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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

June 2, 2016

I’m a law firm lawyer and want to move in house as a c-suite executive on the business side. How do I make the transition? Do I need an MBA?

Julie Q. Brush

Transitioning from law firm lawyer to c-suite executive is a big leap, requiring a professional transformation that does not happen quickly…or easily. Multiple steps are typically required to make it to the top of the corporate heap…Steps that are defined by an effective strategy – and executed with focus, patience and resilience.

Below are a few possible directions to achieve your executive goals (note: this post does not cover the skills required to become a c-suite executive or how to develop such skills). But before you commit to a specific path, be clear on the type of business specialty that interests you: Finance? Marketing? Business Development? Operations? Engineering? All of these business verticals can lead to a c-level leadership position. So identify what area appeals to you as a first step. Then, consider the following ladder climbing options:

Option #1:

Move To an In House Legal Role ⇒Transition To The Business Side ⇒Work Your Way Up The Ranks

The in house market is active and the number of in house opportunities for lawyers has increased. Given your current background as a lawyer, you’ll be marketable for legal positions within a company. It’s a move that can get your foot in the door to learn the corporate ropes and prime you for a transition to the business side. Many lawyers with these goals who have proven themselves will eventually move to Business/Corporate Development role – usually within the same organization. From there, they will move up the corporate ladder and/or lateral to a bigger business role in another company. If you had a life before law in another field (i.e. accounting, engineering, marketing), you may also discover opportunities to transition to different departments.

Option #2:

Move Directly To An In House Business Role ⇒ Work Your Way Up The Ranks

As a practicing law firm lawyer, the likelihood of joining a company in a pure business role as your next move will be low. But there are scenarios where it could happen: (1) A friend/acquaintance has started a new company and has asked you to join as an executive. The level might include director or higher (depending on your experience and seniority) such as COO, CFO, GC/CFO or CRO; (2) You are a junior lawyer, but possess several years experience and credentials in another field that are in high demand; and (3) You are a newly minted lawyer with stellar credentials applying for an entry level business role.

Option #3:

Earn Your MBA ⇒ Transition To An In House Business Role ⇒Work Your Way Up The Ranks

The corporate world loves MBAs and these programs are feeders for business positions in a variety of disciplines for a variety of companies. By pursuing this path, you can enhance your marketability for business roles upon graduation and reset your c-level career prospects. But an MBA is expensive and takes time. If you don’t have the funds and/or can’t afford to sit on the employment sidelines for two years, a full-time MBA program may not be for you. Executive MBAs and night programs, which allow professionals to remain in the workforce, can mitigate these issues in the right circumstances – if you can manage the schedules…and your sanity. With this said, an MBA is not a requirement for a c-level position – and your JD credential can have a similar impact. So don’t fixate on an MBA as a must-have. There are a variety of non B-School routes that can take you where you want to go.

Option #4

Join a Company as General Counsel ⇒ Transition To C-Level Business Role

Senior law firm lawyers face steep challenges when competing for GC positions. But situations exist where the transition can happen. A practice specialty, a known commodity, a trusted outside counsel. These are all scenarios that can catapult a senior law firm lawyer into the top spot. If you can land such a position, you may have the opportunity to create a dual role down the road (i.e. GC/COO or GC/CAO) – and eventually drop the legal function altogether.

Option #5

Start Your Own Company

It’s the ultimate way to control your own destiny. If you have a great idea, the quickest way to “the top” is by starting your own company (either solo or with colleagues/friends) to realize that idea. While lawyers aren’t known to be risk taking entrepreneurs, an increasing number of counselors are breaking out of the old molds and pursuing their entrepreneurial dreams. It’s far from easy, but it is one path that will allow you to make the transition you seek.

Reaching c-level executive status in the corporate world is extremely difficult for any professional…JD and MBA alike. And as a practicing law firm lawyer, added challenges make this feat even harder. But it’s not impossible. Viable paths do exist and can show you the way. The rest will be up to you to make it happen.

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