Ready for NED

Many law firm partners reaching retirement want to become non-executive directors (NEDs), as many assume that their skills are in huge demand and that this is a natural next step in their career.

However, while demand for NEDs does keep on growing, it is not necessarily an easy option due to increased pressure and public scrutiny. Nowadays, appointments are made through due process, rather than the ‘old boy network’. Organisations are interested in bringing a range of experience to their boards and consider a range of candidates with different experiences and backgrounds. As a result, such positions are open to a wider range of people and many candidates start to assemble their portfolios in their 40s, or perhaps even earlier.

So how do you build a plural life? First, be prepared to be knocked back. When companies are seeking a new NED, lawyers are rarely at the top of their wish-list. This includes organisations that have previously been a client and is particularly pertinent if you are planning on taking on an NED role while remaining with your firm.

You may know a business well, but can you be sure that you or your firm will never have conflicts? Would you be willing to fire your firm and appoint rival advisers? Are the traits that make you a successful partner so effective in the boardroom?If you are sure you want to become a NED, you need to first raise your profile and be seen as a leader and expert, so ideally you should be visible in the business press. Plan ahead and step up your personal and professional networking activity and make known your aspirations to become an NED.

If you think that you would like to go plural later in your career, also consider becoming a trustee of a charity or an arts organisation early in your career. You will also help yourself if you have management experience from your firm. The public sector is also worth exploring.

Avoid being too ambitious and look for a role with an organisation where you can add value, where you will be able to build your experience and ease yourself into the position of NED.

Being a NED is a chance to make use of a life-time of experience and to undertake a challenging role. It is not easy to become one, but once the first has been achieved it gets easier. Unless you are one of a handful of household names within the legal profession, your best bet is to put the building blocks in place early.

Nick Woolf, partner, Sainty Hird & Partners