Non-practicing lawyers as managers is a fairly recent trend in large law firms. 

Last week, Clark Cordner, Director of Client & Practice Services at WilmerHale, and I explored the role of non-practicing lawyers and “start-up” teams at the IQPC Law Firm Management Series conference, Law Firm Recruitment & Retention Strategies in NYC. Our presentation is here.

Law firms now hire non-practicing lawyers for jobs old and new, for example, marketing, e-discovery, knowledge management, professional development, and practice support. Among other tasks, they help translate from “lawyer speak” to business or technical terms.

Firms considering a new function often seek a non-practicing attorney to lead either an “incremental” or “start-up” approach. The former entails relatively few resources or commitments. This low risk approach, however, also makes success less likely. The latter is harder because it requires a financial and institutional commitment but is more likely to succeed.

Either way, firms must exercise some caution. First, they must “be careful of what they ask for, lest they get it.” For example, some churn in CMO and CIO positions in recent years likely stems from initial excitement followed by balking when the firm learns what’s really involved. Second, they need to consider how to integrate the non-practicing lawyer and any team reporting to him/her. Thinking this through requires a realistic assessment of a firm’s culture and the strength of its caste system. And third, they need to allocate risk fairly between the firm and the new role: negotiate a graceful exit strategy for both the firm and individual if things don’t work out.

The non-practicing lawyer as manager role is still evolving. That it’s a conference topic speaks volumes about the increasingly business-like approach in BigLaw. But is it worth the investment? Instead of dwelling on ROI, perhaps it’s enough to ask does the person and function “make life a little easier for practicing lawyers?”