28 May 2012

Raising the game

The path to the boardroom is evading many lawyers. They need to work on their networks and management experience if they are to make it onto boards, says Melinda Wallman.

The path to the boardroom

I read with interest Bill Knight’s article about the dearth of UK lawyers on public company boards, Lawyers on Board. I  agree with the article that there is a prejudice against lawyers by CEOs when filling board vacancies. I disagree that this prejudice is in spite of them being qualified for the task.  Some lawyers are; most are not.  I agree with Bill that legal education and experience provides an excellent foundation from which to build relevant skills to join corporate boards.

The key qualities that boards seek in their non-executive directors are management experience, corporate experience, relevant market experience whether in a particular industry or region and a strong network of high level contacts in those key markets. One often overlooked but extremely important for NEDs is the ability to find common ground. Many lawyers would surpass other candidates in this regard.

Management Experience

Most law firm partners lack management experience.  Managing clients and projects is very different from managing growing teams. Having said that, not only law firm managing and senior partners have management responsibilities and skills.Practice heads, office heads and sector heads have responsibility for managing and growing teams, including P&L responsibility, which is directly transferrable to the NED role.  Unlike many line partners whose experience may be way too narrow or too general to be relevant, practice and sector heads often bring the requisite market experience and networks to equip them for NED roles.

Line partners may say that they understand the business of their clients and indeed many do, but it is very different advising a company as an external adviser than sitting around a board table having to take the decision yourself.  People from professional services, whether law or consulting, have very different behaviour around a board table from people who have come out of corporations. 

Corporate Experience

Lawyers have little experience of corporate culture if they have come out of private practice.  Inhouse lawyers by contrast, and particularly general counsel, have just as much corporate experience as other C-suite executives and are abundantly qualified for NED roles.  In many cases, general counsel sit on their company boards and at the very least act as advisers to their boards.  General counsel are often managing multimillion pound budgets and huge teams of lawyers around the globe.  Effective GCs participate fully in business decisions and ensure that their lawyers are embedded in the business, rather than sitting off to the side.  Such GCs make excellent NED candidates.


Lawyers in business generating roles often have extensive networks of contacts that are highly relevant for corporate boards. Interestingly, those with good networks also have the visibility to be approached for board roles.  At a presentation to a group of senior women lawyers at one of Major, Lindsey & A frica’s Managing your Career: the XX Advantage  http://www.mlaglobal.com/community/legal-networking-events/Managing-Your-Career/7e55936f-3ac7-47d5-a9c5-270afe40613c] breakfast seminars last year, Freshfields’ former Asian Managing Partner, Ruth Markland, who sits on the boards of Standard Chartered Bank, Sage Group plc and Arcadis NV, talked of the importance of networking in transitioning from lawyer to non-executive director.

Ruth’s appointment to the Standard Chartered board, where she now chairs the compensation committee, is also a great example of how regional managing partners’ management and market experience equips them for NED roles.  It is not enough to gain this experience. When speaking to search consultants or indeed others who may be well-positioned to influence decisions about board appointments, lawyers must de-emphasise their legal ability and achievements and focus on those things such as management experience and market knowledge that are important to boards.

Lawyers in particular need someone to champion their cause, whether it is a current board member or a search consultant, who can persuade decision-makers to look at them.   Many lawyers do not see networking as work.  They are the worst for declining invitations to events because they are too busy work.  They fail to realize that networking is work as it leads to new opportunities, either for their firm or for themselves in terms of career advancement.  It is incumbent on you, not vice versa, to seek out your own champion.

I agree with Bill that joining school, charity or other not-for-profit boards is a great way to develop the skills required for corporate board roles, such as being a good colleague around the board table, setting good agendas, and running good meetings. It is also a great way to expand one’s network.

The Brits in general are not as good at networking as Americans.  They are not comfortable putting themselves forward as Americans.  It just goes against the grain.  My partners and I have started various networking groups over the years including the above XX group, the simple goal of which is to bring people together.  Once you connect people, the rest takes care of itself.  Linked-in, while no substitute, is an excellent way of networking and profile-raising for those who are still warming up to live interaction.  But at some point, any lawyer who is interested in developing a portfolio career needs to adapt her elevator speech to include things that are relevant to boards, and to start pitching it.


If lawyers are interested in developing a portfolio career in ten years’ time when they retire from legal practice then they need to start now to develop the requisite non-legal skills and contacts. Noreen Doyle, a retired First Vice President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development & a member of several boards including Credit Suisse, Newmont Mining Corporation, QinetiQ Group plc and Rexam PLC, and Noel Harweth, a former Vinson & Elkins lawyer who now sits on several boards including Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance, Logica Group, Impellam Group plc, & Deputy Chairman of Sumitomo Mitsubishi Banking Europe, recently spoke on this very topic at Managing your Career: the XX Advantage event which was held on 16 May. Noel transitioned from lawyer to Chief Operating Officer at Citigroup before developing a portfolio career.  These moves are not uncommon, particularly in investment banks, and are an excellent route into NED roles.

Melinda Wallman and Lynnsey McCall are partners in global legal search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa


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