It’s not just lawyers who prosper in law

Tom Welsh
Follow Tom
LAW is bigger business than ever. Freshfields employs 5,000 people and has twenty-seven offices in sixteen countries. Linklaters also has twenty-seven offices in twenty countries. Its revenues in 2010-11 were £1.2bn.

Of course, this is good news for lawyers. But non-lawyers work for law firms too. Of Freshfields’ 5,000 staff members, 2,000 are business services professionals. Alongside Linklaters’ 2,000 lawyers and 500 partners, it has 2,000 non-legal professionals. These aren’t low-level administrative roles but highly-skilled, well-remunerated positions.

Job hunters shouldn’t see law as opaque, separated from their career prospects by the expertise of its practitioners. Law is a business like any other and, as a business, it needs IT staff, HR managers, finance professionals, and compliance experts. Given the rapid and continuing growth of the sector, it might be time to become one of the increasing number of non-legal employees working in the industry.

In fact, there are reasons, beyond economic necessity, to consider a career in a law firm. Phil Jepson, chairman of legal recruitment specialist Jepson Holt Consulting, thinks they offer unique challenges for ambitious professionals. “They’re high-quality environments, you’re surrounded by able and talented people, brimming with intellectual horsepower. Recent deregulation has made these firms even more dynamic.”

His enthusiasm is mirrored by Lucinda Moule, managing director at Laurence Simons, another specialist legal recruiter. “Law may not offer the best work-life balance, but these businesses are exceptionally profitable, often global, and allow non-legal employees the chance to work on an incredibly wide range of projects.” For recruiters, a previous post at a law firm is a sign that the individual can work in a highly-charged, business-focused and profit-driven environment.

Some may assume that, despite these benefits, non-lawyers can only rise so far in the legal world. Legal partnerships are designed to be managed and owned by a group of legally-trained partners, and the managing partner is invariably a lawyer. But new legislation and new pressures are allowing and forcing legal partnerships to open up their top ranks to non-lawyers.

Recent reforms to legal practices allow up to 25 per cent of all partners to lack legal training. Moule says that, in practice, these tend to be finance officers and operating officers, but there’s no real limitation. Internal opportunities for advancement have vastly improved.

Jepson suggests that limits to promotion may depend more on the organisational culture of the particular law firm. Small or mid-sized partnerships are “more nimble” than larger competitors and have a greater need to adapt. The pressure to expand, to provide more cost-effective services to clients, mean they’re keen to develop and promote talented employees, whatever their legal training. Even the relatively “well insulated” magic circle or silver circle firms are starting to adjust to a changing market. Jepson predicts that divisions between lawyers and non-lawyers will further disintegrate as deregulation opens up the industry to greater competition.

One poster-child for non-legal staff in law firms is Dan Flint, HR director of Simmons & Simmons. He joined after stints at Accenture and Tate and Lyle. Flint agrees that the “increasing need to run law firms as businesses, given their size and complexity” is driving “clever and talented non-lawyers to consider a career in the legal industry.” The industry, itself, is changing to harness these talents and give non-lawyers the greatest opportunity to succeed.

Flint disputes the idea that law firms have peculiar quirks that make them difficult for non-lawyers to navigate. Their management structures, he says, are the same as partnerships in any other industry. Although there may be times when it’s difficult to know which partner or manager to obey, this is “no different to the informal and formal navigation of relationships within any other firm”.

In fact, Flint says that law firms, despite being businesses like any other, are special places with special opportunities for non-legal staff. Simmons & Simmons, typical in the industry, has a small number of employees but great economic clout. He says it’s comparable to working for a FTSE 100 company but with the intimacy of a much smaller firm. In HR, he has the money and time to innovate and develop his role, but without the pressures of managing hundreds of thousands of employees.

There are many ways to widen a job hunt beyond the obvious options. One of the most important is to probe beneath the headline description of an organisation’s purpose. Sometimes the results can be surprising and open up unique and unexpected opportunities. As the legal industry shows, unsophisticated assumptions can inhibit career development.