With management skills seen as increasingly important for ambitious lawyers, Grania Langdon-Down looks at the MBA options available.

Taking an MBA is a huge challenge in terms of time and cost, which can run from £8,600 for a distance-learning MBA aimed at lawyers to £70,000 for a generalist, full-time course at a global business school. So is it worth the investment?

Management skills are increasingly important for both private practice lawyers on the partnership track and in-house counsel hoping for a seat on the board. While some question whether a ‘full-blown’ MBA is the right approach, those who have taken up the challenge say it is worth every sacrifice (see case studies, opposite).

‘Law is a sophisticated business,’ says Tony King, former director of the Clifford Chance Academy and past chair of the City of London Law Society’s Training Committee.

‘My view is that people who run law firms need sophisticated business knowledge which high-level management training – whether an MBA or a management certificate – can provide.’

The issue, given the cost and time involved, he says, is getting the timing right: ‘While I understand why young lawyers, sometimes supported by their firms, do management courses, when will they get the chance to use that knowledge?

‘Senior lawyers, usually partners, generally don’t have the time – even if they have the money – to undertake a major programme. A compromise is sometimes needed, hence the proliferation of executive education programmes so senior lawyers can gain a clear understanding of the management issues they face, and then draw on the services of expert professionals for the “detail”.’

While job vacancies do not request MBAs, Jon-Paul Hanrahan, associate director of Douglas Scott Legal Recruitment, says ‘anything that differentiates you in the market is a good thing’.

But it is a balance. ‘At a junior level, the cost would be a gamble because private practice generally recruits on technical skills,’ he says. ‘At a senior level, employers are more interested in client following.’

However, an MBA could be very useful for in-house counsel, he adds: ‘Fewer solicitors make it on to the board compared with those with a finance background because there is a perception that lawyers are very risk-averse and not necessarily commercially minded. So an MBA would put you in the frame for those opportunities.’

Hanrahan also thinks MBAs will increasingly be seen as a strong qualification in private practice: ‘As law firms become more commercially minded, having someone on the board or management team who understands how organisations can react to change has to be [a good thing].

‘If I have a candidate at senior level with an MBA, I look for a track record of the results they have achieved off the back of it to take to the market.’

The need for solicitors to improve their business acumen prompted BPP to set up an MBA in legal services in 2009 for trainees about to join City firm Simmons & Simmons.

But Peter Crisp, dean of BPP University Law School, says City firms with corporate teams have moved away from MBAs at such an early stage in favour of their trainees doing an LLM with business, which includes the legal practice course alongside two business modules and a business intelligence project.

When it comes to more senior lawyers, Crisp says firms are including intensive week-long MBA-style experiences in finance, business, strategy and leadership as part of their partnership programme.

Right course

So, having decided to upgrade your management skills, how do you pick the right course for you?  

Leicester Castle Business School at De Montfort University has run traditional MBAs for 30 years but decided in 2014 to launch a distance-learning MBA for people in legal practice, combining the core modules and strengths of an MBA in a relevant professional context. It costs £8,600. The university does not offer scholarships as it says the course is ‘already competitively priced’.

Students typically have a degree or postgraduate qualification in law and enrol from around the world.

The first cohort is now on its final taught module, with just the dissertation left. A second cohort was recruited in September 2015 and a third will start this September, with 8-12 students on each.

The MBA includes an integrated PG Certificate and PG Diploma, so applicants can spend a year taking the certificate and then decide if they want to continue either onto the diploma or onto the MBA.

Programme leader Martyn Kendrick says the MBA gives lawyers and others within the legal profession ‘an opportunity to develop their management and leadership knowledge and skills within a professional environment as their career develops. This seems to meet the needs of both the individuals and their firms’.

The Open University Business School’s generalist MBA costs from £14,895 to £16,965 and attracts students in a wide range of professions from over 75 countries. Its ‘business case builder’ helps students, who can pay by monthly instalments, present a compelling case for sponsorship to their employers. About 40% of students receive some form of contribution.

Eileen Arney, masters programme manager, says the MBA typically takes three years of 12-15 hours of study per week. The course is modular, which allows for breaks, but the degree must be completed within seven years.

‘An exceptional investment’

Wendy Rainbow is a partner at national firm Shoosmiths. She started the distance-learning MBA (Law) course at De Montfort University in 2014.

‘What made me decide to make my life harder than it already is?’ she laughs. ‘I am no stranger to working and studying as I have done banking exams and more A-levels since I qualified.’

She studies at weekends and does assignments on holiday. Relationships with other students were cemented during the first study weekend, with three held a year. Lecturers are available over Skype or email and the resources are ‘immense’.

She is funding the MBA. ‘Law firms would question the investment but I think that will change as firms increasingly need people able to develop teams and strategies, and react to economic change,’ she says.

‘I have had very little formal management training throughout my legal career other than the professional skills course. But now individuals are going to be responsible for their own development under the SRA continuing competency regime, managers of the future will be looking to develop their management skills through some form of formal education.’

Timing depends on a balance between what you hope to achieve with your level of experience, she says: ‘If you are still heavily involved in transactional work or massive litigation, it will be much harder to manage your time. But if you are doing a more managerial role you can put into practice what you learn about accounts, managing people, strategy and ethics.’

