Does a lawyer need an MBA?

Published on: 
Published on 8/20/07

I was recently asked by an interviewer if, as a lawyer who holds an M.B.A., I would recommend that other lawyers follow the same path. My answer was, "Not really," which surprised him.

Except in unusual circumstances (as when a corporation would want a general counsel or deputy general counsel with a strong business background to participate in operations management), an advanced business degree really confers no unusual benefits or advantages to most lawyers.

This is particularly true today, when such degrees cost much more in tuition and fees, and when the value received is increasingly diluted because business schools no longer require several years of practical experience and sole, full-time focus on the advanced business course of study -- as they did when I attended UCLA's business school.

In fact, my M.B.A. degree has been more useful to me in my coaching career than it was when I was a lawyer or corporate manager -- not because of any greater insight that it give me, but because the lawyers I coach see the degree as greater validation of my credentials. Yet, my actual ownership and operation of several businesses provided a far more extensive education than school.

All this is not to denigrate the value of business training. All lawyers today need to be more sensitive to the financial needs and operations of their firm and their clients. Yet most lawyers still enter law school with an undergraduate degree in the liberal arts, and law school curricula have little business focus.

The real issue is one of business competency. The lawyer who has it understands the operation of the firm as a business (budget, collections, profit and loss); the firm's billing structure; how each attorney determines firm profitability; and the importance of clients and their own businesses.

Few bar associations give MCLE credit for any courses that hint of marketing or finance -- too "unprofessional!" Even so, some progressive law firms are creating business education programs for their lawyers.

One of the most notable is that of Chicago-based Seyfarth Shaw (which has an office in Boston), which sends selected partners to a three-day, custom executive education program at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Philadelphia-based Reed Smith and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania have an even more extensive curriculum-based partnership program.

Business schools around the country can also customize similar corporate executive programs for law firm use.

It seems to me that this kind of training, or even an individual attorney picking up a basic business class or two at the local community college, is a more practical way to bring business skills to legal practice without the time and expense of getting a full-fledged M.B.A.

And lawyers with this kind of understanding can better assess the value they provide, and better reflect it in their bills.

This Coach’s Corner Article is listed under the following categories: