Is an MBA the right choice for you as a lawyer?
...Adedoyin Pearse, Company Secretary and General Counsel of Siemens Energy Limited, shares her thoughts
Making significant career decisions is hardly comfortable, more so, when the decision seems unconventional. Over the course of our careers, we encounter points along the journey where we are faced with these significant decisions – whether it is leaving a job, going after a new opportunity, or even switching careers entirely.
A few years ago, after my manager (at the time) suggested during my performance review that I consider getting a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree to expand my capacity to take on more business-focused roles and hone my leadership skills, I came to one of those points on my journey. Considering the cost and the amount of time needed to get an MBA, I knew I had to be fully convinced that making this investment was right for me. After two years of self-reflection and preparation, I took the bull by the horns. In September 2020, I enrolled for the Executive MBA at the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. Expectedly, my decision to get an MBA sparked questions from friends, colleagues, business partners, and some ‘new wigs’. In essence, they wondered why a person already leading a legal department would want an MBA.
In this article, I share my thoughts on the relevance of an MBA for lawyers and what this investment and path could do for your career. I consider how an MBA could increase a lawyer’s skill set, boost his/her career, and help his/her personal growth. Also, I consider the personal and financial costs involved in undertaking an MBA. However, it is noteworthy that deciding to get an MBA will ultimately depend on your unique and personal career goals.
The MBA – A Summary
An MBA explores and covers the scientific approach to business decisions. It is a holistic study of business administration covering areas that include finance, statistics, accounting, management, leadership, and entrepreneurship. It is a globally respected professional degree that is offered in business schools worldwide – from the Lagos Business School in Nigeria to the Stanford and Harvard Business Schools in the USA, Cambridge’s Judge, Oxford’s Said, and the London Business School in the UK, INSEAD in France, and many others. Despite historically being a traditional path for finance professionals, other professionals, including engineers and lawyers, are increasingly enrolling for the MBA.
Through its structured and practical approach to learning by case studies, an MBA provides an effective way to sharpen a lawyer’s business skills while proffering pragmatic solutions to real-life organizational challenges.
Why did I consider it?
After my performance appraisal and my manager’s suggestion, I realized that I needed to hone my entrepreneurial, business, quantitative, and leadership skills, particularly my understanding of the rudiments and considerations behind business decisions. (For example, why would a company decide to sell off one of its lucrative business units?). Understanding the key concerns in these situations and scenarios would significantly expand my capacity to contribute to core business and strategy beyond solely providing legal perspective. Further, I believe having this knowledge, in addition to pre-existing legal expertise, would equip me with the right skillsets to function effectively in any business role.
It is instructive to mention that I had previously explored the several options available to me to address these development areas before enrolling for an MBA. For instance, I gained significant experience through on-the-job training and interactions with my business partners. Also, I attended some short executive programs in some of the top global business schools. However, I realized that, while beneficial, these efforts were inadequate for me to achieve my desired level of proficiency, especially regarding my quantitative skills. This ultimately influenced my decision to undertake an MBA.
In the next section, I discuss other interesting reasons you may want to consider going for an MBA as a lawyer.
A Lawyer with an MBA – Potential Benefits
Becoming an effective business advisor
In my experience, I have realized that businesses critically need lawyers who are more than legal advisors; they need business advisors. As new challenges and ways of doing business emerge, it is becoming more critical that lawyers understand their clients’ needs and address them efficiently.
So, whether you work in a law firm or as in-house counsel, clients need you to be able to speak their business language, understand their business strategies, appreciate their commercial objectives, and deliver efficient, excellent results. Sadly, however, the Nigerian legal, educational system does not presently teach the core skills needed to thrive as a lawyer in the corporate sector. This lack of preparation for the corporate world has resulted in frustration for business decision-makers. It is not uncommon to hear anecdotes by corporate executives that lawyers unnecessarily complicate business decisions.
An MBA, through its pragmatic and case-study approach to learning, is one of those routes that could make a lawyer an effective business advisor. The degree also improves a lawyer’s analytical skills as it teaches him/her how to interact with data to make accurate business decisions. One also acquires quantitative skills that employers often require, especially as lawyers are not generally known to be excellent in that aspect. Further, one becomes knowledgeable enough to understand the intricacies behind business decisions.
It must be emphasized that there are other ways through which a lawyer can upskill and get the knowledge described above. One may opt for on-the-job trainings as well as specialized leadership and finance trainings/programs. Other alternatives such as the General Management Programme (GMP) and Advanced Management Programme (AMP) exist for senior executives. Ultimately, the decision on how best to acquire these skills is a function of an individual’s unique career goals and circumstances.
An MBA could help to increase the career prospects of a corporate lawyer. In fact, in some companies, having an MBA is a prerequisite for occupying certain top management positions. An MBA may also come in handy for a lawyer considering a mid-career change or taking a horizontal career path either within an organization or industry while leveraging your existing skills. For example, after getting an MBA, a former classmate who is a lawyer rose to become a leader in the venture capital arm of a multinational company.
