Getting on a board takes at least two years of careful preparation, says Monica Burch.
I don't think that as an industry, lawyers and law firms are very good at planning what might be next (or even extra) for lawyers. I hear a lot that many lawyers who are thinking of leaving private practice at a level of seniority, expect to walk into non exec roles, and then find it very hard if not impossible to find roles. Anecdotally, part of that is UK specific - there still seems to be a (diminishing) distrust of lawyers on boards in comparison with, say, the US where there seems to be a much more positive view of the benefits lawyers bring to businesses.
I think we lawyers learn (and learn throughout our careers) a number of skills; analysis, the ability to absorb a lot of information relatively quickly, to give weight to information depending on the source and to pick up flummery in explanation. We see a lot of businesses and need to understand what the part of the business that relates to our work does, and the commercial aims and goals, and so have exposure, on the whole, to a range of different businesses.
We do need a leap though in mindset when sitting on a board and I know this from sitting on my own law firm board. The best description was given to me in a story a few months ago. Businesswoman goes to see the Board and presents an idea. Board asks if any other businesses are doing it - the response is no, the Board is delighted and gives the green light. Lawyer goes to law firm Board and presents a business idea. The Board ask if any other law firms are doing it, lawyer says no - and the Board refuses to countenance it. Sound familiar?
Going back to the first point though, that lawyers leave private practice and expect that non exec job to appear. I was very luck to be mentored by the chairman of a FTSE 100 company a few years ago, who told me that once a CV is in shape, it will take at least two years from start of looking to finding the first non exec role. And whilst there are people vastly more experienced than me at this, I was told that "CV ready" includes some sort of board experience, relevant commercial experience (for example acting for consumer facing businesses, financial services etc), almost always international exposure, and a particular affinity for the business concerned. I was also told (and have found this to be true) that you need to have a real interest if not a passion for the business of which you want to be a non exec, otherwise those late calls/evening and weekend reading of papers, may seem even more of a struggle.
I appreciate that many law firms don't allow external appointments, but thought processes, information finding and getting CVs ready can start at any time. And of course these roles are not just about after the law.