Maybe the next question I ask a candidate for a lawyer role in my business should be ‘What’s your plan to become CEO?’

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