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The Case for Combining Law School with Business School: Five Key Reasons to Think Very Seriously About the Option


Monday, Apr. 14, 2008

Recently, I discovered that a law school friend and I share one major regret: We both wish we had combined our law school education with a business school education. After all, we might have received both MBAs and JDs in just four years. Granted, our student loans would have increased accordingly -- but the increase probably would not have caused us to make different choices, in light of the large loan burden we already carried from law school alone.

Interestingly, neither of us actually went into business; he's a public interest attorney and I combine writing and law. But both of us were still adamant in our view that we would have been tremendously aided by an MBA. It wasn't the entrée into business that an MBA provides that we felt we had missed, though of course, that is extremely valuable. Rather, it was the different and contrasting approaches and ways of thinking that business school offers.

On reflection, I feel so strongly about the matter that I would advise virtually every law student to concurrently earn an MBA. In this column, I'll set forth five key reasons why I think this is the right course.

Reason One: A Partner in a Law Firm Must Co-Run a Small Business

As businesses, law firms are generally terribly run. And that's no wonder: Partnerships may not have a single MBA among their partners, nor do they often have the humility to call for outside help. Moreover, even if they did, involving outsiders in firm business is perilous, potentially compromising attorney-client privilege and violating ethics rules about sharing profits with non-attorneys and selling shares in causes of action. Thus, the only way a law firm can truly rely on the services, training, and insight of an MBA, is if that MBA is also an attorney. For this reason alone, JD/MBAs should be - though I'm far from certain that, in fact, they are - especially prized as partners.

As a result of the dearth of law-firm partners with business training, law firm management is often not so much a science, as an afterthought. That perspective has a high cost for firms, but it's a cost that is not always visible, as it would be in a poorly-managed corporation. That's because, at highly-leveraged firms, especially, it's a business necessity that a very high percentage of associates must fail to make partner.

In any other business, a massive flight and/or firing of talented, avidly-recruited employees to competitors would be cause for serious alarm and introspection. In many law firms, however, it's simply business as usual.

When a talented associate declares an intent to leave - for example, to become a law professor - firms are unlikely to ask "What can we do to get you to stay?" The result is that they end up making less talented associates partner instead, but with the pretense that they are the cream of the crop. The truth, though, is that the best possible partners cannot be equated with the group of those associates who, after hazing, are still standing. A mass departure of, say, Supreme Court clerks should be seen as a major management problem, not a welcome winnowing down of a partnership class.

Mentoring also is seriously undermined by the up-or-out system. Partners realize that all the hours they might spend with a mentee could actually help not the firm, but one of its competitors -- when the mentee leaves, or narrowly fails to make partner. And after mentoring one associate who then leaves or doesn't make partner, the partner may feel too exhausted and betrayed to soon take on the task of mentoring another. (Meanwhile, with solid mentoring relationships few and far between, male partners who are equitable enough to mentor female, as well as male, associates are too often rewarded for their effort only by rumors of an extramarital affair.)

Ask an attorney to compare his or her clerkship and practice experience, from the point of view of mentoring, and there's typically no comparison: Judges typically carefully mentor the clerks with whom they must work exclusively for a year, while attorneys tend to leave young associates to sink or swim. Law firms are now beginning to address work/life balance issues, but core issues such as keeping and mentoring strong talent are largely ignored.

There are surely ways to shift the incentives here - for instance, by formally giving the partners who have worked the most hours with a given associate a greater vote on his or her future, or by allowing each associate to have one bleak partner evaluation dropped from his or her partnership consideration, or directly incentivizing mentoring. But currently, at many firms, one tantrum by a senior partner may alone be enough to spell an associate's downfall, and that makes mentoring often a thankless task.

Ideally, the greater influence of MBAs could bring law firms into the Twenty-first Century and allow them to shake their almost medieval feel. Importantly, too, the management solutions I've suggested here for law firms' pattern of mismanagement are only a few of those that are possible; after all, I don't have an MBA.

Reason Two: A Lawyer's Clients are Likely to Include Businesspeople

Not only are law-firm lawyers businesspeople - like it or not - but their clients are likely to be businesspeople as well, meaning that it is a tremendous advantage for attorneys to be able to understand a business perspective. This may be even more true for attorneys who become in-house counsel. Yet many attorneys are former liberal arts majors who never took a business class in college, and initially find the business perspective fairly alien.

One might argue, then, that the solution is for future attorneys to all major in Economics or Business Administration. But while these are surely valuable majors for law school, I think liberal arts majors are equally valuable, due to the intensive writing and textual analysis they require, which translates to better brief-writing later. Also, many students don't settle on law school until late junior year or after, when their major is already well-established. For these students, especially, the JD/MBA is the best option.

