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Is an MBA worth it for lawyers?

With more graduate business programs moving online they are more accessible than ever before.

Grant Borbridge, Senior Advisor, Simplex Legal LLP

Karine Prévost began her law career in private practice working in commercial litigation at a Quebec City-based firm before moving to an in-house role at the Kativik Municipal Housing Bureau in Northern Quebec. While at the non-profit organization, Prévost transitioned into a management role and realized she enjoyed making business decisions combined with her knowledge of the law.

"After four years in that role, I decided I wanted to shift my career more towards being active in the business," says Prévost, who was called to the bar in 2012.

In January 2019, she enrolled in the Masters of Business Administration program at the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University in Montreal and will finish the program this December. 

"I want to work in business strategy or management consulting, and so I thought an MBA would be a good addition to my law degree," says Prévost. "I haven't ruled out practising corporate law again; I think the MBA could help me with that as well. You cannot assume, because you are a lawyer, you know how to run a firm and how to achieve growth or know development strategy as well as how to manage your employees."

In particular, Prévost says the MBA program helps her with various soft skills lawyers don't learn in law school. "There are so many opportunities to develop presentation skills and teamwork in the MBA program. Being forced to work in teams for two years helps you develop these skills much faster. I wish I had those skills when I started as a lawyer and understood the various aspects of a business and not just the legal side."

Prévost says she the MBA could also help lawyers run a small to medium enterprise where management consultants may not be involved in a merger and acquisition context.

Ultimately, it all boils down to getting a better understanding of business and strategy fundamentals that can help propel their career forward.

"They have a sense they know the law but don't understand the business practice," says John-Paul Ferguson, academic director and associate professor of organizational behaviour at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University. "In some cases, we have people looking to leave the legal profession and want to know how they can contribute in business more like a general counsel. The smallest group we see would be relatively experienced lawyers looking to leave a law firm who feel a more extensive business experience would make them more attractive."

Ferguson has also taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he saw the cross-registration between the two schools of business and law. "For our students, it was electives at the law school the business students wanted to take, but the highest interest of law students were strategy courses," he says.

Tools for building a successful firm

After nine years managing her own law firm in Calgary, and three years before that as an associate at Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP, Rosa Twyman decided she wanted to pursue an executive MBA to expand her knowledge of business management. She also wanted to grow her network in Eastern Canada. She enrolled in the 18-month program at the Smith School of Business at Queen's University while also running her firm, Regulatory Law Chambers, which focuses on the energy sector. She was drawn to the team project work that is a large part of the program. The Smith program is graded 50 per cent on teamwork and 50 per cent on individual performance. 

"Lawyers are notorious for not being team players," says Twyman, noting that large law firms' compensation structures focus on individual performance. "I do regulatory work in the energy sector and it is multi-disciplinary, so I need to understand the accounting part, the engineering part, and all the technical parts and apply the law. I think lawyers could do a lot better if they were team players."

For her individual project, she developed a business model for a small boutique law firm and created an IT plan for her firm — all of which has produced real results for her since completing the program.

Twyman graduated in 2018 and says her income more than doubled the year after, and she has managed well through COVID-19, mainly due to what she learned in the EMBA program. 

"During COVID-19, we were able to set up our law firm within half an hour offsite because everything was in place," she says.

"If I didn't have the EMBA, it would have been a tougher situation for me to manage. There are quantifiable benefits but softer ones too in terms of understanding things both from a practice management and business management perspective," she says. "There is the human resources component, as well, that they help you understand and realizing that building a team and finding the right people isn't easy."

 Is it worth the investment?

Earning an MBA on top of a law degree may seem like a significant investment in both time and money for practising lawyers who also have growing families and limited spare time. According to Statistics Canada, executive and regular MBA programs remain the most expensive graduate programs. The average tuition for an EMBA (Executive MBA) was $56,328 in 2019/2020, while the fee for an MBA averaged $27,397, representing a range of fees at programs in all provinces at the national level. The average tuition fees for executive MBA programs ranged from $11,592 in Quebec to $91,100 in Ontario. The average tuition fees for regular MBA programs ranged from $2,847 in Newfoundland and Labrador to $39,106 in Ontario.  

More flexible learning options

Time is also a factor to consider. With more schools, such as the University of Fredericton and University Canada West, offering online distance learning options, virtual and blended MBA programs in Canada have become more accessible to busy professionals. They offer both part-time and full-time opportunities.

"They do a lot of work offline, but once a week there is a live online class for every course. It's usually two hours," says Dr. Sheri McKillop, vice-president of academics at the University of Fredericton, which had its first MBA intake in 2007. "The time is used for debate and discussion. Many of our courses have a significant amount of group work, so students network with others on a very regular basis, developing skills for working in virtual teams to a higher level because they are studying in an online environment. We also hear from students saying their network is across Canada instead of one specific regional area."

Some employers will also help fund an employee who is interested in pursuing an EMBA.

"The employer pays some, but that occurs more on the part-time programs," says Imran Kanga, director of recruitment and admissions at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. "They are perhaps using the courses to upgrade their skill set to get a more senior position within the same company when they finish. Some employers look at an MBA as investing in their talent, which makes sense for a part-time program when a student continues to work."

What do recruiters say?

Most recruiters agree that an MBA may not automatically give a lawyer a salary bump. However, it will widen career options and be the catalyst that moves a lawyer from the pure practice of law to more business-focused roles in the C-suite.

