The COO role: In the LB100

 

Chief Operating Officers (COOs) in law have made their mark. Of the top-30 UK law firms by revenue, 63% now have a Chief Operating Officer (COO) or equivalent (for example, CEO with significant operational remit, or combined Chief Financial and Operating Officer (CFOO)). Firms recognise the value that COOs have brought to their firms and can learn from the successful examples of those that have led the way.

In this piece, we combine Totum’s research into the COO role with thoughts taken from interviews with a selection of COOs who share their experiences. One thing is clear: these complex and largely board-level roles provide a huge opportunity to make a real and lasting difference to legal business.

Our latest research shows that finance is far from the only route to becoming a COO (these roles started in finance and, hence, it remains significant. But we are seeing more COOs come from an increasingly wide pool, chosen to meet the specific needs of each firm). Of the top 30, 19 firms have COOs who come from the following backgrounds:

  • Finance (nine)
  • management consulting (three)
  • HR (three)
  • IT (two)
  • Law firm partners (two)

Axel Koelsch, COO at Addleshaw Goddard, began his career at McKinsey before joining Linklaters in Germany, starting as Head of Strategy in 2002 before becoming COO, Germany, in 2004. ‘[At McKinsey] I helped companies set up strategies for success. But at some point in any strategic consultant’s life, you ask yourself whether you want to continue to analyse or actually make change happen.’ The question was answered when, as COO, he was tasked with redesigning the equity model in Germany. He never looked back.

Proving value

 

He is part of a generation of COOs whose careers have evolved with the legal profession – many of them were their firm’s first-ever COOs. This also means that their skills were often undervalued. Darren Mitchell, COO at Hogan Lovells, is not alone in remembering being asked why his firm ‘would need someone like you.’  

But this was opportunity too – to demonstrate worth. ‘I think the principle of having people in these types of roles is now more established, but you always need to prove your individual capability. It’s fine for partners to test you,’ says Koelsch. Given that five of the COOs of the top 30 have been in position for four or five years, while three have been in their roles for 9, 12 and, one, 20 years, it’s probably safe to say they’ve passed their probation.

The COO seat

 

The remit and structure of today’s COO roles vary considerably depending on the unique set up of individual firms. But Alastair Mitchell, COO at Pinsent Masons, provides a typical example: he is responsible for coordinating all support services across the global firm except finance. ‘My responsibility is to ensure that our support services enable our lawyers to be as effective as they can be in the delivery of legal services,’ he says.

This usually also means working very closely with the Managing Partner (or equivalent), who oversees the practices and partners, while the COO, as Koelsch says, ‘takes care of the rest’.

Darren Mitchell works particularly closely with Hogan Lovell’s Deputy CEO David Hudd, a capital markets lawyer and former Head of the firm’s global finance practice. ‘We speak two to three times a day – about performance issues or major on-going projects,’ he says.

 ‘Ultimately, we think it’s important to have business services reporting into a lawyer,’ adds Hudd. ‘I can provide the lawyer’s perspective, from the coalface, and I know what will and won’t work.’

Juggling act

 

The challenge is the sheer breadth of the COO role. ‘You have all this responsibility across all the different parts of service operations from phones and taps not working to ensuring a clear strategic direction for the overall firm… You’re constantly straddling these,’ says Koelsch. ‘The key is to build up teams that are strong enough to take responsibility for different issues.’

Not surprisingly, the COO role is now an attractive proposition for business services professionals with leadership aspirations. ‘I see a lot of people coming through who are keen to get into this role,’ says Alastair Mitchell. ‘You need to have broad experience. If you’re too specialist in an area, that’s not going to help. You may need to take some sidesteps in your career, as I have done, if you want to have the wide-ranging skills to be seen as credible.’

Today’s COO roles are established and sophisticated. Firms increasingly know what they need from a COO – and the result is a diverse range of opportunities for those coming up the ranks. This is a role that has finally come of age.

Click here to see the PDF as it appeared in Legal Business, September 2019

If you would be interested in finding out more about the COO role in law, including current opportunities, contact [email protected]

 

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