Law firm tap business expertise

DLA Piper joins trend with MBAs as practice group managers

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September 11, 2007|By June Arney | June Arney,Sun reporter

Carolyn Summers, an Ivy League MBA, was surprised when a headhunter contacted her about a job at a law office.

"I thought, `Why is a law firm interested in me?' " she said in an interview. "The idea of what I was - which was a financial and business manager - being at a law firm, didn't really click."

Even after interviewing at the firm, where the proposed job was explained to her as similar to that of a chief operating officer, or COO, Summers was skeptical.

"I had a whole lot of hesitations about the idea of working at a law firm," she said. "It still struck me as out of my primary role. I kind of took a deep breath and said, "We'll see.' "

Now, from her Mount Washington office, where she is practice group manager for the corporate and securities practice group of DLA Piper nationwide, Summers is a convert to the contributions that someone with a master's degree in business administration can make to law firms.

"DLA Piper was looking for professional management help, because as the firm continues to grow, the firm wants decisions driven by business rationale and understanding," she said. "At the end of the day, my job is to improve the bottom line. I work on both the revenue side and the expense side."

DLA Piper's decision to bring in MBAs to support practice groups - the various categories of legal work that the firm handles - is part of a trend nationwide, one that is starting to trickle down to smaller law firms. A majority of Am Law 100 firms and at least a fourth of the Am Law second hundred firms - the nation's largest law firms as listed in the trade publication, The American Lawyer - now have some version of the position, experts say.

For generations, partners at law firms have handled the decisions on which clients to take on and how to handle those accounts. But, increasingly, firms are choosing to hire business experts to assist with some those responsibilities.

The shift is based on a recognition of the need for management expertise and an understanding that spending hours running a business is not the most economical use of time for top-billing attorneys.

Bringing MBAs in to lend expertise is also being done in other areas where groups of professionals have traditionally been overseen by senior colleagues. MBAs whose training includes a health care component, for instance, are particularly valuable in that field because they come in with an understanding of the environment in addition to the business skills they need, said Lydia Reed, president and chief executive officer of the Association of University Programs in Health Administration.

From her Baltimore office, Summers, 41, manages the business aspects of work for a group of more than 250 lawyers across the country - a shift from her previous job as an assistant vice president of finance and accounting for a benefits technology company.

Nationally, Summers has four counterparts within DLA Piper - all have MBAs and extensive business background, she said. Only the largest of the firm's 11 practice groups have the MBA position, she said. But all of the groups have a practice group leader, a senior partner, who runs the group, she said.

A large part of their job is to break down and summarize information so that practice group leaders - rainmakers, who have the most high-profile clients and bill at some of the highest rates in the firm - can make knowledgeable decisions and be free of day-to-day details.

"It makes complete sense, especially for a larger firm," Summers said. "For a small firm, where the overall management is less complex, I could understand where I'd be unjustifiable overhead."

At least one other large Baltimore law firm is considering bringing an MBA in to manage its practice groups but is not far enough along in the process to discuss it publicly.

Still, the concept is not for everyone.

"We don't have anyone like that here, and I don't expect we would anytime soon" said Barry F. Rosen, chairman and CEO of Gordon Feinblatt in Baltimore, which has about 70 lawyers in about 10 practice groups. "It's hard to imagine an MBA supporting just 15 people. I don't think the economics would work. Maybe if you had 70 in a practice group, or even 35 or 40."

Even from a philosophical standpoint, Rosen said he's not sure his firm would want to delegate such responsibilities to nonlawyers, although the office has MBAs working in other roles. He and another partner traditionally have made the decisions on such matters as which clients to take on, how to manage those accounts and how to market.

"I think it's appropriate that lawyers oversee lawyers," he said.

Part of the reason for that tradition is that the firm has always had the luxury of lawyers with the business skills needed to run the firm, he said.

Despite his belief that a staff MBA is not the right fit for his firm, Rosen understands the value of having one on board to manage practice groups at a law firm of adequate size.

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