Nicola Packer, an Abu Dhabi-based entertainment lawyer, flies to the UK for study days as she completes the final year of her MBA (Law) at De Montfort University. Legal counsel at Flash Entertainment, Packer felt it ‘essential’ to develop her business management skills as she started advising more senior management.

‘I chose this route, rather than a “traditional” MBA, so I can still focus on my core enthusiasm to be a lawyer while gaining a more nuanced understanding of business strategy and risk management,’ she says. ‘Also, being able to “talk the talk” with senior management means that any concerns I raise are taken more seriously.’

Every module has been relevant to her job; for instance, she was brought into external audit reviews after discussing her risk management programme with her boss. But distance learning is not something to undertake lightly, she says.  She studies at weekends and takes annual leave to catch up. Support from employers and family is vital. Her boss has been a ‘sounding board’ for ideas while her husband’s golf handicap has reduced by 14 while he gives her quiet study time.

Her commitment to the MBA was a key factor in the Corporate Counsel awards, at which she was named Middle East Legal Counsel of the Year for her initiative and leadership.

Gemma Doyle was a banking and finance senior associate at Clifford Chance before embarking on the MBA at the London Business School with the aim of moving into the luxury industry.

‘I am here for a career change,’ she says. ‘The programme has given me the opportunity to widen my skill-set, hone my finance and analytical skills, and get some practical experience via various projects with luxury brands. But most importantly, it allows me to network with all sorts of alumni and companies around London.’

Having an MBA won’t provide a ‘massive jump’ in salary if you plan to stay in the legal industry, she says, ‘so you have to look at the cost-benefit analysis. However, for a career change, it has been an exceptional investment and opened doors for me that would never have been there before.’

Stephanie Ernould is a senior associate with French law firm UGGC specialising in corporate taxation.

She decided to do the London Business School’s executive MBA because she wanted to develop a greater understanding of her clients’ concerns, gain international exposure and build a global network.

If she could give only one piece of advice, it would be: ‘Go for it. So many people give up their dream of doing an MBA because of work, family or cost, but all have told me they regretted not doing one because you can find solutions.’

The Open University recently launched an accelerated programme that can be completed in two years if a student can spend 20-25 hours a week studying in the first six months – perhaps by working part-time, or using ‘study leave’ from an employer.

An MBA at one of the global business schools costs around £70,000 but the schools justify the fees on the grounds that the return is faster, with greater salary and employment opportunities.

UK business schools have a strong presence in the FT Global MBA Ranking 2016. The French business school Insead comes top, followed by Harvard in the US and the London Business School (LBS). The University of Cambridge Judge Business School is 10th, followed by the University of Oxford Saïd Business School (28th); Imperial College Business School and Lancaster University Management School (35th); City University Cass Business School (37th); Alliance Manchester Business School (38th); and Warwick Business School (46th).

LBS offers a masters in management for new graduates who want to take a one-year programme before starting their career. The full-time MBA is a 15-21 month programme with flexible graduation points designed for students with, on average, five years’ PQE. There are also part-time executive MBAs for people with 10-15 years’ PQE.

Admissions director David Simpson says choosing your business school is a very personal process. ‘An expensive top-tier school may not be what you need if you plan to continue in your legal career and are looking to round out your skill-set. A local business school might be better as it may allow a more flexible format.’

LBS’s full-time MBA attracts lawyers from around the world. ‘It seems to be a well-trodden path for lawyers working for magic circle firms who are looking to transition out of law having decided they want to be a decision-maker rather than an adviser,’ Simpson says.

Students tend to self-fund through loans or scholarships. Options are a regular high street bank loan or the Prodigy loan scheme set up by three former Insead MBA graduates who saw how hard it was for some students to fund their studies.

Most top schools have a range of scholarships. ‘The stage people are at in their careers probably means they don’t have lot of savings, even if they are in a well-paid job,’ Simpson says.

Of the 425 starting each August, about a quarter will get a scholarship. That percentage goes up for British nationals, who make up just 10% of the student body.

‘We have to work hard to get as many Brits applying as we would like,’ says Simpson, ‘so being British increases the chances of getting a scholarship to about 50%. We also have quite a few scholarships just for women, so if you are a British woman you have a very good chance.’

The scholarships vary from £15,000 to full fees, with an average of £30,000. By the second year, students will generally have worked on a paid summer internship and may get a sign-on bonus if the company offers them a job on qualification.

Going back to full-time study is daunting, Simpson acknowledges, ‘but there is an element of backing yourself. We put applicants through a rigorous admissions process and, if we believe you are going to be successful, you should too’.

It is also a very supportive environment. ‘You will build friendships that last a lifetime and a global network that will last all your career,’ he says.

LBS’s similarly priced, part-time executive MBA has two intakes of 75 in September and January. The programme takes two years of alternate weekends and block weeks. Students can choose electives to build a broad portfolio or one targeted at their particular career track.

‘You need buy-in from your firm, if not financially then certainly professionally, as this will take a chunk of your time,’ says Simpson. ‘But the payback is what you take back to your organisation from the moment you start.’

With such an international intake, Simpson adds: ‘We are watching to see how Brexit unfolds and where we fit into that. What is important is we give out the signal that we are a very global school and the UK will always be an attractive place to study.’

Grania Langdon-Down is a freelance journalist