Imagine sole practitioners sitting down with the managing partners of huge city firms, each learning something from the other. This is the future of legal education, if the students who have just finished the UK's first ever MBA course for lawyers are to be believed.
Nottingham Law School, from where the 33 MBA students graduated this year, started the trend. Lawyers spend up to three years participating part-time in a mixture of role playing, simulated situations and good old-fashioned course work to learn the latest in management techniques.
Manchester Business School has just announced its intention to set up its own MBA, capitalising on new Law Society rules which are likely to mean that within 10 years every law firm will have a managing partner qualified to manage.
Peter Jones, former partner at Hodge Jones & Allen and now dean of Nottingham Law School, says the need for an MBA reflects a change in lawyers' attitudes. "One of the great lessons to have been learnt is that the management of law firms these days is becoming such a specialism in itself that it is worthy of a course," he says.
The Nottingham course presents the students with a hypothetical firm which they have to manage. Academic work is kept to a minimum in favour of practical, hands-on experience for the students. "You have got to get them involved, you have got to get them learning by doing," says Jones. "After all, they have got all the expertise."
And it is mixed expertise. Students on the course varied from lawyers at City firms Freshfields and Finers, through the in-house department at Blue Circle Industries to the James Smith Partnership. But, says Jones, "you would be amazed how many areas of common interest there are – and at how many leaders in the field work in small firms".
Robin Farey, administrative director of Freshfields, says the similarities between firms – regardless of size – were greater than the differences. "I do not think scale makes much difference – the problems are the same," he says.
Farey is a non-lawyer, an increasingly common phenomenon in modern firms. From that point of view, he found the course useful. He says: "I found it a fast track to getting a good grasp of how the whole business works, and for someone who has not always been in the legal services industry, it gives a good perspective on that."
For Ann Alexander, founder partner of Manchester-based medical negligence specialist Alexander Harris, the course filled the gaps left by her law school training in the late 1970s. "At law school you are told how to do legal work. You are not taught how to run a legal business," she says.
Of course, UK lawyers have always regarded training as a poor relation to hands-on experience, something which Alexander found. She says: "There has been a mixed reaction. People told me it would be a complete waste of time, although they are perhaps the nervous minded solicitors who do not see we are running a business in a time when there is increasing competition."
For in-house lawyers, too, the course offers valuable experience. Rosemary Martin, in-house lawyer at Reuters, was a partner at City firm Rowe & Maw when she started the course. Now she has seen it "from both sides".
She says: "Wearing an in-house hat, I can see that a lot of it is to do with taking the big approach to seeing a legal department or a law firm as a business in its own right. To an extent, the MBA course confirmed the way I approach work. It emphasises the idea of working smarter, not harder. I came away feeling this [course] would be excellent for people just below partner level."
Deborah Ball, chair of the Legal Education and Training group and education and resources manager at Lovell White Durrant, is glad to see more training for managing partners. But she says she is uninspired by the new courses and at how much difference it will make to firms. For example, she does not think firms will adopt the same succession planning common to accountancy firms, where practitioners are groomed for management at an early stage in their careers.
And Nottingham dean Jones admits attitudes still have to change but he adds: "Lawyers are now much more prepared than they were to continue their legal education."
A lawyer on the MBa course agrees. "The one thing I took away from it was that you had to keep on learning. If you are open to it and receptive to new approaches you are more likely to succeed."