From The Courtroom To The Boardroom: Lawyers Belong On Boards, Not In Punchlines

laughing lawyersThis article was written by Olga Mack and Katia Bloom, originally published on Above the Law.

We once attended an event at a well-respected private university, well-known for attracting directors who serve on corporate boards. Attempting to break the ice, the moderator made two jokes.

The first joke was an innocent attempt to make fun of a rival school, a well-respected public university. The moderator subtly suggested that this public university doesn’t produce enough graduates who serve on boards of directors. One of us happens to be proud graduate of this public university.

The second joke was an innocent attempt at a classic “lawyer joke.” The moderator alleged that lawyers lack leadership ability and can’t effectively step into a board of director role. Obviously, we are both lawyers and disagree.

As the crowd chuckled, we thought to ourselves, What’s next — a joke about women directors? Then we’d be completely and categorically excluded in just three jokes!

We don’t tell this story because we were offended. After all, we have practiced law for over a decade now. We have heard an (unhealthy) dose of lawyer jokes of all kinds and have developed thick skins.

We tell this story because we think that categorically excluding lawyers from board service is an outdated practice. Some of the brightest business minds we know belong to lawyers. In fact, an increasing number of former and current general counsels serve on the boards of directors for both private and public companies.

  • Belinda J. Johnson, the chief business affairs and legal officer at ‎Airbnb, serves as a director for PayPal (PYPL: NASDAQ). She has been lauded as “Airbnb’s Sheryl Sandberg.” According to many, she is highly experienced in working with regulators, building Internet-based companies, and expanding business globally. She is credited with creating a “social movement” at Airbnb “to connect strangers and foster cultural belonging.” Her business savvy is legendary and she is well-known as the “de-facto number two” at Airbnb.
  • Erika Rottenberg, the former general counsel of LinkedIn, serves on the board of directors for both Wix.com (WIX: NASDAQ) and Twilio (TWLO: NYSE). According to Twilio’s website, Rottenberg brings “extensive experience as a global operational technology executive and General Counsel at leading, fast-growing, disruptive technology companies with global scale.” She also brings substantial experience and expertise “in privacy, cybersecurity, intellectual property, policy, M&A and corporate governance.”
  • Alexa King, who is currently general counsel at FireEye and was the former general counsel at Aruba Networks, serves on the board of Vocera Communications (VCRA: NYSE). King is an invaluable asset to the company’s board. She is naturally collaborative, well-versed in advising on rapid growth, and an expert on corporate, compliance, governance, and compensation issues. In addition, one of the hottest topics today is data security, as companies (and their boards) are working overtime to figure out breach-proof cyber security. King is uniquely positioned as a business expert in this subject.
  • Michelle Wilson, the former general counsel of Amazon, serves as a director of Zendesk (NYSE: ZEN), Okta and Pinterest. She held numerous senior executive legal and business roles at Amazon, including general counsel and head of human resources. She also led numerous operating and strategic decisions across the company. Wilson acutely understands growth cycles, leads fearlessly, and has great business judgment. As Wilson explains, “All companies go through this cycle of getting messy, and then buttoning up the details, and then getting messy again.” She adds, “One key is using good judgment about what needs to be fixed now and what can wait. There are also milestones when things really need to get buttoned up, like an IPO. But it’s not bad to be messy. If things are too clean, it likely means the company is not pushing or growing fast enough.”

As shown by these four board members — all lawyers, all women, and many from public universities — categorically excluding any group from board service or questioning their ability to serve on a board is simply outdated and inaccurate. They also demonstrate that the type of experience lawyers gain at companies make them highly-valuable assets to a company and its board. We think that any boards looking to add highly-skilled directors should network with lawyers because they belong on boards, not in punchlines!