Lawyers Don't Know Enough About Business. Law Schools Are Trying to Fix That

Why law graduates are being taught to think like MBAs

Photograph: Getty Images

The popularity of an American legal education is dwindling in the face of disappointing job prospects for graduates. To rescue themselves from oblivion, some law schools are fashioning themselves after a more successful educational institution: business school. 

In April, New York Law school announced it would make room in its building for an offsite location for the University of Rochester's Simon Business School, making it easier for law students to take B-School classes. The same month, Harvard Business School announced it would offer incoming students an 11-week course in the fundamentals of business created by HBX, its online business training program. 

“Lawyers need to understand and use the tools and skills involved in growing and running a business,” said Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow in a statement on Harvard Business School’s website. “Law firms, businesses, and also public sector and nonprofit employers increasingly value these skills.” Harvard Law will cover most of the $1,800 tuition for the program, although students will have to pay $250 to take the courses. 

Harvard and New York Law are heeding growing calls to fundamentally reshape the education that comes with a JD. Research published last year by three Harvard law professors suggested that litigators and hiring attorneys at big law firms are desperate for law graduates that understand basic accounting and corporate finance. The 124 attorneys, from such bulwark firms as Skadden Arps and Latham & Watkins, said many business courses were more critical to post-JD life than courses on environmental law or the First Amendment.

Three quarters of classes "still seemed to have nothing to do with corporate law or the real-world practice of law firms,” a corporate associate who went to Harvard law and was disappointed with the curriculum is quoted as saying in the study. “All that was offered was a half-semester course in basic double-entry bookkeeping, which was a joke,” said another Harvard alum who is a corporate partner.

Part of what’s driving the need for lawyers fluent in business is the rise of new regulations affecting Wall Street firms and corporations more generally, says Northeastern University School of Law Dean Jeremy Paul.

“Every time the Congress passes a statue such as Dodd Frank or the Affordable Care Act, people have to figure out what it means. Lawyers are going to figure out what it means,” says Paul. “Of course, it creates more business” for law firms and in-house counsel, he adds. 

It's the job of law schools to produce JDs who can think like MBAs, Paul says. “You have to understand, not just the language of the law, but the language of your clients. Sometimes the language of your client is business.” 

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE