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Legal Rebels

Back-to-School Boss: Mel Immergut, Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy

Posted Sep 14, 2011 2:00 PM CDT
By Rachel M. Zahorsky

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Photograph by Callie Lipkin

When Mel M. Immergut first heard the proposal from his Munich-based colleague Norbert Rieger, the methodical chairman of white-shoe law firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy did something unusual.

“I immediately told him it was a great idea,” Immergut says. “Then I more characteristically asked for the two-page memo on how it would work, the advantages, disadvantages and costs.”

The plan: Send more than 450 of Milbank’s associates across the globe to Boston for eight days every year so they could participate in an executive education program taught at Harvard Law School. Led by Harvard’s law and business faculty with the assistance of Milbank partners, third- through seventh-year associates would receive intensive training in leadership and personal professional development, business and finance, and law.

“These kinds of skills don’t belong entirely in the field of legal services or business management,” says Harvard professor Ashish Nanda, faculty director of the executive education program. “They lie on the interface of the two. Bringing professors from both schools will give the kind of experience that serves these associates best.”

While intensive leadership training programs are common at U.S. business schools, the Milbank-Harvard collaboration marks the first time a law firm has committed to an onsite, multiyear initiative for not only high-profile partners or superstar junior lawyers but all the firm’s associates.

“One thing we wanted to do was go beyond the partnership to the associateship because that’s the level [where] you want to bring skills and leadership aspects,” says Nanda, a co-developer of the program.

The program was quickly adopted by the firm’s executive board and the first group of 30 to 40 associates will arrive on Harvard’s campus this fall.

Immergut, 64, who harbored aspirations to become a management consultant while attending Columbia University School of Law part time, credits his business background—he also holds an MBA from Columbia—and close relationship with Nanda to his high level of confidence that the program will benefit the firm’s associates and its clients. That confidence has propelled him to lead the firm’s commitment to fund the costly initiative.

Immergut would not disclose the Milbank@Harvard program’s yearly costs but pointed a reporter to a recent estimate in the legal press—$2.3 million excluding opportunity costs. He says the out-of-pocket costs are “livable,” especially as Milbank has continued to do well despite the Great Recession.

“This is something our associate body will find meaningful, and perhaps it will instill a greater loyalty. But this will also improve our recruiting and better the firm’s legal services to clients,” Immergut says. “Those goals will still be there even for people that only go through three years of the process.”

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