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Lawyers still struggling to reach boardroom

Posted by: Laurence Simons 15/04/14

Despite the fact that the legal challenges faced by companies are becoming ever-more complex, British general counsel are still finding a number of difficulties when it comes to reaching boardroom level.

Bill Knight, former senior partner of Simmons & Simmons and one of the founders of BCKR, told Legal Week that many lawyers have the reputation of being willing to argue but less willing to agree.

This means firms are cautious about promoting them to the top tier even if they have relevant expertise, he argued.

"The perception is that we are risk-averse and like to cover ourselves - a director needs to be able to make a decision quickly," added Mr Knight.

BCKR, the organisation he co-founded, attempts to help legal professionals link up with boards and gain roles within them.

Recent research from KPMG suggested that more top US and UK companies are bringing lawyers or people with legal training on board to act as their chief executive officer.

"We have come through a huge upheaval and people are now appreciating the virtues of risk awareness, which will work in our favour for changing the system," declared Mr Knight.

Guy Beringer, former senior partner at Allen & Overy, encouraged lawyers keen to get a boardroom seat to gain as much experience as possible in order to impress potential corporate hirers.

Building up a portfolio of smaller voluntary and public sector board appointments while still practising the law can stand candidates in good stead, he indicated.

"You have got to prove you can work in a different environment - with a track record you are much more credible," he declared.

This can mean that in-house lawyers are in a better position to make the move to the big seat than their private practice counterparts; by proving they can liase with stakeholders across an organisation, they can impress anyone looking for a chief executive with experience as a lawyer.