How Attorneys Can Navigate A Career Toward The Boardroom

Attorneys are often considered natural fits to serve on a public or private company's board of directors. Not only can they find personal fulfillment and exciting challenges, but they can also make enormous contributions as members of the board through their legal expertise, negotiating skills and business judgment.

Unfortunately, there is no secret process for joining a board of directors. The reality is that it is just as much about subject matter expertise, networking, timing and sheer luck as most other things involved in a lawyer's career. While a lot of that cannot be controlled, there are some steps lawyers can take to position themselves well for future board service.

Network, Network, Network

As is the case with the pressure to bring in new business, the best way to get involved and noticed is to network. Attorneys should consider joining a professional organization that has membership comprised of directors and members of the c-suite, like the Association of Corporate Counsel, for example. There are other good opportunities within associated trade organizations that align with various practice areas and will allow lawyers to demonstrate their industry or subject matter expertise. Finally, executive search firms that handle board placements, such as Allegis Partners, are also great resources with which to network.

Attorneys should also consider joining a nonprofit board. These experiences will not only offer great opportunities to do good work, but they also help attorneys establish credibility as someone familiar with how boards function.

Distinguish From Others

In this process, it's important for lawyers to understand how to distinguish themselves as effective potential board members. They should give thought to how a director counsels an organization versus how an attorney would. Demonstrating to others that they know the right questions to ask can go a long way toward impressing someone in a position of offering a board seat.

Coursework or director accreditation are also good paths to pursue. There are several organizations that offer fellowships and certifications for directors that will enable lawyers to demonstrate their commitment to adding value to a board. Global work experience can also add value, particularly for multinational companies that rely on global legal expertise.

In-House Road to the Board

In-house counsel, particularly in today's corporate environment, have much closer contact with the board of directors than ever before. General counsel now often have a seat at the board table, increasingly responsible for liaising with the chief executive officer, board and chief human resources officer to help the company run more effectively and efficiently and plan for long-term success. However, the GC position is not the only way to access the board. Other in-house counsel can assert their influence in a number of ways.

In-house lawyers should build relationships within their organization with people that are already interacting with the board, such as the corporate secretary, and make efforts to meet and build relationships with members of the c-suite. They should look for opportunities to take the lead on projects that may involve reporting to the board or where results will be shared with the board.

As the timing becomes more appropriate, a great way to demonstrate their value is to show their ability to think like a director and offer advice or recommendations related to an issue facing the company. If the relationship is very well formed, they should consider letting the current board member know of their interest in serving as a director in the future.

Above all, lawyers should remember that while there are several prudent steps they can take to position themselves for future board service, ultimately, it is best to let it happen organically. By setting goals and following the right steps to distinguish themselves as experts in a particular area, it is bound to happen. 

This feature originally appeared in Corporate Counsel, May 5, 2017.

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