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Should a Non-Lawyer Head Your Law Firm?

By William Vogeler, Esq. on August 28, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Non-lawyers running law firms -- what could possibly go wrong?

"Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!" Maybe that's an over-reaction, but it's a fact that more non-lawyers are running big law firms. And they have been successful enough for a few sequels.

So what's going right with this new creature in law firm management -- the non-attorney, chief executive officer? Here are some things to consider in deciding whether to get one:

Transition Period

Husch Blackwell, a 600-lawyer firm, is passing the business reins to non-attorney Paul Eberle. He has served as deputy CEO under managing partner Gregory Smith, who will give up the CEO post to serve as chairman next year.

Eberle was one of the first non-lawyers to lead a law firm when he took on Whyte Hirshboeck Dudek in 2009. He became deputy CEO at Husch Blackwell after the firms merged last year.

It is part of a transition that has been going on at the firm for at least five years. It started with reorganizing practice areas and cutting off under-performing attorneys, then took a big step forward with the merger, a new management structure and evolving compensation system.

Revenue overall has jumped 20 percent since then, but partnership shares have slipped. More changes are coming.

"We remain non-formulaic, but we're measuring different things, and we're emphasizing and rewarding different things," Smith said.

More Efficient

Scott Green is another pioneering non-attorney to run a large American law firm. He became CEO of 500-lawyer Pepper Hamilton in 2012.

The changes were groundbreaking for BigLaw then, but followed in the path of other professionals hiring chief marketing officers, financial officers, and operating officers at their firms.

"Many large medical practices have added CEO's who are not doctors in the past decade," law firm consultant Robert Denney told the Philadelphia Business Journal. "Law firms are always a little behind on these trends."

Green said law firms are learning to deal with business issues, such as clients demanding more efficient service delivery, through the business expertise of non-lawyers. He is now global chief operating officer at Hogan Lovells with nearly 3,000 attorneys.

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