After a career working as an executive for a number of companies, including ICI and Hoffman-LaRoche, Lawwell joined Celtic as financial controller in 1990. He left the club and held senior positions in Mining Scotland and Clydeport.
In September 2003, he returned to Celtic succeeding Ian McLeod as Chief Executive. The job title was changed for Lawwell to Executive Director, Head of Operations as many of the previous Chief Executives had performed poorly in that role. Arsenal were interested in appointing Lawwell as their chief executive in 2008, but Lawwell rejected their approach. Lawwell has been credited with increasing revenue, reducing debt and is considered a tough transfer negotiator.