Getting down to business

Prior to starting their contracts, Simmons & Simmons trainees can now take an MBA in Legal Business designed to give them an insight into the firm’s clients.

After countless hours of stomachchurning exam nerves and years of having their heads buried in textbooks and statutes, the thought of finishing their education cannot come soon enough for many aspiring lawyers. But for Simmons & Simmons’ future trainee solicitors, a further year of study appears to appeal, with several opting to take a year out to complete the firm’s innovative MBA in Legal Business prior to starting their training contracts.

The top 20 City law firm believes its groundbreaking programme, introduced in September 2009 in partnership with BPP College of Professional Studies, makes it unique in the legal sector. What is more, with the firm footing the bill for the full cost of the course and paying a generous £15,000 maintenance grant, it is little wonder that 33 per cent of candidatesinterviewed for training contracts cite the course as their main reason for applying to Simmons.

Nevertheless, cynics view the programme as a gimmick designed simply as a credit crunchbusting cost-saving initiative, especially as Simmons was the first major City firm to defer
the start dates of some of its future trainees. Others saw it as a potential media ploy to raise the profile of BPP’s new business school, housed opposite London’s iconic ’Gherkin’ building, rather than a move in the right direction for would-be lawyers.

While Simmons graduate recruitment partner Alexander Brown admits that the economic climate and resulting changes in the legal market accelerated his firm’s decision to implement the MBA, he argues that it had actually been “a core part of our learning and development strategy for some time”.

This was echoed in the email sent to the firm’s future trainees in March 2009 from Simmons’ former graduate recruitment partner Nick Benwell. “Examining our future business needs has led us to bring forward an initiative that we had been planning as part of our learning and development strategy, which was created in 2007,” it read. “While the course is optional, we strongly recommend that you take it as we believe that it will prove very beneficial to your career development and that it demonstrates a major commitment to investing in our people.”

The grist

Brown believes the importance of enhancing lawyers’ business knowledge to be invaluable.

“The legal world’s changing,” he says. “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 than that – you need to be part business consultant and part legal adviser.”

He explains that this was the thinking behind the MBA – to give trainees a head-start and a better understanding of how clients’ businesses function and how the firm operates.

The course comprises four large general MBA modules, including organisation, leadership, business analysis, marketing and strategy.

These are taught using a holistic approach. Katie Best, director of the MBA programme at BPP, describes the course as “intense”, in that it uses a combination of company case studies in the four key industry sectors the firm focuses on: financial institutions; technology, media and telecoms; life sciences; and energy and infrastructure.

Each course starts in September, with teaching taking the format of a week of heavy exposure to the core subjects followed by a week of private study. This continues until May. Best explains that the hours are typical of a working week, from 9.30am to 5pm, and that students often have to work in the evenings. Following completion of these modules, the students begin work on a research project for clients of Simmons based on specific business challenges. They are then required to provide consultancy and advice to clients by means of a presentation or report.

A substantial final report is then completed, in overlap with the student’s first year of theirtraining contract, and submitted to BPP in September, two years after they started. The legal twist of the MBA is largely seen in the final two modules, which give students a chance to hypothesise on the legal sector by looking at future trends in legal business.

Level besting

Simmons trainee David White says the course has made him “more business-savvy”, encouraging a different way of thinking and increasing his confidence. “One thing that’s especially useful is that the MBA reinforced to me to start from the client’s business issue and work back to the legal solution, rather than beginning from an academic legal perspective,” he explains.

Simmons and BPP note that heightened levels of communication and interaction skills are demonstrated in their MBA trainees, compared with Legal Practice Course (LPC) trainees, with Best describing these skills as “to the level of fully trained lawyers”.

However, Brown concedes that students coming straight from their LPC may have “a slight edge” over MBA students by having their legal training more fresh in their minds. He further insists that those who choose not to take part in the programme will have opportunities to develop commercial skills through various development programmes during their careers at the firm.

But if there is an option of learning the ropes with a few years’ work experience under your belt, is it really necessary to do an MBA in Legal Business so early in a lawyer’s career? At present Simmons is unique in offering such a course to its future trainees. In contrast, SJ Berwin offers its trainees a bespoke Masters in Business course, although this is also run in
collaboration with BPP.

A trend, however, is emerging, with MBA types of business training being directed towards associate level as an alternative. Eversheds, for example, offers a mini-MBA to junior lawyers with up to four years’ post-qualification experience as part of its new Commercial Academy.

Elsewhere Linklaters has gone a step further by creating its own law and business school, offering entry-level training with a global orientation programme, practice diplomas covering the first four years as an associate, a managing associate diploma and a leadership programme for partners. Lovells (now Hogan Lovells) arguably started the trend in 2006 by introducing abespoke MBA programme with Cass Business School for its associates. It also has a separate programme called the ’Business Programme for Trainees’, which acts as a foundation for the Cass programme.

“Business schools generally discourage recent graduates from undertaking MBAs because they lack experience of real-life business situations to apply the learning to,” relates Chris Stoakes, director of knowledge, research and learning at Hogan Lovells. “In the case of our trainees, who are at a stage of their careers when they’re receiving a huge amount of technicallegal training, I think it would be a mistake to overload them.”

Stoakes adds that he believes the Cass programme to be more appropriate for more senior qualified lawyers, as they have the bulk of their legal technical training already under
their belts. Brown, however, backs the decision to offer the programme to future trainees. “A significant number find this innovation an attractive addition to their career paths and
skills development,” he insists, “so we’re clearly tapping into a career need for graduates who want to develop into commercial business lawyers at a City firm.”

He adds that it will allow lawyers to get into good habits of commercial thinking and applying their knowledge from day one in the firm, and believes that it is nonsense to say that someone will not benefit from understanding the skills of leadership at an early stage.

Due to the cross-module approach, the course not only delves into real case studies, but also gives future trainees the opportunity to have client contact through conducting a business research project either individually or as part of a small team.

“The dissertation project gave us a brilliant amount of exposure before starting the training contract – the sort of exposure you’d find nowhere else at this stage of your career,”
says White at Simmons.

BPP’s Best describes the MBA as “a badge of quality” for trainees, adding that it is inherently different to an MA due to its holistic approach, encouraging people to make links between topics rather than drilling deeply into key subjects individually.

“The MBA from BPP’s already starting to be seen as a desirable qualification to have on the CV of a trainee lawyer, as it shows real business acumen not gained elsewhere in the legal training sphere,” she adds.

However, with the course offered exclusively to Simmons’ future trainees, and the City law firm only offering around 40 training contracts annually, the vast majority keen to pursue this qualification will have to look elsewhere.

But with the standard MBA at BPP costing a whopping £16,500, many students without the bank of mum and dad to rely on will have to try to find other firms advertising this glowing incentive.

With BPP potentially reaching out to other firms with which it has established relationships to introduce programmes that somewhat mirror Simmons’ innovative MBA, though, perhaps it will not be so far out of reach for those keen students for too long.