Carolyn Summers, an Ivy Leaguer with a master's in business administration, was surprised when a headhunter contacted her about a job at...

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Carolyn Summers, an Ivy Leaguer with a master’s in business administration, was surprised when a headhunter contacted her about a job at a law office.

“I thought, ‘Why is a law firm interested in me?’ ” she said in an interview. “The idea of what I was — which was a financial and business manager — being at a law firm, didn’t really click.”

Even after interviewing at the firm, where the proposed job was explained to her as similar to that of a chief operating officer, or COO, Summers was skeptical.

“I had a whole lot of hesitations about the idea of working at a law firm,” she said. “It still struck me as out of my primary role. I took a deep breath and said, ‘We’ll see.’ “

Now she is practice-group manager for the corporate and securities practice group of DLA Piper nationwide, and is a convert to the contributions that an MBA can make to law firms.

“DLA Piper was looking for professional-management help, because as the firm continues to grow, the firm wants decisions driven by business rationale and understanding,” she said. “At the end of the day, my job is to improve the bottom line. I work on both the revenue side and the expense side.”

DLA Piper’s decision to bring in MBAs to support “practice groups” — the various categories of legal work the firm handles — is part of a trend nationwide that is starting to trickle down to smaller law firms.

A majority of The American Laywer’s (Am Law) 100 firms and at least a fourth of the Am Law’s second 100 firms — the nation’s largest law firms as listed in the trade publication — now have some version of the position, experts say.

For generations, partners at law firms have handled the decisions on which clients to take on and how to handle those accounts. But increasingly, firms are choosing to hire business experts to assist with those responsibilities.

The shift is based both on the need for management expertise and the realization that having top-billing attorneys spending hours running a business is not the most economical use of time.

Bringing MBAs is also being done in other areas where groups of professionals traditionally have been overseen by senior colleagues.

Expanding need

Someone with a master’s in business administration, which includes a health-care component, for instance, are particularly valuable because they come in with an understanding of the environment in addition to the business skills, said Lydia Reed, president and CEO of the Association of University Programs in Health Administration.

From her Baltimore office, Summers, 41, manages the business aspects of work for a group of more than 250 lawyers located across the country — a shift from her previous job as an assistant vice president of finance and accounting for a benefits-technology company.

Nationally, Summers has four counterparts within DLA Piper — all have MBAs and extensive business backgrounds, she said. Only the largest of the firm’s 11 practice groups have the MBA position, but all of the groups have a practice-group leader, a senior partner, who runs the group, she said.

A large part of their job is to break down and summarize information so that practice-group leaders — “rainmakers,” who have the most high-profile clients and bill at some of the highest rates in the firm — can make knowledgeable decisions and be free of day-to-day details.

“It makes complete sense, especially for a larger firm,” Summers said. “For a small firm, where the overall management is less complex, I could understand where I’d be unjustifiable overhead.”

Still, the concept is not for everyone.

“We don’t have anyone like that here, and I don’t expect we would any time soon,” said Barry F. Rosen, chairman and CEO of Gordon Feinblatt in Baltimore, which has about 70 lawyers in about 10 different practice groups.

“It’s hard to imagine an MBA supporting just 15 people. I don’t think the economics would work. Maybe if you had 70 in a practice group, or even 35 or 40.”

The practice of bringing MBAs into law firms began about 15 years ago at Morgan Lewis, an international law firm, according to Susan Raridon Lambreth, a vice president at Hildebrandt International, a legal consulting firm.

Fast-growing position

Lambreth now considers MBAs as practice-group managers to be the fastest-growing position in law firms.

“Firms are recognizing that, as they’ve pushed management down to the practice-group level and as they have gotten larger, the job of running practices is more complex,” she said. “Lawyers, by their background and training, are not the best suited to handle all aspects of managing a practice group.”

Lambreth expects the ranks of MBAs in law firms to swell in coming years.

“As they start to see these positions have value, and as lawyers get more comfortable with letting nonlawyers or nonpracticing lawyers help manage their practice groups, the numbers will grow,” she said.

Financial sense

Steven G. Tyler, chairman of the solo- and small-firms practice section council for the Maryland State Bar Association, said it’s not surprising that large law firms have sought the help of MBAs for years — given the earning potential of the partners.

“If they’re billing $200 an hour, and they’re spending 20 hours a week licking stamps, that’s money that’s not coming to the firm,” Tyler said. “Certainly those services can be hired for less.”

Even smaller firms can reap potential rewards, he said.

Universities don’t emphasize these areas in conventional legal training, experts say.

“Law schools do a great job of training attorneys to practice law, but there has never been much attention paid to the business aspects of the practice of law,” said Janet Eveleth, a spokeswoman for the Maryland State Bar Association. “But it really is running a business.”

Phillip J. Closius, dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law, said many law schools have started offering courses in small-practice business management that teach attorneys skills in accounts receivable, accounting and hiring.

For now, Summers still has to explain her job, but she hasn’t encountered resistance from lawyers complaining about her being a nonlawyer in a domain long held by lawyers.

“I think the general thought was, ‘It sounds like a good idea, and we need the help,’ ” she said. “We more than make up for our cost by improving the bottom line.”