Getting Business School Skills While in Law School | Education

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Apr 20, 2020

When he graduates from law school this year, Joseph Fowler will come out knowing how to follow a corporate spreadsheet as well as look up case law. Enrolled at the University of Virginia, Fowler is part of a new wave of law students who believe a strong business background is critical to their success as lawyers. “It just helps you hit the ground faster,” he says.

Traditionally, law school coursework has focused on the nuts and bolts of law and regulation with little regard for the more practical knowledge students need once they enter the profession. Now students are increasingly able to hone their business acumen during law school, either through joint degrees or, like Fowler, through a special concentration. This focus on business courses is part of a broader shift in the law school curriculum to include more specialized and practical training.

The drive for more practical education comes in part from a recent transformation in the profession of law. Clients are opting more and more for attorneys who know how to meld the law with business goals. That industry-specific knowledge is also critical for lawyers seeking jobs inside corporations, a market that barely existed three decades ago.

The interest in business know-how is also more important inside law firms, where even young lawyers must learn to woo their own clients to have a shot at making partner. “It’s pretty clear that to be a successful lawyer today you need to know more than the content of the law and how to argue about it,” says Larry Kramer, dean of the Stanford Law School. But most young lawyers graduate without these skills, something many alums and companies complain about. So law schools across the country are starting to take note, expanding their offerings in accounting, finance, and transactional law.

Doubling up. Major law schools have long offered joint degree programs with their business schools, but the added year of coursework—and the extra tuition—have kept the pool of applicants small. Northwestern University has been at the forefront of the change by making it easier for students to get a dual degree in business and law. It has consolidated the applications for both schools to one and reduced the program to a jam-packed three years instead of four. Since the consolidation in 1999, enrollment has jumped to nearly 25 students a year. Even regular law students are encouraged to learn the basics of business law. “The resounding theme is really that the students need to be able to work effectively with their clients—and that means understanding what their clients do,” says David Van Zandt, law school dean at Northwestern.

The University of Virginia has taken a different tack. Conscious that many students may not want to spend the time—or money—on a double degree, the school now offers a specialized program in business and law. In addition to the basics of law, first-year students in the concentration enroll in basic accounting and finance courses. During the next two years, these students take more specialized classes in securities regulation, bankruptcy, and other electives in specific areas such as high-tech start-ups. “We’re trying to get students to a point where they have the vocabulary and analytical skills associated with M.B.A. training,” says Paul Mahoney, a University of Virginia law professor overseeing the business concentration.

Stanford has taken a broader approach. In 2006, the law school began revamping its calendar from the semester system to quarters, which every other school on campus uses. It also boosted the number of credits students can take outside the law school and encouraged them to take classes in any specialty they think will complement their legal interest, such as business, engineering, or health. Stanford is also offering classes in which business or engineering students work together with law students on problems such as taking an invention to market or modeling a company merger.

Meeting of the minds. Other campuses run similar classes. Ken Taymor, executive director of the University of California-Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, which also offers joint classes, says they help “bring lawyers and their clients together in a classroom.” The school is also considering creating a full certificate program.

Some universities have beefed up courses in business, even if they have yet to offer formal concentration programs like Virginia’s. New York University School of Law and the University of Michigan Law School have developed mentoring programs for students with business-oriented law faculty. At Michigan, this effort includes special seminars on business with visiting faculty. And many schools bring in outside lawyers working in the field to teach these courses.

At the University of Texas-Austin, the law school is creating clinics to give students hands-on experience with business before graduation. And others, such as Berkeley and Cornell University, are increasing their research efforts and are supporting new institutes devoted to the study of law and business.

Of course, the increased specialization will hardly mean an end to the basic legal training that has been the hallmark of law schools across the country. “It’s not anything close to a vocational training,” says Evan Caminker, dean at Michigan’s law school. But for students like Fowler it’s a way to edge up on the competition. And he would know. He already has a job lined up in the corporate division of a Texas law firm.


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