17 October 2012 | By Laura Manning
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Law firm-specific business qualifications could be the next big thing. But what exactly do they offer?
Dubbed a crunch-busting initiative and a media ploy to raise the profile of BPP Law School’s new business school, Simmons & Simmons’ MBA in Legal Business got off to a bit of a shaky start. But just three years after its conception, the innovative course proved its value after the majority of Simmons’ first MBA-qualified cohort achieved newly qualified (NQ) positions in the firm.
With a boost of more than 30 percentage points on the previous qualification round, it is hardly surprising that the firm has decided to transform the once-voluntary course into a compulsory requirement for all future trainees.
Know your business
“The legal world’s changing,” Simmons graduate recruitment partner Alex Brown said following the launch. “It’s no longer just about being a good legal adviser and having a good understanding of the client’s business. Now you have to offer a more rounded service - you need to be part business consultant and part legal adviser.”
The programme, which was initially offered as part of trainee deferrals during the economic crisis, attracted roughly half of each trainee cohort to the year-long course after the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and prior to the training contract.
The course comprised four general MBA modules: organisation; leadership; business analysis; and marketing and strategy. These were taught using a holistic approach, with a combination of case studies in the four key sectors the firm focuses on: financial institutions; technology, media and telecoms (TMT); life sciences; and energy and infrastructure.
Following completion of the modules the students began work on a research project for Simmons’ clients based on specific business challenges. They were then required to provide consultancy and advice to clients by means of a presentation or report.
The key benefits of the training structure, according to the firm, include understanding the commercial drivers of clients’ businesses and allowing the trainees to ‘learn by doing’ through practical team projects, experiencing issues in real businesses and debating these with the trainee cohort.
NQ trainee Mieke Botes, who will begin work as an associate in commercial litigation this year, says the course provided her with the right tools for pursuing a legal career.
“The MBA gave me knowledge as to what to look for when dealing with clients, what information I needed and how to analyse this,” she enthuses. “It allowed me to develop a deep understanding of our key sectors, and as a result I’m able to contribute to our business and marketing initiatives.”
Sally Booth worked with RBS on its foreign exchange trading floor as part of her client project alongside the teams that deal with hedge funds and asset managers. “We did presentations on a daily basis -once or twice a day we were thrown in at the deep end with 15 minutes to prepare,” she says. “That really helped, and I’ve been able to use those skills in presentations to clients.”
Brown has been particularly impressed by the feedback from clients in relation to projects.
“This year one client said that, if he hadn’t been aware the students were starting training contracts in September, he’d have thought they were at a two-year PQE [post-qualification experience] level in terms of their overall approach.”
Some critics have challenged whether it is really necessary to undertake an MBA so early in a law career. At present Simmons is unique in offering such a course for its future trainees. SJ Berwin offers trainees a bespoke Masters in Business course, also run in collaboration with BPP, while some law firms are providing MBA-style business training to associate level as an alternative, with the aim of improving the management expertise and commerciality of their lawyers.
Eversheds, for example, offers a mini-MBA to lawyers with up to four years’ PQE as part of its new Commercial Academy.
Linklaters has gone a step further by creating its own law and business school, which offers entry-level training with a global orientation programme, practice diplomas covering the first four years as an associate, a managing associate diploma and a partner leadership programme.
The most recent addition to the list of innovative courses is one that Reed Smith is piloting, again partnering with BPP. The firm is putting its trainees through a bespoke Masters in Business to run alongside the LPC (see page 63).
Hogan Lovells legacy firm Lovells started the trend in 2006 by introducing a bespoke MBA programme with Cass Business School for its associates. It also has an initiative called the ‘Business Programme for Trainees’, which acts as a foundation for the Cass programme.
The school of life
“Business schools generally discourage recent graduates from undertaking MBAs because they lack experience of real-life business situations to apply the learning to,” Chris Stoakes, director of knowledge, research and learning at Hogan Lovells, told Lawyer 2B in 2010. “In the case of our trainees, who are at a stage of their careers when they’re receiving a huge amount of technical legal training, it would be a mistake to overload them.”
Stoakes added that the Cass programme was appropriate for more senior qualified lawyers, as they have the bulk of their legal technical training under their belts.
Brown disagrees. “The trainees taking the MBA are front-loading learning that might otherwise be taught only to partners and senior associates,” he argues. “Some of the case studies the trainees were given I only completed in the context of partnership weekends.”
