While the practice of law is the primary business of attorneys, some attorneys are now seeing the benefits of learning the practices of businesses.
To that end, law firms that serve business clients are increasingly encouraging their attorneys to get their MBAs, or at least take business classes to better understand and serve their clients.
Attorneys who spoke to Lawyers Weekly say that overall, it has been worth the time and cost, and they don’t regret adding an MBA to their toolbox. But the average cost of a two-year MBA program is around $80,000, and whether the benefits of an MBA will outweigh those substantial costs depends on each attorney.
Laurin Ariail, an attorney with Robinson Bradshaw in Charlotte, wanted to expand her career opportunities and make contacts and meet new people, so she got her MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A corporate lawyer, said that the degree gave her greater technical knowledge when it comes to financing and accounting.
“It has also given me a better perspective about where my clients are coming from when they have to make business decisions,” she said. “I do think it is a very versatile degree.”
She said that while she can’t speak to how an MBA can help attorneys in fields other than corporate law, she can imagine the benefits.
“It includes courses of study such as marketing,” she said. “It can help a lot in terms of presentation, skills, and how to present yourself. Those types of skills apply broadly through all types of practice.”
Afi Johnson-Parris, an attorney with Ward Black Law in Greensboro, recalls how different working for her MBA at the University of Phoenix’s Colorado campus was then than it is now.
“It was before the predominance of online classes,” she said. “For-profit colleges are now certainly targeting a different population. Back when I went, I had to go class once a week for four hours at night. On top of that, you would have group work, so I would have to coordinate my work schedule along with other people who were part of my group. There were a lot of projects and a lot of presentations. That whole experience of going to class while working made me go to law school full-time. It was a grueling two years working on my MBA.”
She then went on to get her J.D. at the University of Virginia. A divorce and family attorney, she deals with martial estates, and having a basic understanding of finance is very helpful, she said. “You are liquidating, so it’s important to understand basic finance and the assets involved,” she said. “When you have more complex estates, that includes reading financial documents, like a profit and loss statement and earning statements. You learn how to understand those basic business documents in an MBA program.”
But the time and money required to obtain an MBA has had some firms looking for less expensive ways to confer those benefits. Parker Poe, which has offices in Raleigh and Charlotte started a year-long, in-house MBA program for its attorney in 2016.
While “Mini-MBA”-styled programming is offered in some business fields, it is relatively new in the legal sector. The firm said its program is distinctive because it emphasizes year-long training of the essentials of business education to legal professionals at each level.
“I kept hearing from our clients that they most value lawyers who think like business people,” said Kristen Leis, the chief marketing and business development officer for the firm who spearheaded the program. “It’s great that lawyers are walking encyclopedias and know the law in certain areas, but the lawyers they value most are the lawyers who understand their business and know how they make money.”
Attorneys have been trained to understand the law, not run a business, she said.
“A lot of these lawyers have never taken a business class” she said. “I’ll never forget people taking notes. It was obvious they were hearing this information for the first time. It gave them the ability to go back to the client and talk about how they make money.”
Maureen Zyglis, an attorney with Parker Poe, said the biggest advantage of an MBA is that it gives attorneys the ability to see the big picture with their business clients.
“It trains you not to look at legal issues in a vacuum, but instead see the whole picture,” said Zyglis, who obtained her JD/MBA from Wake Forest University in 2012. Oftentimes I can say, ‘Look, I understand where you’re coming from on the business end, but this is a legal risk we need to assess.”
Scott Hile, a Greenville, South Carolina attorney, spent nine years as in-house counsel and a vice president of corporate development before founding a mergers and acquisition consulting firm, and is now in-house counsel for Enviva, a renewable energy company with operations through the Southeast.
He received his J.D./IMBA (International Masters of Business Administration) from the University of South Carolina. He said that his IMBA has given him the skills to provide better legal advice and make better business decisions.
“It allowed me to more quickly understand business issues and drivers to better tailor legal advice and to communicate easier with businesses,” he said of his IMBA. “It gives a huge competitive advantage if you are going to practice law, and it will help you accelerate your career in business if you want to leave the legal field.”
Brian Comer, an attorney in Columbia, South Carolina, also graduated from USC’s J.D/IMBA program. After that, he had to decide whether to start practicing traditional law or go into business with a large corporation.
“If you go and practice law for 10 years, you can realistically transition to business, because part of what a lawyer does is get to know the business of a client,” he said.
Comer said that while he doesn’t regret getting his IMBA, if he had wanted to practice business law, he should have moved to financial centers such as New York City or Charlotte.
“I never really had the opportunity to sink my teeth into corporate transaction work and get the benefit of both degrees,” he said. “When I went into litigation, I did not really use my business degree. I am sure the business degree may have helped me identify certain business issues better than someone with just a law degree. However, I did not feel like I had a tremendous advantage in this regard.”
That said, Comer says that there are advantages to having both degrees.
“I obviously don’t think you have to have it to practice law, and it creates the added expense for the degree and the time to complete it,” he said. “I really think a law degree provides what is needed, and anything more is just extra. The time to complete the extra degree and the expense of the extra degree may not be worth it.”
Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw