Non-lawyer partners remain a minority trend

When white-collar boutique BCL Burton Copeland made practice director Jonathan Cornwell a partner last week, it became the latest firm to welcome a non-lawyer into the fold.

Jonathan Cornwell
Jonathan Cornwell

The past year has seen many similar moves, whether it is non-lawyers becoming partners or being appointed chief executives. If a trend can be drawn from the appointments, it is that non-lawyer partners are very much the domain of regional and smaller firms.

A recent example is Howard Kennedy, a firm renowned for its conservative roots, which this month saw the arrival of non-lawyer chief executive Mark Dembovsky from Dawsons.

In February South Yorkshire firm Atteys appointed the former managing ­director of Dig For Fire as its chief executive, while in December 2010 IP and technology boutique ­Bristows appointed its first non-lawyer partner in the form of director of finance and administration Jerry Merton.

Other recent non-lawyer partners include Irwin Mitchell finance director Mark Dakin and costs ­manager Steven Green, and Barlow Robbins chief ­operations officer Ray Black.

BCL Burton Copeland’s Cornwell, whose role ­covers strategic financial planning, facilities and HR, has worked with law firms for more than 20 years. He believes the appointment of non-lawyers in partnerships has the dual benefit of rewarding staff and sending a positive signal to the ­market.

“It’s making a statement that this firm takes very ­seriously its financial ­stability and success,” he says. “Also, we want to be able to attract people of a high calibre, and you can do that by offering partnership and an opportunity to share in the financial success that’s created – it’s a well-known motivator.

“When I started working in the legal profession 25 years ago, partnership was obviously the preserve of solicitors and therefore not on my radar in terms of a career plan.

“The advent of alternative business structures, and legal disciplinary partnerships in particular, offers individuals such as myself, with many years of experience in ­practice management, input and influence at the highest level.”

Merton at Bristows agrees. “It was a recognition and contribution of what I’ve done in the past, and also what I can do going ­forward,” he says. “It also says law firms are serious about the management of their business. It’s a strong sign to the wider world. If a finance guy’s prepared to sign up to the firm, strategically things are going in the right direction.”

Merton believes it is inevitable that the non-lawyer partner trend will continue and will no longer be the domain of regional and boutique firms.

Not everyone agrees.

In 2008 Bevan Brittan’s Andrew Manning became one of only a handful of non-lawyer chief executives at a top 100 firm. Of those, he is one of the only chief executives with a background as a general manager rather than in finance. He describes non-lawyer ­partner appointments as a “minority trend”.

“Only a few firms have non-lawyers as chief executives and the majority of those are finance people,” he says. “Finding more general managers will be difficult, particularly ones who can understand the particular nuances of how partnerships operate. I was asked when I started this job if I was one of a new breed of non-lawyer managers, but I don’t think that’s the case.

“You have to ask why ­general managers would want to run a law firm. There’s no capital gain and it’s not an established career path. Why leave behind a successful corporate career to go into a law firm if you’re ­taking a step into the unknown?”

One answer to that is money. So long as firms are willing to share a slice of the pie with their non-lawyer counterparts, then the trend is bound to continue.