2015-08-06 17.47.48

Lawyers moving into business services: good or bad?

Practising lawyers sometimes find themselves moving into operational roles in other areas of their firms. This tends to occur most in areas of business services (especially knowledge management, but also business development, risk, HR and learning, or procurement) where legal skills are relevant or where no particular expertise is needed. (IT, finance and facilities tend not to attract lawyers, except in management roles.) This flow raises two separate questions for me: are lawyers right for these roles; and should the firm be looking externally, rather than moving people within its walls?

Dalí's easel, Castell de PúbolThe Lawyer’s website today features the story of Linda Zell: a litigation lawyer at Olswang who became the firm’s head of corporate responsibility (CR). Her progress into that role is a really good example of how moves like this come about. Her introduction to CR came from a need to add a paragraph to a client pitch document, and then grew over time to a real interest, then a drive to see it promoted properly within the firm. After a time juggling CR and lawyering, she is now responsible full-time for leading Olswang’s CR strategy. One of the firm’s partners is quoted, “we asked her to write a paragraph on CR and she set up a whole department instead.”

This kind of transition is not unusual — in fact, I did something similar when I moved into a lead knowledge role. Firms need to be aware that good and bad things can flow from such a move.

The upsides

On the positive side, when a firm’s lawyer moves into a new business services role, the firm gets the benefit of someone who knows how the firm and its lawyers work. They therefore have an edge over outsiders who might take a while to get under the skin of the business. This may be particularly valuable in roles like KM or CR, where a significant part of the job involves careful influencing and persuading, so that understanding people is at a premium.

Another benefit is that the lawyer who moves into such new roles is likely (as I think may be the case with Ms Zell) to be especially driven to succeed. When a firm is taking a new direction, this zeal can be very useful.

Most firms consider it important to support their people develop their careers. This might easily be done within existing career tracks. Lawyers may move smoothly from trainee to partner, whilst business services professionals might advance from entry-level roles through management to leading a function. It is much harder, and therefore more laudable, for a firm to show its commitment to career development when someone makes an unusual move such as from lawyering into business services.

The drawbacks

The areas where lawyers tend not to take roles, such as Finance and IT, often depend heavily on technical expertise that lawyers do not have. This is becoming true of some other areas (such as HR and marketing), which have previously been destinations for lawyers moving out of practice. In newer areas, such as CR and KM, firms still have a choice to appoint people with experience and expertise in the field in preference to their own lawyers.

Appointing an expert from outside might allow the firm to be more confident that they were getting the benefit of the most up to date thinking in the area, which could mean that the function could mature much more quickly than if it were led by an internal lawyer. In some situations, the firm’s partners may be more respectful of acknowledged expertise as opposed to a more familiar, but untested, internal appointment.

External appointees might also their own networks of people in similar roles who could swell the ranks of the team quickly if that is what the firm needs. It may take some time for ex-lawyers to be able to develop their new teams around themselves.

Getting the good without the bad

Fortunately, there are ways to get the benefits of internal appointments without the downsides. (Or at least minimising any negative impact.)

One critical step would be to get external validation of the firm’s choice to create the new role in the first place. It may be too easy to give in to the pressure of a lawyer to create a new business services function for them to lead. Most disciplines have a community of consultants who can advise on the adviseability of embarking on this new activity. They might also help to define the purpose of the function, and help the firm to develop a role profile for the ideal leader. If the internal candidate matches this role profile, then the firm would know it was on the right track.

The new appointee might also benefit from external support, and good firms should budget to pay for this. No matter how enthusiastic someone is, starting up a new support function is a hard task. Almost inevitably, in this scenario, the new appointee is the person in the firm who knows most about the job. Without an internal mentor or coach, they may not get the right kind of constructive support and flounder quickly. If they are able to draw on expertise from outside, the firm will get some of the benefits of making an external appointment.

On the whole, then, I think firms should continue to help their lawyers move into different areas of the firm, but they need to be aware of the possible risks and manage them sensibly.

(In case it needs saying, I have provided support of the kind described for knowledge roles. Please get in touch if you are new to a knowledge role, or if your firm is thinking of creating or extending its knowledge function.)

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