Advancing your legal career: MBA or a masters degree?

by Peter Godfrey14 May 2014
To stand out from other lawyers and to advance your career, undertaking additional training and education is a common path to pursue. 

Minter Ellison Rudd Watts partner, Cameron Taylor, chose to pursue a Masters of Business Administration program at the London Business School, with concentrations in finance and private equity.

“The MBA is a really good base to have,” Taylor tells NZ Lawyer. “I undertook it for a mixture of reasons, but as an M&A corporate lawyer I don’t think you can know too much about finance and strategy, particularly in regards to operational matters that will impact transactions.”

Taylor says an MBA enables lawyers to provide their clients with better advice in a sophisticated market where clients expect lawyers to have a full grasp of the law as a minimum requirement.

“The expectation is that lawyers understand the legal issues down pat, so as a way to differentiate yourself, you can show you understand the business side of things in detail,” Taylor says.

The MBA can be particularly useful when it comes to advising boards and senior management, as lawyers will have gained a better understanding of the business and commercial aspects of the work.

It’s also something that can make applicants stand out from their competitors. “Obviously it adds a new dimension and a skillset that sets them apart from the others [and at senior associate level] it would be a benefit, definitely,” says Lane Neave human resources manager, Charmaine Herron. “It’s probably dependent on the area of practice, but certainly, when you enter a partnership, you’ve got to have that financial mind.”

Others in the profession, however, believes MBAs are often not the best option for lawyers.

“From the perspective of a lawyer, a masters degree is a stronger thing to do [than an MBA], but it depends on the role they want and their personal career path,” says Kristie Fankhauser, director of marketing & business development at Australian firm McCullough Robertson.

“If, as a part of your career path, you want to be a managing partner or the CEO of a smaller firm, then the MBA is probably a useful qualification, but a masters degree is probably the next step if a lawyer wants to know a particular part of the law extremely well.”

Fankhauser says that masters degrees are particularly well-regarded from an international point of view, where they could add to a lawyers reputation, credibility and personal branding in situations such as speaking at international conferences.

She reports that, within her firm, lawyers more commonly choose to do a masters degree in a particular aspect of the law rather than the MBA.

Taylor agrees that specialist degrees are useful, but pointed out that technical aspects of the legal profession could simply be picked up on the job. “I think the MBA gives you significant benefits, and if I had to start all over again, I would definitely do it again.”