Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Lawyers don’t know enough about business. Law schools are trying to fix that

The popularity of an American legal education is dwindling in the face of disappointing job prospects for graduates, so 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 non-profit employers increasingly value these skills.” Harvard Law will cover most of the $1,800 tuition for the program, though 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 bulwark firms like 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,” said one corporate associate quoted in the study, who went to Harvard law and was disappointed with the curriculum. “All that was offered was a half-semester course in basic double-entry bookkeeping, which was a joke,” said another Harvard alum, and a corporate partner.

Part of what’s driving the need for lawyers fluent in business is the rise of new regulations on 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.”