June 04, 2010
The Lawyer as CEO?
Posted by Christine Hurt

The May issue of the ABA Journal spotlights an article called CEO, Esq., and notes that among the Fortune 50, nine of those companies have a J.D. as the CEO:  Bank of America, Kroger, Home Depot, State Farm, WellPoint, MetLife, Goldman Sachs, Pfizer, and Sears.

The article suggests several reasons:  the increased role of regulation in the daily life of a corporation, the ability of lawyers to think critically about both sides of an issue; the emergence of the J.D. as the "renaissance degree"; and the need for CEOs to be great communicators. 

The article focuses on the track from general counsel to CEO.  This is the path for lawyer-litigators, I suppose, but the path for transactional lawyers may be different.  When I was in practice, many of my colleagues went "in-house" with an eye to making a quick or medium-quick jump into a business position.  The legal division was seen as a maligned cost-center, where lawyers were kept out of the loop as much as necessary.  These personalities liked the business aspects and wanted to be making deals, not just supervising outside lawyers who were advising on the making of deals.  And for many of them, this route worked.

Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, is probably in the category of having the J.D. as a renaissance degree.  He practiced law for only three years before joining J. Aron, a metals commodoties house, as part of the sales force.  As luck would have it, this house was acquired by Goldman Sachs, and he stayed on in the commodoties area.  So, he was never in the legal counsel office at a business firm.

Relatedly, four of the CEOs spotlighted in the article went from being the general counsel of the corporation to a nonlegal executive position before becoming the CEO.  And, as Waste Management CEO David Steiner points out "I don't think these boards of directors are turning to lawyers because they are lawyers, but because these lawyers also happen to be very good businesspeople."

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