There is no gainsaying that doing an MBA is a great career move, and the benefits are numerous. However, an MBA is not the only way to reach the career peak. As stated earlier, a lawyer needs to personally reflect on whether the degree is necessary for him/her based on his/her personal or career goals while also considering alternate options offered through Executive Education.
Often, I come across lawyers who want to set up businesses or found start-ups but lack the requisite business and entrepreneurial skills to do so – an MBA could prove useful in this regard. Additionally, many business schools also have incubators to support MBA students who want to found start-ups. For instance, the Stanford Graduate School has the Stanford Venture Studio, an entrepreneurship hub that provides mentorship, funding, and expertise for venture ideas. Cambridge Judge Business School also has Accelerate Cambridge, an accelerator supporting start-ups from concept to seed funding stage. This funding and mentorship support often goes a long way in ensuring the success of the start-ups.
Beyond the above reasons, the MBA could be a premium platform for networking opportunities. It is often said that doing an MBA is not only about what you learn but also about whom you learn with. You may be in a class with top CEOs, other start-up founders, experienced professionals from diverse backgrounds, and different countries. This enables you to experience diverse perspectives and cultures. Also important is the alumni network of these schools. The alumni network of MBA graduates constitutes an essential platform for accessing opportunities. So, if you decide to set up a business after your MBA, members of your class may turn out to be critical business contacts, your co-founders, investors, or even your first customers.
On a personal level, doing an MBA has been transformational. I have been exposed to a new world of experience in the past few months – a challenging yet exciting experience. I have expanded my knowledge and broadened my professional horizon. I have learned personal investment lessons and been exposed to different business scenarios. Broadly, an MBA takes lawyers out of their comfort zone, and grooms them to be better leaders and managers. As such, more lawyers can easily migrate to C-suite executive roles. While studying for an MBA can be challenging for a lawyer, especially as scientific and quantitative courses are part of the bargain, the experience is intellectually rewarding and satisfying.
Counting the Cost
Studying for an MBA is an expensive endeavor and involves significant financial commitment. For example, the current annual tuition for a year (out of two years) of an MBA at the Lagos Business School is over three (3) million Naira. This may mean that lawyers who do not have the financial wherewithal or sponsorship cannot afford such a program. Not only is an MBA generally expensive, but an MBA in a top foreign business school is considerably more, given foreign exchange considerations. This makes one question the practical relevance of an MBA.
To bring the point home, spending such a considerable amount might prove unreasonable for a lawyer. For instance, such a lawyer may decide to start his private practice or establish a start-up. Apart from the tuition fees and other associated costs, one may have to pause active work for the MBA program duration. This depicts the level of sacrifice and financial commitment that comes with studying for an MBA.
As a result, when selecting a business school, it is essential to consider the cost. Further, the returns from the investment in an MBA may depend on the pedigree of the school. Top business schools like Harvard, Oxford, and INSEAD have their alumni in top corporate positions across different industries and sectors, suggesting that attending those schools may help to land better jobs and opportunities.
In terms of post-study salary income, an MBA could provide a good return on investment as it can ensure faster career mobility and a salary boost. In Nigeria, for instance, 94% of Lagos Business School MBA graduates get job placements after graduation.
Additionally, applying for an MBA is also time-demanding. MBAs at top schools are competitive, and they require a lot of preparation. From the application stage to the admission process, it can be a daunting and exhausting journey. One needs to set aside adequate time to research suitable schools and know their admission requirements, costs, scholarship availability, etc.
MBA or Not – Reflect, Plan, Decide
Adaptability is critical to the legal profession’s future as business models, and clients’ needs are continually evolving. Thus, beyond being a tech-savvy lawyer, the future of work requires that lawyers ought to be business savvy. Besides, it is only a lifelong learner that can thrive in this constantly changing business world. Studying for an MBA is a significant career decision. Given the costs (personal and financial) associated with it, it is a decision that should be made based on one’s long-term career goals. You should consider and evaluate other options that may be more readily available to you, including short and specialized courses, participating in corporate leadership or development programs, etc. Lawyers with significant work experience may also consider executive courses like the GMP and AMP.
As MBAs are application-oriented, requiring context within the real business work, it is crucial to have some work experience before enrolling for an MBA.
In conclusion, it is essential to have a good picture of one’s goals and the returns one aims to realize after completing the MBA. Therefore, if you decide that you need to expand your skillset, embark on an entrepreneurship journey, ascend to a top corporate position, or switch careers, an MBA could be the right choice for you as a lawyer.
Adedoyin Pearse is the Company Secretary and General Counsel of Siemens Energy Limited, an affiliate of Siemens AG, offering fully integrated world-class products, solutions, and services across the energy value chain
*The opinions expressed in the article are solely mine and do not represent the views or opinions of my employer, Siemens Energy Limited