Although there are some large law firms that have hired non-lawyers as the firm’s “managing partner”/COO/CEO or the like, I know of no small firms that have done so. Skadden Arps was probably the first to do it in the realm of BigLaw over 20 years ago , and other large law firms have followed suit more recently.
Will small to mid-sized firms follow this trend? Not easily or any time soon, I’m sure. But, when they do, I hope and PRAY they will hire a firm leader who has marketing and business development experience as one of his/her key assets. More on that in a moment.
An article entitled “Smaller Firms Should Seek Outside Help for Leadership Roles” by Wendy Tice-Wallner appeared on Law.com’s Small Firm Business. It made a case for hiring an outsider to run small firms as well. Although I’m not sure I followed her logic completely, the gist of her argument is that lawyers, as a general rule, are not trained in, and are usually poor at, leadership skills. Moreover, their personality traits are antithetical to those needed for the “reins of leadership;” that is, “’aggressive,’ ‘competitive,’ ‘domineering,’ ‘uncompromising,’ ‘risk-averse,’ and ‘individualistic’” vs. “collaborative, inclusive, intuitive and strategic.”
Further, why would you take an extremely successful lawyer at being a lawyer, and put him/her in charge of running the firm? Or worse, one without a book of business, just because he hasn’t got enough to do? It isn’t that either can’t turn into the best managing partner the world has ever seen, but one of Wendy’s points is that there is a tremendous learning curve that isn’t necessary. Rather, if you hire a “virtual managing partner” with law firm management experience from outside the firm, whether or not a lawyer, the firm will more likely find the skills needed to successfully lead the firm. And it’s cheaper.
Back to the point about marketing and developing business. As one of the more astute lawyers I have worked with put it many years ago to a group of new associates, “marketing is everything you do as a lawyer.” So, if your firm ever considers hiring a business savvy person from outside to run your law firm, make sure that their management/leadership skills contain a heavy dose of marketing experience.