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Why a Top Law Firm Teaches Its Lawyers to Be More Like MBAs

At Skadden Arps, new hires go through business boot camp

Turning law students into lawyers has traditionally been the job of law schools. One major New York firm has decided three years of traditional legal training is not enough to make its rookies practice-ready. 

At Skadden Arps, one of the country’s largest law firms, new hires must undergo five weeks of intensive business training, which they refer to as a mini-“virtual MBA.” The approach is part of a growing push within the legal industry to equip lawyers with a deep understanding of finance and accounting at the start of their careers.

“We were looking for a way to prepare people to hit the ground running,” says Jodie Garfinkel, director of attorney development and professional personnel at Skadden. “We want to prepare people to add as much value as they can, as quickly as they can.”

Skadden's first-year associates, who generally start in September after graduating from law school, learn the basics of income statements, balance sheets, and cash flows. They get a crash course in corporate valuation and learn the fundamentals of mergers and acquisitions. They learn how to talk to clients like an MBA and present their ideas like a chief executive officer. They film themselves giving presentations and review the videos to study their communication style.

“It’s safe to say that it’s the stuff you would learn in your first year in business school, that—at least up until recently—law schools weren’t focusing on,” says Jennifer Pangione, an attorney development manager at the firm.  

Law schools are increasingly incorporating business training, too. In the face of waning interest in legal education and weak job prospects for those who still want the degree, schools have revamped curricula to offer a slate of management and finance courses. Harvard Law is making its first years take a crash course in MBA fundamentals. New York Law School is making room in its headquarters so a business school can move in. 

“Law schools are struggling with the fact that they are training people for many different things, not just working at large law firms,” says Garfinkel, who heads attorney development at Skadden. Still, she says it makes her colleagues happy to see schools prepare students for the reality of corporate law, which often means knowing as much about corporations as the law. 

For now, Skadden sees its investment, in what essentially amounts to remedial education, as a no-brainer. Garfinkel says the program started on the heels of the recession, when corporate clients were paying additional attention to the cost of legal services.

“As there was greater need to prove that new associates were adding value, this was one of the places that seemed obvious to us,” she says.  

Correction, June 16: adds accurate length of law school training in first paragraph.

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