The real question is whether an MBA designation combined with a law degree is something that employers find particular;y desirable. Legal recruiters have differing opinions, and much of it has to do with whether it's a law firm or a company recruiting for a role.

"I think at that senior general counsel level it's beneficial. When you want someone who is going to be strategic and act as the CEO's right hand and guide a company's plan and development, an MBA is valuable. It raises people's profiles above other candidates for those roles," says Lindsey Petherick of Edge Legal Recruitment in Vancouver.

"When it comes to salary negotiations, and you have a senior general counsel with years of experience, and a second candidate who has an MBA, I think there is an argument to say you can use it to ask for more money," says Petherick.

An MBA credential on a CV can be viewed in different ways, says Dal Bhathal, managing partner of The Counsel Network.

"Law firms want to understand why a lawyer took an MBA, and it is often viewed as a potential red flag for a candidate's commitment to practice law long-term. It may be viewed as a desire to move into a non-practising/business role," says Bhathal. "For in-house roles, it may be considered a factor for hiring, but it is never the deciding factor."

For in-house positions, a variety of skills are sought, including practical application of the law, interpersonal and communication skills and strong judgment. 

"A lawyer who has all of those will be hired over one that has most of them but has an MBA," says Bhathal.

Once in-house, if a lawyer wants to move into a non-practising role, an MBA may be considered valuable. Still, Bhathal says her experience is that corporations prefer leadership skills and executive training that would be more relevant to the candidates' roles within their organizations.

An MBA is of interest to high-level business legal roles in sectors such as banking.

"Many of our clients do prefer candidates with an MBA, especially in-house," says Salima Alibhai, partner with ALT Recruitment Partners Inc. in Toronto. "We don't necessarily see a salary bump, but they do indicate a strong preference."

"I feel more and more lawyers are going to do their MBA but not to support their law degree, but to leave the law altogether and try their hand at banking or mergers and acquisitions. Many candidates know that to be a CEO or CFO of a company, they will need an MBA." 

A path to the next level law career

Still, there are plenty of lawyers with an MBA who will tell you they pursued the designation to become a better business lawyer, expand their career opportunities and professional network. 

Calgary-based Grant Borbridge, a senior advisor at Simplex Legal LLP, earned his MBA 20 years ago at Penn State University after working for nine years as a lawyer. Borbridge returned to school full time for his MBA and says it gave him the tools to work in private equity and as an analyst in large markets in New York and California. 

"I think the courses a person takes in an MBA provides a better understanding of what drives business," says Borbridge who has spent several years in executive roles, as general counsel at MEG Energy Corp and at Emergo. "Courses in marketing, communications, operations and organizational behaviour help people broaden their view to think like a business thinker and not just a legal thinker."

Having an additional education program and a law degree can help lawyers move away from traditional legal roles, says Borbridge.

"The practice of law can open up many opportunities for a person, but that can be stymied by getting pigeonholed. I went back to take my MBA after working for nine years because I wanted to look at opportunities to go on the business side of things, and I didn't know how I was going to make that transition without getting an MBA," he says.

Borbridge eventually returned to Calgary to work in-house in the oil and gas sector. 

"It has certainly provided value to me and provided experience and opportunities I wouldn't otherwise have. Whether you do the executive MBA or go full time, it's going to provide lots of value," he says.

Borbridge also holds the Certified In-house Counsel Canada designation from the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association. He says that program, offered by the CBA in conjunction with the Rotman School of Management, emphasizes the need to think like a businessperson. 

"People need to know what their objective is with practising law, and it's the same thing with taking an MBA," says Borbridge. "A person needs to know what they're planning to do with it afterward and how it will help them because it's not just enough to take an MBA and say now I understand business." 

"I didn't understand business nearly as well until after my MBA when I worked as a stock analyst talking to companies about what drives their business and how they were looking to improve. It was the same with private equity — I got the opportunity to look at business plans and proposals and sit on boards of directors where the issues were being discussed and gained a good understanding of what hurdles needed to be jumped to advance the business. Spending that time working on the business side is critical to getting full value out of the MBA."

An MBA can also help a lawyer better understand society at large and provide better advice to a client, says Claude Provencher, a lawyer with Trudel Johnston & Lespérance in Montreal. He worked as a team leader in the office of the Attorney General of Canada before deciding to leave the public service to obtain his MBA in 2002 from HEC Montréal, the graduate business school of the Université de Montreal.

"I realized I like to lead teams and wanted to understand organizations better, so I decided to add something to my toolkit, and I did my MBA," says Provencher. "It was a good move because I met so many people — from engineers, doctors, and other lawyers from around the world, so it was an interesting journey. It gave me a better understanding of society itself, the economy, finance, psychology, HR," he says. 

After completing his degree, Provencher returned to the federal public service in high-profile roles, including as director of the War Crimes Unit, as a senior policy advisor at the Privy Council Office and as chief of staff at Canada Revenue Agency, as well as CEO of the Quebec Bar.

"It was an excellent investment both personally and for my career because, when I was a commissioner at the federal government, to have access to that kind of position also meant having access to a better salary," says Provencher. "If someone is looking at an MBA because they have an interest, I think it's worth it – if you do it full time, it's under one year and it's something of value for the rest of your career."