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Could having an MBA benefit corporate lawyers?

Julia Szczepanski

16 Jul 2018

A Master of Business Administration (MBA) qualification is a highly respected, prestigious postgraduate qualification. The MBA gives candidates a deep understanding of business practices, as well as skills in operational management, team leadership, and strategic planning. The globally recognised qualification has often been considered a springboard for those seeking to kick on in their career—as well as a planned and strategic approach before beginning one’s career path—to more swiftly reach the senior levels in business.

However, it comes at a price. Most courses in the UK range from £15,000 and £40,000. Meanwhile, the programme of study is intense, and requires candidates to tackle inordinate amounts of work, including dissertations, presentations, essays and exams.

Despite these off-putting factors, could having an MBA be of benefit to lawyers in the corporate sector? Julia Szczepanski thinks so. Szczepanski, who has had a varied and expansive career, is a former company commercial lawyer at Joynson-Hicks; now known as Taylor Wessing; and, Baker McKenzie in Australia. She has held roles in other industries outside law, including outsourcing, marketing, communications—as well as time with Deloitte, and was even the publisher of legal magazine, The Lawyer. Still driven to keep learning, Szczepanski decided to study for an MBA at the Kent Business School to bolster her academic portfolio and experience—a move, she says, that was a natural extension of her interest in business leadership.

After recently finishing the course, Szczepanski believes that an MBA could be advantageous for some lawyers—particularly ‘senior associates in corporate roles with a clear route to management’. Thomson Reuters Legal Insights spoke to Szczepanski to find out how an MBA could be of value to some corporate lawyers.

You recently completed an MBA. What inspired you to undertake such a big challenge?

I had to find out where I sat with all the skills that I had acquired—whether that was at college or on the job—and I wanted to do it with what I consider the best badge of distinction, which is an MBA. It is a recognised worldwide qualification. In order to deal with all the rapid changes that the sector is experiencing, increased automation, competition, globalisation, complex and unique challenges – you have to stay curious and keep learning just to make sense of it all.

I have also been incredibly passionate about leadership skills, and if you don’t get the opportunity to have great mentoring then you may not have learnt great management skills, because people always learn from those that they aspire to be or be like. And if you don’t have those mentors, where are you going to learn those skills on the job?

Would you recommend an MBA to a lawyer?

For certain lawyers, I think it [an MBA] would be a key differentiator. I think if you can speak the client’s language, the client is going to trust you a lot quicker. Accountancy and consultancy is all about providing shareholder value. It is very empowering for lawyers to be able to understand not only business terminology, for example: supply chain; value chain; strategic management. Moreover, how all decisions made in one area of the client’s business, for example: the introduction of a new service or product might impact on other disciplines of the business such as marketing: financial; HR; manufacturing; distribution; supply chain; corporate social responsibility; and, key stakeholders.

This multi-disciplinary approach to the application of law gives the lawyer a powerful edge within the client relationship which you will learn from an MBA. If you are talking to a large corporate client who is embarking on a big global restructure to understand what the drivers and impediments might be to that, you are able to talk the language of the client. Now, a lot of lawyers, and the more senior they become, are exposed to these deals and will have greater confidence in dealing with those situations. Then, if they are a good teacher or manager—they are going to impart that knowledge onto their mentees or employees. But, what if they aren’t?

Leadership is a key skill for successful lawyers, and should, in my opinion, be part of the legal training curriculum. Lawyers need to lead, motivate, and inspire those around them—not only their peers but in influencing and counselling clients. My studies have led me to see the correlation between good leadership skills and wellbeing for example, which is an increasingly important issue for law firms.

If you have an MBA, what it does is explain things like cognitive biases: why do we think like that: why do we like certain employee attributes: why do we manage well, or ineffectively, why do we recruit the way we do: what leadership style will work best and for whom? Leadership skills and frameworks are key to successful change management; understanding how teams work; influencing and leading client projects; improving communications; participating in meaningful discussions around diversity; gender disability; and, sexual orientation.

How would it benefit lawyers?

I don’t think everyone needs to do an MBA as it requires a real time, financial and emotional commitment. But it would be beneficial if you have a commercial role in the firm or intend to move into a corporate environment. What you normally find is that it would be suitable for senior associates in corporate roles with a clear route to management or management aspirations. It’s expensive so you can’t always expect the firm to pay—you’re investing in yourself. As a key differentiator, a lawyer with an MBA, especially a corporate lawyer with an MBA, must be worth their weight in gold. Because they can apply the law with a real understanding of corporate drivers, the environment within which they operate and a knowledge of all key stakeholder relationships.

Though, not everyone will want the time out and part-time courses whilst working are extremely challenging. Moreover, they might not be able to afford it and it’s not always necessary. But, if you want career diversity and to be a part of the growing change with business models, and alternative business structures that have been brought in to compete with the traditional law firm structure, then you are going to have to understand this new territory. You can bring in a consultant with an MBA – that’s great. But I think it would be very powerful if you’re lawyer who understands their practice really well, coupled with the skills learnt during an MBA. For example, as a corporate lawyer, if a client tells me they want to develop into the Chinese market, it would be of value to the client if I am able to confidently explain the potential impediments and some of the drivers to the business of future challenges of operating within that domain. Therefore, you may be in a joint venture and find yourself on the subjected to prohibitive tariffs that are imposed without the ability to exit the original contractual arrangement. If you’re addressing the client from that knowledge base, it’s very effective.

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