Lawyers on boards would benefit City

THE corporate headlines last week focused on women being overlooked for board positions in FTSE companies. They’re not alone: other than as general counsel there’s a similar paucity of lawyers. Presumably female solicitors don’t have any chance at all.

This is pretty curious given the many skills that lawyers can add, most notably a willingness to ask difficult questions and an in-depth understanding of directors’ duties. And also given the comparatively large number of lawyers on the boards of companies in the United States.

There are many reasons that this problem exists. Part of it is that lawyers tend only to think about life outside the law on the eve of retirement. They launch themselves into a very competitive market from a standing start, often with no brand behind them, in their late 50s or 60s. Clearly some of them make it, but by then it’s too late for all but a handful of the top players. Anthony Salz, former senior partner of Freshfields, is on the board of Rothschilds, while Guy Beringer, who held the top job at Allen & Overy, is on the board of Flemings. But they are in a tiny minority.

Why do they leave it so late? Partners at big City law firms will say that the punishing hours expected of them take their inevitable toll. Client work will always come first, and with partners billing six days a week there’s not a lot of time left for much else. Although there is some – many partners manage to find the time to be governors of schools and trustees of charities. The real issue seems to be one of conflict. With the SRA breathing down their necks, firms have always been wary of this. But clients are increasingly demanding that their lawyers demonstrate more commercial awareness, and as long as it is properly disclosed, it is hard to see why a non-executive directorship of a private company should raise any issues.

There’s no reason why the head of real estate at a Magic Circle firm shouldn’t be on the board of Knight Frank, for example. Be open about it – put it on his or her biography – and treat it like any other potential conflict. The client gets a lawyer with first hand corporate experience, Knight Frank gets the benefit of some fantastic expertise and the partner gets himself geared up for a spot on the board of British Land when he retires. Everyone benefits.

Clearly this sort of role isn’t appropriate for every lawyer, but it is for some. Many are natural leaders who have managed the equivalent of FTSE 250 companies, and they can give more to big corporates than just legal advice. All the managing partners to whom I’ve spoken see the sense in this, and HR directors are very keen to try and help their partners gear up to a life after law. The appetite is there, and the first firm to stick its neck out and lead on this will kick off what should become a very busy market.

Matthew Rhodes is a director of legal community website, RollOnFriday,