NQ Jonathan Tsui, who is qualifying into asset finance, believes it is somewhat shortsighted of lawyers to think trainees do not need to know anything about business.
“Ultimately, at a firm like Simmons, we’re only advising clients that run large businesses,” he says. “In the bigger picture it makes a lot more sense to align your interests with those of clients. Your clients aren’t going to trust you until they know you care about what they do, you know about what they do and you’re interested in what they do.”
In fact, Brown is so convinced of the value of the MBA in encouraging future trainees to get into good habits of commercial thinking and applying their knowledge from day one, that the programme is set to become a compulsory element of the training at Simmons. From September 2013 the course will be structured to allow all trainees to take it without adding an extra academic year to their career path.
“It’s just impossible to get 100 per cent of people through it in the current format and maintain a September and March intake,” explains Brown. “We’re also conscious that asking students to take an extra year out of their study path into a training contract could put some off and be something of a break factor in our recruitment.”
The new format has been made possible by the introduction of BPP’s fast-track LPC, which condenses the professional training course into just seven months. Following the completion of the LPC Simmons’ future trainees will immediately undertake one-third of the MBA course requirement by completing the core modules. The middle third of the MBA will continue during the training contract, delivered in day and evening classes and through e-learning.
At the end of the training contract the trainees will have gained a diploma in legal business. Those wishing to stay at the firm in an NQ role will have the choice to continue the course for two years to gain the full MBA qualification.
“We didn’t want to say at the outset whether we would or wouldn’t make the course compulsory, but we feel it’s adding a lot of value,” says Brown. “It’s made our trainees more confident, mature and business-ready.”
Following the implementation of the new training structure Simmons’ trainees will, for the most part, be recruited from the LLB or the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). “We’re doing this to put 100 per cent through the course, and if we took trainees post-LPC they couldn’t do the MBA modules,” says Brown. “But if we saw someone who was particularly talented, we may look to take them on. In numbers terms, we rarely take people who’ve gone past the GDL anyway.”
The changes to the course structure will also mean that future trainees will not undertake the highly valuable client project until after qualification.
In good companies
The first cohort of MBA-qualified trainees speaks highly of the client project work in particular, which gave them the opportunity to work with companies including RBS and Rothschild Group.
However, Brown believes the new format will deliver even more value for clients and allow junior lawyers to develop even better links.
“In truth, we may well not see the full extent of the benefit for some years to come, but it does fit with the profession because it’s a competitive and fragmented market - a buyers’ market,” he concludes.
Tsui agrees. “The confidence we got from the MBA means we can better connect with our clients and understand their businesses,” he contends. “The long-term advantage of the course is measured not by a piece of work, but by the people you meet and the goodwill that generates.”
Reed Smith’s programme sees a range of business modules built into the LPC curriculum, which include business and sector analysis, financial markets, governance, regulation, risk and strategy, thereby creating a fully integrated course that combines a Masters in Business qualification with the LPC.
Similarly to the Simmons MBA, the Reed Smith course involves a business intelligence project and client placement.
“The message we’re giving to clients is, ‘We know your sector’,” training principal Peter Hardy told students at the course launch last month. “Clients want lawyers who know their business and are aware of what’s going on in their industry. They want people who get in to real business debates because they want to and are interested in it - not because they’re getting paid for it. For clients, business understanding is the clearest differentiator between firms.”
“The test is whether a partner who’s late can leave a trainee with a client for five minutes and know that they can talk intelligently about their business, understand the environment in which they’re operating and the pressures that businesses face,” says BPP dean Peter Crisp. “The best lawyers rarely talk about the law - the law’s simply the framework in which you’re advising and you’re just one professional in a whole web. It’s all about the client and their business, not about you and the law. This course enables us to overlap the business element on top of the law programme.”
Learning and development director Nigel Spencer added: “Our unique approach means that, for the first time in the legal sector, future trainees will complete all the LPC topics with the full business context alongside them in one year. By fully integrating the business and legal learning, we’re able to help our new trainees gain a better picture of the industry and ensure they’re well equipped before joining the firm.”
“We are very conscious of not lengthening the graduate career path” adds graduate recruitment manager Lucy Crittenden.
“This course ensures that graduates are not increasing their debt by extending their learning period or delaying the period when they would earn real income.
“They will arrive with more of the commercial sense that our clients want.”