Do Lawyers Make Good CEOs?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on August 24, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In-house counsel are playing an ever greater role in the C-suite. Some are even joining it, not just as CLOs but as CEO. Despite the stereotype of the lawyer as roadblock -- attorneys are derided as the "vice-presidents of No" by plenty of business people -- many companies are realizing that their in-house attorneys have what it takes to succeed not only in the legal department, but at the helm of the company.

That lawyers make good CEOs might seem counter intuitive. Most lawyers don't have much of an entrepreneurial bent. Plenty of lawyers can't do basic accounting. They're not known for embracing risk. But, despite the stereotype, we think in-house lawyers can make great business leaders. Here's why:

The Characteristics of Successful CEOs

Successful CEOs share three characteristics, regardless of their company's industry or their personal background, according to Justin Menkes, author of "Better Under Pressure." Menkes analyzed data on 200 CEO candidates at major U.S. corporations and conducted "psychological interviews" with over 60 CEOs. The key to success wasn't an M.B.A., marketing skill, or a track record of founding successful start ups. Rather, Menkes found that successful corporate leaders are:

1. Realistically optimistic. This allows execs to pursue ambitious goals while also soberly addressing the problems before them.

2. Workaholics. Menkes calls this "subservience to purpose," but it essentially means being able to work all the time and finding personal satisfaction almost exclusively in professional accomplishments.

3. Organized and orderly. By "finding order in chaos," successful CEOs are able to tackle complex problems that would overwhelm others.

These are characteristics that plenty of in-house counsel have, making them well placed for success outside of legal departments. Of course, not all the skills lawyers pick up practicing law are good for business.

Before they can be successful CEOs, plenty of lawyers need to "unlearn" some of their training, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. That means learning to work well with big teams, something most accomplished in-house attorneys have already done. Then, lawyers need to stop being so risk-averse. Success at the corporate helm requires someone who is able to make choices quickly and in the face of uncertainty.

The Lawyer-Executive

Though lawyers aren't at the head of most major companies, the lawyer-executive is not unheard of or uncommon. A study of CEOs by Spencer Stuart, a headhunting and consulting firm, found that a J.D. was the second most common advanced degree for executives, behind (of course) M.B.A.s. Of CEOs with non-M.B.A. advanced degrees, 42 percent have a J.D. and lawyers make up just over 10 percent.

That same report found that few CEOs got ahead by following just one career path. Over just a few short years, the top 100 CEOs coming from general management career paths dropped from 25 percent to just 8 percent. That's great news for attorneys looking to switch from an in-house advisory role to head of the company.

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