It makes perfect sense for business people to lead practice groups, law firms and even corporate legal departments. But lawyers are held back by hubris and an antiquated business structure.
Kate Tompkins is the Practice Group Leader of Latrobe GPM’s Intellectual Property Group. And she is not a practicing lawyer; she doesn’t even have a JD.
Marlene Gebauer and Greg Lambert recently interviewed Tompkins on their Geek In Review Podcast. If you don’t subscribe to this podcast, I strongly recommend it. It’s always interesting and enlightening.

At the beginning of the podcast, Gebauer laid out the responsibilities of most practice group leaders in large law firms:
  • Develop a strategy for the practice group.
  • Advance the business development of the practice group.
  • Ensure equitable distribution of work among practice group attorneys.
  • Identify attorneys within the group who are struggling and find mentoring and coaching opportunities for them.
  • Practice law.
I was a practice group leader in a large law firm and think Gebauer is spot on. I would only add that the leader is typically also responsible for monitoring financial performance of the groups and its lawyers. Practice groups leaders are typically required to prepare budgets for the future and ensure those budgets are met.
So which of these responsibilities are lawyers uniquely qualified to satisfy? Which responsibilities is a business person uniquely qualified to take on?
The main thing a lawyer is uniquely qualified and trained to do is practice law.
The answer, of course, is obvious: the main thing a lawyer is uniquely qualified and trained to do is practice law.
Are the responsibilities for the firm chair or CEO much different? What about the head of the corporate GC’s office? Firms and GC departments are just a bigger. So leadership by business people should make absolute sense.
Before you unsubscribe, hear me out. Lawyers by and large have little to no training to do anything other than practice law. They don’t learn process management skills in law school, and many don’t understand marketing and business development on a broad scale. Few have experience with strategic planning or managing people. Business people have training and experience in all these things.
Add to this the fact that all too often, the law firm partner with a big book of business or significant origination credits ends up being either a practice group head or firm leader. In addition to not being trained or qualified to meet the responsibilities of these roles, thrusting business responsibilities on lawyers has another potential adverse impact. When I was a practice group head, I not only had the responsibilities that Gebauer so well laid out. But I was also expected to bill hours, represent clients, and successfully practice law.
One set of responsibilities was interesting and beneficial to the firm. The other put money in my pocket. Too often, practice group responsibilities don’t get the full attention of practicing lawyers.
But even if the management responsibilities do get a lawyer’s full attention, there is still a significant loss to the firm. A successful lawyer should focus on being a successful lawyer and getting business rather than being a mediocre business person. Since lawyers who become firm leaders often have a big book of business, there is a lost opportunity cost to a firm. Taking a practicing lawyer in essence out of circulation can mean less business and revenue production. Its illogical and, as Kate Tompkins demonstrates, unnecessary.
The GC Office
But what about a GC office? Could a business person head a corporate legal department? Admittedly, GCs perform slightly different roles for their businesses (their clients) than outside counsel. Often the lines between business decisions for those in the GC office can get blurred with legal judgments.
But that’s not true for all decisions. Like law firm leaders, much of what GCs today are called on to do today involves process management. It involves solving HR problems. It involves making sound technology decisions, and outside counsel and matter management. All these functions, and others, could often be better performed by a business person.Just as in a law firm, legal decisions should fall to those best qualified to make them, as should business decisions.
An added benefit to a non-JD head of a legal department: objectivity. All too often, in house counsel lack business skill sets and make poor business decisions just like their outside counsel brethren. Which is not surprising since many of them come from law firm backgrounds.
So Why Not?
Much of the practice of law today is a business, like it or not. So why not let business people do what they do best so the rest of us can do what we do best?
Can doesn’t mean will. As far as I know, Tompkins is the only business person I have heard of that actually manages a practice group. There are several (not necessarily good) reasons for that, as Christopher Niesche pointed out in his recent article. First, lawyers are notoriously hard to manage. As a lot, we are skeptical and independent as hell. Not to mention arrogant.
I don’t have to follow these. I pay your salary
But there is a more fundamental reason why law firms leadership decisions often defy logic. Lawyers are the sole and absolute owners of their businesses. They distrust the qualifications and decision-making abilities of those who don’t have an ownership stake in the business. As one of my partners put it when he objected to some guidelines issued by the marketing department for reimbursement of business development expenses: “I don’t have to follow these. I pay your salary.”
Short-sighted? Yes. Understandable? Maybe. Want to grow the business and make more money? Stay in your lawyer lane and let business people stay in theirs.
Photo by Carlos Muza on Unsplash