Law Firm Business Professionals: New Roles, New Titles, New Respect?

Silvia Coulter, Principal, Law Vision Group

The tide may be turning when it comes to the “non-lawyer” senior business professionals in today’s law firms. It’s a slow-turning tide, but the trend to hire business professionals who have the skills that firms need to meet the changing demands of their clients is moving in the right direction.

Professionals with new roles and titles include people like Littler’s Chris Trauzzi, who is the Chief Products Officer and Nola M. Vanhoy, Alston & Bird’s Director of Practice Innovation. A myriad of firms now have Directors/Managers/Officers of Pricing; others have Pricing Analysts. Additional new titles include Seyfarth’s Global Director of Legal Project Management Office and Global Director of Legal Technology Innovations.

Consultant John Sterling’s presentation at this year’s RainDance Conference in Chicago rightly emphasises, “These positions are critical to any law firm’s success. Involving them in the business is helpful and necessary. For example, the Director of Strategy in a number of larger firms is focused on M&A (identification, evaluation, negotiation, integration).” He also discussed how many of these important positions will be critical in aiding firms “to respond to macro-level trends in the legal industry,” something lawyers are not often trained or educated to do. In some cases, these business professionals will help to make the difference between firms that will cruise through the industry’s challenges versus firms that will collapse. Sterling also notes “business professionals will be a differentiating factor going forward. They are well-trained, hard-working, highly capable, client focused; they will be integrated into client relationships and service delivery, and given deference to their expertise.”

When asked if the title really makes a difference, and if it matters in terms of how he is perceived, Toby Brown, Chief Practice Officer at Akin Gump said, “One of the things I’ve noticed about the new roles and especially the pricing one, I like to joke it’s the first time I’ve had a role that when lawyers call they apologise for interrupting my day. They highly value what I bring to them. It relieves them of something that is outside their experience and they see it as an expertise that adds value to them and they appreciate it.”

At Akin Gump, Brown works to develop creative pricing arrangements focused on meeting clients’ needs. As a leading figure on pricing and legal project management, he has a wealth of knowledge and experience on pricing for legal services. He regularly meets with clients to determine the most appropriate pricing arrangements and to serve as a value-add resource. Also, in this role, he works with practice group leadership to identify and implement various efficiency-producing programs and projects, including legal project management, process improvement, practice innovation, alternative staffing and strategic partnering.

Meeting with clients is an important part of the role Brown plays. “I consider that one of the highest value functions I contribute,” Brown says, adding, “and sometimes I meet clients without partners. These can be extremely productive meetings. My role allows clients to open up. Initially the clients can be standoffish – they don’t understand the role and once I explain it to them, the floodgates open and they are very conversational. Clients are surprised and excited this role exists. Some say, ‘finally!’”

In his prior firm, Brown’s role was viewed as consulting, analysis and all high value. He adds, “I’ve learned so much being involved with write-offs and how they relate to the pricing side, and I continue to find ways to help the partners and clients.”

It may be seen as unfair to say these new business professionals will help to steer firms down the correct path, but for years the senior business professionals – sometimes with more degrees than the partners – were called, and still are, “non-lawyers.” “It’s been tough to be a non-something when you’ve spent your entire career helping a firm be successful and teaching the partners about finance, operations and other important aspects which are key to running their businesses,” says one long-time Chief Operations Officer. “I was with an accounting firm prior to my 15 years in a law firm, and accountants understand the importance and the role key business professionals can play – I’m happy to see that it’s finally changing in the legal industry, in part driven by the clients, of course.”

William Lee is the former Manager Partner of Hale and Dorr and its successor WilmerHale. In addition to his law degree, Lee has an MBA and was raised in a family that was extremely business-minded and client-focused. His father cofounded the Center for Quality Management, which for years has focused on the customer experience. His track record as a law firm leader is enviable and under his leadership, the firm was one of the first, perhaps the first, to hire professionals to lead various operational areas and to empower those professionals to do so. Lee believes, “Law firms are now billion dollar businesses. But, lawyers are rarely trained to lead or manage businesses of such magnitude and complexity. It only makes sense to turn to the people who have this required experience and expertise.”

Another exciting role is that of the Chief Value Officer. Drinker Biddle’s Kristin Sudholz holds that position probably longer than anyone in that role. Like Brown’s role, hers has also evolved over the past four to five years and she is now overseeing an array of important roles related directly to delivering value to the client. As Sudholz describes it, “In many situations and discussions at the firm, I have served as the voice of the client, something I feel very strongly about and is an important role. As such, I have been responsible for the firm’s client feedback programme for years, which gives me a unique insight. Now my role has evolved and includes project management, process improvement, knowledge management and input in strategic pricing strategies. The primary goal of all of this is to make sure the client is getting as much value from the lawyers and the firm as possible. I have been fortunate. The firm has been open to embracing many of my ideas and suggestions.”

With these exciting new opportunities for business professionals in a rapidly-evolving and maturing industry, clients and lawyers will be the recipients of better, more informed decisions, alignment with one another, and clearer expectations. The door is wide open for building new relationships with individuals who are as skilled on the business side as lawyers are on the law. These professionals, left to do their jobs, will no doubt help firms reach their full potential.