"EXECUTIVE LIFE: From the Law Office to the Boardroom"

By Marci Alboher Nusbaum
The New York Times, Sunday Business Section, January 20, 2002

David Stern did it. So did Henry Silverman, and Tim and Nina Zagat, too. All of these executives spent some of their early careers practicing law - until business caught their fancy.

Many corporate executives have made the same journey. Some, like the Zagats, had long and distinguished legal careers before indulging the entrepreneurial urge. Others, like Mr. Silverman, left the profession after short stays. What united them was a passion to lead that could not be met by serving as someone else's adviser.

The law has always been a springboard to other professions, from journalism to entertainment to politics. But in recent years, lawyers have become more willing to trade their high salaries for a better lifestyle and a chance to do more exciting work, specialists say.

"Over the past decade, we have seen a marked increase in lawyers coming to us saying they are disenchanted with the law," said Stephen Rosen, chairman of Celia Paul Associates, a New York career counseling firm that has advised more than 2,000 lawyers looking to leave the field or to make a change within it.

Even so, Mr. Rosen said, it is the rare lawyer who has the right mix of personality and drive to become a business leader. "Entrepreneurs embrace risk," he said, while lawyers tend to be "allergic to risk."

"Those who make the jump share a fire in their bellies," he added. "You can tell in a few minutes that a person has the spark."

Thumbnail sketches of lawyers who have made the jump offer a lesson for a younger generation. These young lawyers will have to shed the profession's ingrained cautiousness to succeed in a world that requires more willingness to make snap decisions and take risks - and perhaps more political skills.

Nina and Tim Zagat each spent more than two decades as a practicing lawyer before turning a hobby into a best-selling dining-out guide. The Zagats were not looking to abandon the law, but when demand surged for photocopies of their handwritten insider restaurant reviews, they felt they had to take the endeavor to the next level. The Zagat books now include guides to restaurants in cities around the world. "Nothing matches the satisfaction of creating your own business," Ms. Zagat said, "except creating your own child."Mr. Stern, 59, commissioner of the National Basketball Association, practiced law for 14 years, first at a law firm and then as general counsel of the N.B.A., before assuming his current job in 1984. The shift forced him to exercise some different mental muscles. "A lawyer usually focuses on one issue and its resolution," he said, "whereas a business leader has to place the action taken on that issue in the broader context of its impact on the business."

Mr. Silverman, 61, the chief executive of the Cendant Corporation (news/quote), the travel and residential real estate services company, decided early in his career that law was not his calling. As an associate at a law firm more than three decades ago, he recalled, "I was very sales- and marketing-driven, wanting to sell something to someone, so I was frustrated. I did a few deals and thought I was doing all the work. Then I noticed that the people doing the least and being paid the most were the investment bankers." After about a year, he became one of them, and later turned to management.

Many former practicing lawyers say the switch to business requires relinquishing some lawyerly ways. "Lawyers are trained to serve up the issue to the client and then stand ready to render legal advice," Mr. Stern said. "Now, I'm the client, so I'd better make the decision."

James DeGraffenreidt, 48, chief executive of WGL Holdings (news/quote), the parent of Washington Gas Light (news/quote), practiced law for 15 years before turning to business in 1991. He quickly saw a need to change some behavior patterns. "Lawyers have to be extremely detail-oriented," he said. "But in an executive role, you have to develop a trust that the lawyers working for you are going to do for you what you did for someone else when you were in that role."

When they venture into business, many lawyers do not have experience in supervising people. "I don't think lawyers manage very well," said Alexandra Duran, a career coach in New York and a former practicing lawyer. "In a law firm, people will tolerate bad behavior if you are good at the substance. But in a company, politics and relationships are even more important."

Even the physical setting of a new workplace can mean an adjustment. Suzanne Nora Johnson, 44, now the head of Goldman, Sachs's health care practice, found that out when she left her law firm as a second- year associate in 1985 to become an investment banker. "There are no offices for young people, who are sitting in cubes with open architecture," she said, describing the typical investment bank. "The work environment is much more dynamic because you are not working behind closed doors."

Whether these executives would follow the same path today is an open question. Mr. Silverman says one of his frustrations was the prohibition on advertising by the legal profession, which was lifted by the Supreme Court in 1978. "Today one can build a firm or practice in a much different way than you could in 1965," he said.

On the other hand, he recalls the days when business models were drawn with pencils on green paper, in contrast to the spreadsheets of today.

"The technology of business has changed so dramatically that if you want to be in business, then go to business school," he said. Otherwise, "it will take you too long to catch up."

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