Non-lawyer CEOs are the future of firm leaders
30 June 2017
There was a time when law firms tended to choose their leadership team from among their own ranks. That’s no longer the case.
Non-lawyer CEOs are becoming an increasingly popular choice as leaders of Australia’s top law firms. And, as it’s a trend that only looks set to intensify, legal courses for non-lawyer executives – such as the Master of Business Law (MBL) – are becoming more popular, too.
A changing (and challenging) legal landscape
Australia’s legal landscape has changed dramatically since the GFC hit in 2008. Corporate clients increasingly expect their lawyers to keep costs down and deliver their advice innovatively, without compromising service.
While some law firms previously enjoyed exclusive relationships with many of their clients, they’re now often asked to tender for work or sit on a panel of providers, especially in high volume areas such as insurance law.
This power shift has influenced the shape and size of legal practices. Just a decade ago, most Australian law firms consisted only of Australian partners. Because today many corporations make decisions that cross borders and jurisdictions, they want legal advisers who can do the same. By 2017, most of Australia’s top-tier law firms had merged with – or been acquired by – overseas counterparts.
Essential skills for today’s law firm leaders
Law firm leaders who hope to successfully steer their firm through this environment must be inventive, collaborative and well versed in financial and managerial methodology, not simply the law. They need to have the negotiation skills that enable them to make decisions effectively in a partnership model, where the owners of the business are the same people responsible for earning the fees and generating work. They must also be able to command respect in what is traditionally a hierarchical profession.
In many ways, this suits the non-lawyer CEO, who brings the obvious advantages of an outsider. They can’t be judged on the hours they’ve billed or the quality of the legal advice they’ve provided, only on how they lead. They also come at the role independently, with no bias towards a particular practice area or way of doing things. Firms realise that this can bring real advantages in a competitive marketplace.
The key to a career in law firm management
With that said, the law will always be a highly technical and knowledge-based profession. Even though it’s not necessary to have practised law, studying the law can give a law firm’s CEO an understanding of the highly skilled service their business sells. It can also empower them to identify potential legal and commercial risks so that they make better overall decisions, particularly if they choose a course with a commercial focus, such as the online Master of Business Law.
After all, the non-lawyer leader has very bright future in Australia’s law firm’s and, as our firms become more intermeshed in today’s international legal and commercial framework, it is a career that really could take you anywhere.