The MBA – an essential tool for ambitious lawyers or just an expensive luxury?

The greater emphasis on risk management and compliance and the potential for the development of new Alternative Business Structures (ABSs) that the Legal Services Act has introduced is likely to have a significant effect on legal services in England and Wales. In particular, it is likely to focus lawyers’ minds on how they manage the practices they work within in a more effective and disciplined way.

The greater emphasis on risk management and compliance and the potential for the development of new Alternative Business Structures (ABSs) that the Legal Services Act has introduced is likely to have a significant effect on legal services in England and Wales. In particular, it is likely to focus lawyers’ minds on how they manage the practices they work within in a more effective and disciplined way.

The problem, of course, is that very few partners in UK firms have had any formal managerial training. For many, mastery of the science or art of management is seen as something that follows on automatically from proficiency in the law and the ability to win and retain clients. However the results of such an attitude are often all too plain. So why are lawyers so apparently reluctant to take the practice of management seriously and what happens if they do by taking time out to study at a business school?

“For those in the legal profession, as with many other sectors such as engineering and pharmaceutical, there is usually a great focus on technical skills, particularly early on in an individual’s career,” says Narendra Laljani, Director of Qualification Programmes, Ashridge Business School .” However, as such individuals are asked to take on wider management responsibilities, they need to develop new capabilities. We know, for instance, that a good scientist does not necessarily make a good research centre leader, and a good sales representative does not necessarily make a good sales director. Similarly, if a good lawyer is to become a good business advisor, or manage the work of other lawyers in a law firm, they need to acquire new managerial skills – not just the “hard” skills such as finance and operations, but crucially, also the “soft” skills of how to lead, motivate, engage and manage the performance of others. A good MBA programme is an excellent way to prepare for such a professional transition.”

Toby Gosnall, a partner at patent attorneys, Barker Brettell, is currently combining a busy day job with the demands of an executive MBA at Warwick Business School. “Because I’m a partner I feel I should be heavily involved in running the firm as a proper business, but it was becoming increasingly clear to me that I didn’t really understand what that involved,” he says. “Taking an MBA has really changed my outlook on management as a skill in itself. And that’s not something I ever  expected to say, because I’d always thought that a lot of the theory was just waffle which would be difficult to pin down into practical application. It’s certainly improved my understanding of how our business operates, so I’m now much more comfortable, for example, when talking to our accounts department, knowing what questions to ask and understanding the impact their work has on the firm as a whole.”

However, despite the advice of academics such as Narendra Laljani and the enthusiasm of MBA students like Toby Gosnall, lawyers are still one of the most under-represented groups of professionals on the campuses of major business schools. “We see far fewer lawyers on our MBA programmes than we do engineers and finance professionals, although the numbers have been increasing slowly of late,” says Desiree van Gorp, associate dean at one of Europe’s leading schools, Nyenrode. “However those who have completed an MBA definitely see the benefits of having a broader business knowledge. Those in partnerships learn how to run a leaner, more efficient business and in-house lawyers gain a better understanding how their organisation runs on a commercial level.”

Is it perhaps time that lawyers began to see their legal qualifications as just the beginning rather than the whole of their professional training?

Justin Kopelowitz is director of DMJ Legal