bckr | The importance of the transition period – from Lawyer to Boardroom
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The importance of the transition period – from Lawyer to Boardroom

The importance of the transition period – from Lawyer to Boardroom

This week we were delighted to welcome Stuart Popham to our BCKR breakfast event.

Stuart started thinking about what he was going to do next, about two years before stepping away from his role as Senior Partner at Clifford Chance.

He realised he needed board experience so joined the board of Chatham House – though the firm had some concerns about conflict of interest.

Stuart would recommend that you take time to make the transition before jumping into a board role.  It can be a challenging role but can also be very interesting.  It takes a bit of time getting used to leaving the executive team, and also all the support you have taken for granted being in a firm, such as a PA, IT support etc.  Given that it can take a while to get used to a new environment (and for some the transition can be difficult), Stuart recommends taking a break; he took three months off and went sailing.

Every board has 1-3 accountants, but few have a lawyer, so there should be a huge opportunity for more lawyers to join. We need to have boards that are more reflective of society, all boards need diversity of thought which legal experience is likely to contribute to.

Socialising is key.  Grasp every opportunity to let people know you are looking.  Get on the radar of headhunting firms – they are always keen to meet new people.  Though a lot of headhunting is done under the radar, commercially there is a sense that recruitment should become more transparent.  Don’t be discouraged if it takes some time to land your first role. Stuart discovered early on that that matching availability to opportunity was a rarity.


Don’t look at your CV in terms of your achievements as a lawyer.  Extract your skills from your years of experience e.g.

  • Dispute resolution
  • Finding solutions between parties at war
  • Strategic thinking
  • Ability to look at the big picture

These well-honed lawyer skills are very helpful around the board table.  It is not you as a lawyer that they are looking for.


Is there much difference between the charity sector and the private sector?

The issues are broadly the same, whether on a commercial, government or charity board.  Each produces a set of challenges and that is what makes it interesting.  The difference between executive and NED life is that generally you don’t take the problems home with you.  You give your opinion, come to a resolution but you are no longer the one that rolls up their sleeves afterwards and finishes the project.  You are no longer involved in the implementation.

Kids Company was a damascene moment for the charity sector, which is going to come under further scrutiny from the Fundraising Regulator in the coming months.  Boards are going to be in the spotlight from the largest corporations to the smallest charities.  All boards should be prepared to face the ‘Daily Mail’ moment.


How do you judge from the outset which opportunity you should take-up and how do you avoid the bad ones?

There is no doubt that due diligence is critical:

  • Arrange to meet all board members if possible including one or two who have stepped down (as they can sometimes be more forthcoming).
  • Talk to the auditors and potentially brokers to get a sense of the issues the organisation might be facing.
  • Talk to the next level down e.g. the Company Secretary or Financial Controller. Is the information freely available?  If you find that the organisation is a bit tight-lipped there may be cause for concern.
  • You need to feel a natural engagement with that organisation. Just because it is a good cause is not good enough.  These are organisations you are going to be engaged with for 3-4 years (unlike your involvements in private practice).
  • Ask to see the last 2-3 sets of board minutes.


Once on board, find other opportunities to engage.

  • Get an understanding of how the operation works
  • Meet with people lower down the chain
  • Get an understanding of how the executive team works with the non-execs


Take your time making the decision.  Make sure you can really commit.
Have you ever been to a meeting, having read the board papers, and found out that you haven’t got the whole picture?  Yes – but that is where lawyer skills really help.  Lawyers are good at reading the board papers, absorbing details and then asking the searching question.  The key is not to ask too often!


Where have you made the greatest contribution on a board?

  • Easier to say when he has been the board Chair as you can clearly enhance the effectiveness of the board and the openness of the discussion.
  • Getting people to recognise the needs of the other stakeholders. Perception trumps reality.
  • Greatest achievement is where you can’t predict in advance what your board members are going to say.


You made Senior Partner.  If you hadn’t had that significant role in the firm do think it would have hindered your ability to get your first and subsequent board positions?

It helps to be able to say that you have led teams and advised boards but it can be more about crafting your CV.  If you can’t demonstrate those skills then it is worth taking on a small role outside the day job to get the relevant experience.  It’s a question of translating your skills onto your CV. If you ran a really big transaction, where you managed people, etc. you need to reflect those business elements.


Stuart recommends going to see a few CEO’s and Chairs of current clients.  Ask them who they use for board appointments.  Getting an introduction to a headhunter from them would carry significant weight.


Were there skills you felt you needed to develop?

  • Not digging deeply enough into the business
  • He thought he was numerate but recognised that he needed far deeper explanations


Also remember that a board position is not the only option.