American Express has one. So does Time Warner. And Citigroup. And Viacom, Fannie Mae and others. It’s the one commodity every major corporation needs these days: A lawyer who’se also an attorney.

Michael G. Cherkasky is not an obvious candidate to run the world’s largest insurance brokerage. A former district attorney, the new boss at Marsh & McLennan Cos. (MMC) has spent much of his career chasing crooks and has virtually no experience in financial services.

But Cherkasky has one credential that outweighs all of his obvious shortcomings: a close relationship with Eliot Spitzer — who used to work for him in the Manhattan district attorney’s office. On the day Cherkasky was elevated to CEO at Marsh in late October, the threat of a potentially lethal criminal charge against the reeling company by the New York State attorney general suddenly evaporated.

Cherkasky belongs to a specialized breed: lawyer-CEOs. They’re a lot more common than you probably think. Other members of the group include Kenneth I. Chenault (American Express), Richard D. Parsons (Time Warner), Charles O. Prince III (Citigroup), Sumner M. Redstone (Viacom), and Franklin D. Raines (Fannie Mae). According to headhunting firm SpencerStuart, 10.8% of the CEOs of companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index have law degrees.

Nearly all of these executives have had to overcome a common prejudice: that lawyers make bad corporate leaders. Often unschooled in core skills such as accounting or finance, lawyers start their careers in a strange world where risk is frowned upon, colorful marketing is unethical, people rarely work in big teams, and nobody makes a decision without reviewing stacks of paperwork first. Business attorneys are often considered the “vice-presidents of No,” says Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, associate dean of executive programs at Yale School of Management. So it is hardly surprising that, as Sonnenfeld says, “people do ask questions when a career lawyer becomes a CEO.”

There has never been any systematic study analyzing how lawyers do in the corner office. But anecdotal evidence indicates that the stereotypes aren’t entirely justified. For every corporate attorney who has bombed as a CEO — the most often cited example is former Time Warner chieftain Gerald M. Levin — there has been a seemingly equal number of successes, such as Viacom’s Redstone and Southwest Airlines’ ex-CEO and current board Chairman Herbert D. Kelleher.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Law schools, after all, are a rich source of intelligent and driven people. Moreover, the attorney-CEOs interviewed by BusinessWeek also believe that they gained a useful set of analytic skills in their journey from torts class to the courtroom.

These include the ability to mediate disputes, see both sides of complex issues, and cut self-satisfied experts down to size. “A lawyer who comes in and asks basic questions about first principles can be more strategically creative in times of great change” than people grounded in a particular industry’s culture, says ex-antitrust litigator Michael J. Critelli, now CEO of office equipment manufacturer Pitney Bowes Inc. (PBI ).

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