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Why aren't there more lawyers on boards?

The UK should follow the US's example.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

A report studying the rise of so-called "lawyer directors" in the USA Today came to my attention recently. The academic study found that lawyers have become increasingly prevalent on corporate boards; as of 2009, 43 per cent of US companies had lawyer directors on their boards; rising from 24 per cent back in 2000. Indeed the authors of the paper opine that a company with a lawyer on its board has a corporate value typically 9.5 per cent higher than a company without and empirically performs better.

Appointing lawyers onto boards helps to reduce external legal risks whilst also improving internal corporate governance. In the USA there is a dawning realisation that lawyers make valuable board-level directors, as the statistics attest, and a cultural shift is well and truly underway.

In the UK however the boardroom narrative is markedly different. There are only 14 lawyers acting in any capacity on the boards of the FTSE 100 and only 20 qualified lawyers currently on boards of the FTSE 250. Very few general counsels or partners of law firms are making the step up to boardroom level and it begs the question, why this disparity between the US and UK? It is clear that there is a negative mindset amongst CEOs and chairmen of public companies in the UK concerning lawyers serving as executive or non-executive directors on boards. Part of this apprehension stems from the notion that lawyers are skilled craftsmen but not capable of managing businesses nor bringing anything other than endless polemic to boardroom discussions. There also exists a misconception that Limited Liability Partnerships (LLPs) are run as siloed businesses, but in today’s globalised business world large law firms are increasingly run in a form very similar to those of public companies, therefore partners are increasingly required to possess managerial skills to run an LLP successfully. Take my own career as a prime example; as Co-Chief Executive of DLA Piper I have not practiced law for years – my role is strategic and managerial, focussed on the day to day business of developing a global law firm.

The notion that lawyers do not possess the requisite skill set to sit on boards is a patent farce.  I would argue that lawyers have a lot to offer beyond their self-evident legal expertise (whilst not denigrating this offering). Most lawyers generally have the vitally important ability to absorb vast reams of complicated and granular information. Not only does this enable he or she to then précis this information into a clear 'big' picture, it is an essential skill for any board level non-executive (or executive) if he or she is to offer any value-enhancing interpretation of the business.

However at present, deconstructive analysis and corporate governance scrutiny is not always what a UK CEO looks for when considering the makeup of his or her board. Perhaps it is time that public companies started to consider more carefully the benefits of appointing analytical thinkers with a risk-averse and best practice approach to corporate governance. A lot of companies could do with a little more probity of that ilk. Lawyers seeking board level appointments must for their part look to expand their exposure to boards of all kinds, be they businesses, schools, local councils or charities, in order to gain more people management experience and learn to think less like a lawyer and more like a business person. Perhaps then we shall see more lawyers on boards and a cultural shift akin to the US will manifest itself here in the UK.