Books and glasses
(Photographer: Nickolay Khoroshko)

The new leader of Husch Blackwell has a background in business. He is not a lawyer. But calling him a “nonlawyer” turned out to be highly offensive to many of the professional staff within law firms who argue (through many blogs, LinkedIn and Facebook posts over the past few days) that the term we used in the headline and body of the story does a “disservice” to business professionals in law firms and is plain old “lazy” writing.

In part, the argument, and it’s a valid one, is that using the word focuses on what the person is not, rather than what they are. The bigger complaint is that calling business professionals nonlawyers perpetuates a caste system within law firms in which lawyers look down on those without a law degree, failing to appreciate the exact advice for which they pay those business professionals. This column is focused on that very issue: but first some quick thoughts on The American Lawyer’s decision to use the term “nonlawyer.”

As I told those in the legal marketing community whom I’ve spoken with over the last two days, I’m torn. I very much see their point that there could be other, better ways to describe professional staff in firms. But it is also our job to quickly and succinctly tell our readers the news, with a key emphasis on the “news” part. And, despite it being 2017, it is still news that those without law degrees (it would have been faster to say nonlawyer there) are leading law firms. I’m not sure saying “business executive” in place of nonlawyer in the headline for this story would have conveyed the uniqueness of this news event. I can imagine several lawyer-managing partners who view themselves as business executives. And law firms may or may not have ethical reasons to differentiate between those who are attorneys and those who are not. Hey, even the bio for Paul Eberle, Husch Blackwell’s new chief executive, says he was one of the first “non-attorneys” to lead a firm.

But, being loathe to perpetuate stereotypes or be lazy, and, more importantly, appreciative of the insights and perspectives of our readers, I will say that my thinking cap is on and my brain open to finding other ways to describe the Paul Eberles of the world.

For me, though, the more important lesson out of all the conversations over this headline in the last few days is the reason behind the ire it drew. And it’s an important message for the lawyers within law firms (and journalists covering them) to understand.

In the years that I’ve been covering law firms, the rise in prominence of business professionals has been on a steady incline. But the common sentiment that nonlawyers are second-class citizens in law firms has not gone away. Reaction to this article and the comments around the subject of nonlawyers show how palpably that caste system and its implications are felt by the businesspeople firms are hiring to help run their enterprises. They often don’t feel valued. But firms are certainly paying them top dollar, presumably because they feel the business advice has huge value.

The common joke among legal marketers is that firms have to pay a consultant $10,000 to tell them what their in-house business professionals could have told them for free, notes Heather Morse, director of marketing at Greenberg Glusker in Los Angeles. She was one of the vocal critics of our use of “nonlawyer” and offered some additional thoughts in a conversation we had Friday.

“The bigger the firms get, the more they need to trust the business executives,” she said. “That’s why a lot of these firms fail. It’s because they don’t take business advice. They look at people without a law degree as second-class citizens.”

It’s even an issue for lawyers who stop practicing law and take, say, a marketing or business development function. They are viewed differently the second they leave that law license behind, I’m told.

This all has implications for clients, too. If partners take that same view to their nonlawyer clients, does it come across as condescending? That could be a very slippery slope in an age when clients want business acumen from their outside counsel as much as or more than legal expertise.

The successful law firms, Morse said, are those that recognize the fact that business professionals bring a perspective the lawyers may not have. Those that don’t appreciate business advice hinder the functionality of their firms, she said.

As more business executives sans law degrees take over leadership roles within law firms, particularly at the highest levels of the firm, I’d have to imagine some of this tension would work itself out. If the legal industry will morph in ways I think it might, with an increasingly corporate-esque governance structure, rank-and-file attorneys may want to take heed.

And who knows? Maybe we can get to the point where we celebrate nonlawyers in law firms and wear the term with a badge of honor because it becomes so well accepted that they are the true leaders of the business.

So for the lawyers out there, go talk to one of your business professionals today. Ask for some advice. Then follow it. They aren’t lawyers, but, after all, that’s what you pay them for.