Don't emphasise your legal skills when on a board but your depth of experience dealing with companies.
I often think what a privilege it is to work in a law firm. The ability to work with bright, enthusiastic people within the firm as part of a team, and to have as part of the culture of the profession that connection and mentoring of up and coming lawyers. The ability, certainly for a litigation lawyer, to work with some of the best and brightest at the bar.The privilege of working, sometimes over a period of many years, with business lawyers at clients, who really know the business inside out and what makes it tick and seeing careers and relationships grow together. And, hopefully, you gain the ability to translate law, making it meaningful and relevant and actually advising as opposed to show and tell. I find sitting on a board evokes that same feeling. It is a great feeling to see an experienced chair in action and hear thoughts and views from people in a variety of fields. On the board I sit on, these can range from financial services, retail, the arts, media to advertising and FMCG – all with different roles and different perspectives.
Contributing to the board
So with all of these illustrious business people, what do I as a lawyer contribute? Not advice – that clearly isn’t my role. But a sense of risk parameters, the ability to get to the heart of an issue, to test 'facts' produced in support of a proposition and to look at something from all angles. Those of you who sit on the boards or committees of your own firms may recognise that lawyers (only the others of course!) have a tendency to be very risk averse, to dive into the detail and not emerge for a while, and to pause too long on the meaning of words. There is always an invisible red pen, poised to add a comma. Those tendencies need to be left outside the board room. Another skill which lawyers bring is a broad experience of seeing the problems in many companies as many of us have advised different businesses, often in different sectors, over a period of years. It may be from the outside, but we do have different models and issues to learn from and many of us try to get as deep an understanding as possible of our clients' business. For lawyers who work inhouse, the intimate knowledge of how the business operates can be invaluable to a board.
A wide range of skills
When thinking about skills and what you have to offer to a board, don’t think about your legal skills – most businesses will not want round the board table, a totally risk averse, slightly pedantic, 'wood for the trees' board member. Indeed, you may not even get to the table as recruiters will have this view also. Emphasise the business skills that you have, the knowledge you have learned throughout your career and the skills that mean lawyers get to the nub of an issue or understand what extra input they need to reach a decision. Lawyers can also understand what might be the cause of a situation which does not feel quite right. After all we advise clients in those situations.