What about future public interest lawyers, who are certain they will never counsel corporations, but will always help individuals of modest means? Should they also get MBAs? I still think the answer is yes. After all, they might want to found or run a nonprofit someday.

Moreover, with social enterprise - for-profit businesses with a positive social effect - and philanthropy increasingly emphasized in business school, the lessons of business school are becoming increasingly relevant for those with altruistic goals and a practice focused on individuals. An MBA will also allow attorneys to network with classmates to help find solutions for clients who need not only legal assistance but jobs or housing as well.

Reason Three: The Law Is All About Risk, Return, and Strategy

Without business training, too, a lawyer risks seeing his or her cases in a way that is deeply flawed. After completing a sequence of writing and research assignments in college and law school, a young associate may naturally see litigation as a series of writing and research assignments, as well. A clerkship, too, is to some extent a series of drafting and research assignments, encouraging clerks to see litigation that way when they join a firm post-clerkship.

In fact, litigation is more like a battle -- with risk, return and strategy constantly in the mix, and ideally, constantly kept in mind. When a complaint is received or drafted, the attorney should already have possible outcomes in mind - a sense of what the case is worth from a settlement perspective, of upside and downside, of what tactics will be used, and of the chances of success of each of these tactics. He or she should be able to look ahead to troubleshoot, and question if the game is worth the candle, and if an immediate settlement offer should be made.

Yet issues of risk, return, and strategy are rarely taught in law school. Course offerings may include a single course on negotiation, which is dwarfed by dozens of courses on particular areas of law. Later, at a law firm, a terrific mentor can convey to a young associate the strategic outlook she needs to master. But as noted above, law firms' structure often as much as guarantees that terrific mentors are few and far between.

Reason Four: Business School Teaches Creative Thinking and a Global Perspective; Law School Typically Does Not

Business school can also importantly complement a law school education in other ways, as well: It will surround the student with classmates from around the globe, and it will teach the student to engage in creative decisionmaking.

The only international students an American law student is likely to meet are a handful of LLM students who only visit for one year. Yet American MBA students will not only have many global classmates, but will also actively network with them in view of future business opportunities for all concerned. JD/MBAs will benefit from that experience in both abstract ways - learning more about the world and its future business leaders--and practical ones, as international law firms and the need to find counsel in other countries increase along with the rapid pace of globalization.

More fundamentally, business school can encourage students to think outside the rigid constraints of the law. "Creative lawyering" is still used as a pejorative term, while creative business practices are increasingly welcomed as innovative and entrepreneurial. To some extent, that simply reflects that nature of each profession; lawyers must cite sources while businesspeople can innovate more purely. But surely, it could benefit lawyers to think a bit more creatively in some instances - whether it is in crafting legislation to embody an approach to a social problem, or considering business solutions as alternatives to legal remedies.

The disastrous litigation campaign by record companies against file-sharing sites, combined with the companies' fatal delay in offering reasonably-priced downloadable music online, has illustrated that focusing too much on litigation can be a disastrous solution and a Pyrrhic victory at best. Increasingly, too, litigation between startups may be able to be solved by merger, alliance, or an innovative division of contested intellectual property rights, as well as or better than by litigation.

Reason Five: Business School Can Establish the Credentials to Lead, Not Simply Counsel Leaders

Finally, perhaps the best reason for law students to also get an MBA is that without one, they may always, in a sense, be sitting on the sidelines. Businesspersons have the power to both advise and act; attorneys are too often cast in the role of advisor alone. I think this is a particularly serious risk for women, who often find they are more accepted as advisors than as leaders; a woman at the conference table may be more welcome than a woman at the head of it. And advice-giving is a more traditionally feminine role - as one can see from the predominance, until quite recently, of female advice columnists.

Going through life with your ideas constantly filtered through someone else's judgment before they can be put into practice can be intensely frustrating for some personalities, though fulfilling for others. Yet the risk of attending law school is to be typecast for life, as the person who advises, rather than the person who acts. Surely the mid-twenties, when most law students graduate, is too early to be trapped in one role forever.

Julie Hilden, who graduated from Yale Law School, practiced First Amendment law at the D.C. law firm of Williams & Connolly from 1996-99. Hilden is also a novelist. In reviewing Hilden's novel, 3, Kirkus Reviews praised Hilden's "rather uncanny abilities," and Counterpunch called it "a must read.... a work of art." Hilden's website,, includes free MP3 and text downloads of the novel's first chapter.

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