Associates in the Trenches

B-School Benefits

A Little Business Training Can Help Close Deals, Secure Promotions

Posted Sep 12, 2004 10:41 AM CDT
By Lisa Holton

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As governance issues take center stage for corporate clients and deal-making gets more complex, more associates are realizing the benefits of business training.

For Nicholas Isaacson, a fifth-year associate with Chicago-based Latham & Watkins, it’s paying off. He started his MBA in the University of Chicago’s eve­ning executive program during his third year at the firm and expects to finish this year with a concentration in finance, econometrics and statistics.

“You’re seeing businesspeople becoming more educated in legal matters, so it helps to have a dual strength,” Isaacson says. “Truthfully, in mergers and acquisitions, there’s not a lot of law to it. I’m bringing a full understanding of the transaction. Clients may say, ‘Well, that’s a business call,’ but these days, they prefer the legal team not tune out when it’s time to make those decisions.”

He states an equally compelling reason for blending his training: “I think if you excel you’ll make partner faster.”

Opinions vary among associates, law school deans and senior partners about the value of business training to the practice of law. But that hasn’t stopped law schools from embracing dual-degree programs in business administration. And students, hoping to hedge their bets in a tough job market, are buying. Other students opt for accounting and other finance-related courses on the side. Many associates who are going back for additional training are doing so with the financial support of their firms.

JOINT DEGREE, DOUBLE OPPORTUNITY

One of the most aggressive proponents of the combined JD/MBA degree is the Northwestern University School of Law’s dean, David Van Zandt. He has created a three-year JD/MBA program within the Chicago school geared toward students who have already been out in the working world.

Northwestern’s program has been controversial because of its three-year term; most programs take four or more years to complete. Van Zandt defends the degree.

“The professional ideology that only doctors understand what doctors do is held by lawyers, too. But what’s happened in the law today is that nonpractitioners have gotten much more sophisticated,” Van Zandt says. “Our big advantage is that we’ve been able to overcome cultural barriers between business and law school.”

Associate Christine A. Parker of Chicago’s Jenner & Block is a former advertising executive who received a combined JD/MBA from the College of William & Mary. She believes it has earned her more interesting assignments. “As a new corporate lawyer, you have two learning curves—one to practice law, the other to master the working aspects of a business,” she says. “If you’ve already shown you understand the client’s problem on both sides, you’re staffed on deals more quick­ly, and you can bill more quickly.”

Brian Zoeller agrees. A second-year as­sociate with Frost Brown Todd in Louisville, Ky., he got a JD/­MBA after working in the information technology field.

“A combined degree is a great differentiator because the MBA is really becoming a generalists’ degree.” The JD/MBA designation, he says, gives him an edge in the transactional world. “If you understand accounting principles and business operations, it really puts you ahead.”

Before entering law school, Erik Kantz, an associate with Chicago-based Arnstein & Lehr, earned a degree in business administration and started a magazine. His business training has continued to pay off in his legal work.

“Basic business training helps you hit the ground running, and I’ve had partners tell me that my experience is greater than my years,” he says. “I really think it’s essential.”

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