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October 17, 2013

Law-business-technology interface: professional schools under the microscope

by Dan Rodriguez

Professional education in the U.S. has sorted and separated skills training among distinct schools.  Law school is where you go to train to become a lawyer, business school is for comprehensive business training . . . etc.  To be sure, there are collaborations across schools — although I wouldn’t overstate the structural relationships between, say, American law and business schools.  However, the scope of business related training in law schools and, similarly, legal training in business schools has thus far been modest.  Where a major law school (most recently, Penn and Chicago; a few years back, Northwestern) announces that it is providing substantial business training to its students, this becomes newsworthy.

In an era in which technology-related businesses are key drivers of the economy and in which professional opportunities for skilled entrepreneurs are growing, it is vital for law, business, and engineering schools to rethink the balkanization of our programs.  Legal training will become increasingly important in the development of business strategy, the navigation of regulatory compliance issues, and the interactions between mid-level and C-suite executives and their general counsels.  And, of course, leadership and business skills drawn from focused training found in the nation’s great MBA programs will continue to be important to the professional development of management in these technology-oriented companies.

Because these skills overlap and intersect with one another, it will be important to develop educational strategies that are cumulative and synergistic.  Drawing business school profs into law school curricula is a good strategy; but, even better, is to develop deeply integrated programs and degrees that are about both law and business.  Students should be encouraged to come to law school not only to train to become lawyers, but to develop legal skills in degree formats other than the traditional JD.  Likewise, business school students will want to integrate their business and legal skills to assure that their training will enable them to thrive in a setting in which disciplinary boundaries are fluid and in which they are called upon to know a lot about a lot of things and to be flexible and adaptive.

The technology piece is crucial as well.  Engineers need not become lawyers to profit from having a base in legal skills; and students training to become lawyers will benefit from classmates who will pursue entrepreneurial careers — in short, classmates will become, in many instances, their future clients.  Business school students will, too, benefit from integrated programs with engineers and with would-be lawyers.  These B-School students will interface with lawyers and the legal system in myriad ways and exposure to at least foundational knowledge and perspectives on law and the legal system will be of benefit.

There is no one-size-fits-all playbook here.  But the modest point is that we in the legal, business, and engineering space should think about programming and skill building strategies that integrate knowledge and deepen understanding across fields which have traditionally been viewed as separate.  This will require some structural change in professional education; it will also require tempering self-interest and disciplinary hubris.  We have much to learn from one another in the professional school world.

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