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Law Firms Hiring CEOs Without Law Degrees Reignites Debate About Turning Over The Reins To Business Professionals


March 4, 2019

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2 minutes


According to Angela Hickey, as CEO of Levenfeld Pearlstein, she works long hours, does the heavy lifting and is responsible for charting long-term strategies for the Chicago-based firm.

One thing she cannot do is practice law.

Hickey was named CEO in 2018, after working for four years as the firm’s executive director and previously as its director of finance since 1999. According to Hickey, the lawyers at her firm stick to legal work while the nonlawyers handle the nonlegal stuff, and everyone works together harmoniously.

“Lawyers are trained to be lawyers and not to be businesspeople,” says Hickey, who doesn’t like the term nonlawyer. “It was and remains a sound business model to engage business professionals to run the firm—the pace and change and the breadth of knowledge required to stay relevant and competitive in the legal industry demands full energy and focus of business professionals.”

This trend took off in 2009, when Paul Eberle led the Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek firm as one of the first nonlawyers to take on such a substantial role. He became CEO of Husch Blackwell in 2018 after the two firms merged.  Another firm that went to a nonlawyer as leader was Pepper Hamilton, which hired Harvard Business School graduate and certified public accountant Scott Green as CEO in 2012. Meanwhile, in 2017, Twitch co-founder Justin Kan, who does not have a JD, founded the law firm Atrium and currently serves as CEO.

However, having nonlawyers in charge of law firms arrives with much controversy. In 2014, the Texas bar’s ethics committee stated that Texas law firms couldn’t use titles like CEO for nonlawyers because the word officer within chief executive officer means that the nonlawyers have control over the lawyers. The opinion led to objections from more than 50 of the state’s largest law firms, with many noting that it was commonplace for big law firms to have chief marketing officers or chief technology officers who were nonlawyers. The committee then issued a revised opinion in September 2015 stating that firms can issue such titles as long as they make clear they do not have control over the firm’s legal practice.

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