Brian B. Schnell took a chief legal officer position at BrightStar Care this year because it gave him a chance to make a more meaningful difference at the company he worked with as a law firm attorney for about six years.
Schnell's role at BrightStar expands beyond the legal department, though. He also serves as the company's chief operating officer.
"That was the difference maker for me, was that opportunity to get beyond the legal role and chief legal officer and expand that into the COO role," Schnell said.
But the vast majority of in-house attorneys won't reach the pinnacle of decision-making within their legal department. Even less get to expand their impact on the business beyond a legal role, says a recent survey by the Association of Corporate Counsel.
The survey shows in-house counsel typically get promoted by moving from company to company. For example, 70 percent of general counsel respondents to the ACC's 2011 Census Report said they started at the company in that role.
And while corporate attorneys undoubtedly impact a company, their efforts get limited to the legal department.
Eighty-five percent of respondents to the ACC survey said they never held a non-legal position at their current employer. Lawyers said that number would probably be even higher if limited to business management positions.
"I think there are some core competencies you develop as a lawyer that are very helpful and applicable in executive roles," said Ryan K. Stafford, general counsel at Littelfuse Inc. "But I do think there generally tend to be more significant gaps in the career development opportunities for lawyers within companies."
Lawyers' relative discomfort with numbers, their management of individuals rather than teams and moving from company to company at younger ages makes them less likely to be considered for executive roles, Stafford said.
Susan Samuelson, a professor of business law at Boston University School of Law who also teaches a "Mini MBA" course for the ACC, said lawyers need to learn "how to think and talk like business people" if they want to manage a business unit.
Not knowing how to read financial statements, or at least "know where the red flags are," represents one limiting factor for general counsel wanting to transition to the executive suite, Samuelson said.
While some corporate lawyers could stand to learn more about business language, Samuelson said some of the qualities lawyers possess suit business positions well.
"That would be the best of all worlds, would be to have a lawyer who also could think just like a business person," Samuelson said.
Although rare, those types of lawyers exist.
Dusty McCoy, the CEO of Brunswick Corp., started at the company as its general counsel in 1999. In 2000, he said the company's then-CEO asked him to head the company's boats division, and in 2005 he became CEO.
"I've never had a business course," McCoy said. "I've never had an accounting course. But there's a big but, here, and that is I got to practice law every day for, I've been a lawyer now for 34 years, next to really good business people."
One such person, McCoy's CEO when he worked as general counsel at a chemical company, moved him into a business management position at a time when McCoy said he didn't really want the job.
"At that moment in my life, (I) resisted it," McCoy said. "I thought I was doing fine as a general counsel and really enjoyed my life, and I knew this would be a big change.
"The CEO there said, 'If you want to be general counsel, I'm sure there's a fine place for you to do that elsewhere.'"
McCoy could handle a business position at the company because he viewed his law position as an apprenticeship to learn the business inside and out.
"And as an apprentice, it's important to look at things that you think people do really well and try to emulate that," McCoy said. "And things that you think are not getting done well; promise yourself you'll not make that mistake if given the chance."
CEOs advance people within a business "who are adding real value," not strictly by looking at their degree, McCoy said. Lawyers can do that, but many of them focus too strictly on the legal issues, McCoy said.
"The lawyer who's just there giving legal advice may not from the business perspective be helping the business move along," McCoy said. "They're just giving one more fact that the business person has to deal with."
Jim Johannesen currently serves as executive vice president and chief operations officer at McDonald's USA, where he oversees operations for 14,000 restaurants.
His 33-year career at McDonald's started in 1979 when he joined the legal department after graduating from the University Of Illinois College Of Law.
In 1984, after working on the legal side of a group that dealt with marketing and producing toys for the company's Happy Meals, Johannesen "morphed into" the director of that group.
Johannesen advocated for the position and said his then-general counsel "was very supportive of folks in the legal department expanding their horizons."
He partially attributes his transition in a business role to the company's encouragement of cross-discipline promotions, Johannesen said. For example, he later went on to transition from the group focusing on marketing into his current operations role.
"I gave up my office here and my three-piece suit and turned it in for a crew uniform and learned how to make French fries," Johannesen said.
"For the next year I was in the restaurants learning every aspect of our operations. You have to be able to roll up your sleeves and learn it at the foundational level if you ever have a hope to lead it effectively."
Although Johannesen said "not many people ask anymore about my time as a lawyer," the role taught him some important business skills.
"How to be a great listener and then how to synthesize what you've heard and make sure that when you're speaking the audience wants to hear you," Johannesen said.
In both Johannesen and McCoy's case, they worked at employers willing to move people from one aspect of the company to another, regardless of their education or training.
Samuelson, the business law professor, said promoting more lawyers to business positions could provide a counterweight to business people who "tend to be too optimistic," because lawyers "tend to be too pessimistic."