Skip to main content
For years, law firms have actively recruited non-lawyers into high-ranking C-suite positions, and this trend of corporatization hasn’t slowed, with many firms currently hiring for business executives in the C-suite.
Law360 logo

In a recent Law360 article, Calibrate CEO Jennifer Johnson adds color to the professionalization of law firms at the C-suite level, addressing the benefits of hiring business professionals for the role as well as future hiring trends for these positions.

Over the past decade, the professionalization of law firms has gained significant momentum, with the practice of placing non-lawyers in top-tier of management becoming more increasingly prevalent.

Anticipated to persist, this expansion of C-suite roles within law firms reflects a proactive response to various challenges—ranging from artificial intelligence integration, talent retention, and coping with a competitive market to fostering strategic growth through well-defined plans.

As the job market has grown more competitive, firms have turned to chief people officers, who develop a long-term strategy for attracting top attorneys, as well as chief talent officers, who focus on strategic growth, compensation, recruiting and onboarding for lateral hires, according to Jennifer Johnson, CEO of Calibrate.

“We’ve seen firms want to take a people-first approach,” she said. “They want to bring somebody in who has a maybe more holistic viewpoint of the business world — of course, financially astute and intelligent, but [someone who also has] understanding and appreciation for the other pieces of the business that law firms require to be successful in the future, such as chief people officers.”

There are still many corporate titles which have yet to become widespread at law firms, for example, Chief executive officer roles.

The role of CEO at Husch Blackwell was initially filled by an attorney, Gregory Smith. In 2018, Paul Eberle, a non-lawyer, took over the position. Eberle had been the CEO of Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek when the two firms merged.

When the firm — assisted in its search by Calibrate — chose another business executive, Jamie Lawless, as it’s CEO successor it looked for the best suited candidate for the role regardless of lawyer status.

Filling c-suite roles with professionals who have ample business management expertise rather than attorneys who better serve firms in their primary role sets law firms up for better business outcomes. Attributing a C title to a role signals its inherent importance to the firm’s overall strategy and direction. Given that, it is likely that in the coming years even more roles could be added to law firm C-suite, with a heavy focus on “user experience” centered roles.

Roles such as Chief innovation officers are projected to become the norm as many firms come to grasp that even small innovations can make a large impact on efficiency and in turn profitability. This influx of innovation will also highlight the importance of Chief technology officers who could oversee everything from data protection, to AI, to data visualization tools.

“Right now, what you see with innovation in a lot of firms is, it’s very much client-focused, and there isn’t a lot of cross-collaboration to talk about the ripple effects within the business,” Johnson said. “The transformation officer would say, ‘OK, well, if this is the impact of AI on our clients, how also could that impact our people internally? … How does that affect our ability to recruit talent? How does that affect our ability to expand geographically?’ Those kinds of discussions in many instances are not happening in that intentional, focused way.”

Johnson also thinks that firms may consolidate some C-suite roles in the coming years as executive teams grow too large.

Firms might find they don’t need a chief personnel officer, a chief lateral recruiting position, a chief onboarding integration person and a chief HR officer, she said, and instead opt for one C-suite role — say, a chief talent officer — who then oversees all hiring, onboarding, HR and workforce planning.

“You see a lot of bifurcation of titles,” she said. “All of these people are doing similar things, but not under a shared accountability, which to me is an issue. And I think we are in the future going to see that transform quickly.”

Let’s Connect

To learn more about how Calibrate can help your firm search for impactful business services professionals that will drive your firm’s vision forward and increase profitability, please reach out to Jennifer Johnson, CEO of Calibrate.