An MBA for lawyers is launched today, aimed at the leaders of big firms. Is it what they really need?
Newly elected managing partners of big law firms keen to bone up on the management skills needed to run a modern business have traditionally done so at Harvard University. That is because there is a dearth of educational establishments in this country offering appropriate training.

The launch today of an MBA for lawyers at the internationally renowned Manchester Business School and the law faculty of the University of Manchester could save firms the price of a transatlantic air fare.

The new MBA is only the second such course to specifically offer lawyers the chance to qualify as business managers. Nottingham Law School already provides similar training. But like Nottingham, the Manchester option, a three-year part-time course (18 months for the diploma), is probably sited too far away to immediately appeal to City law firms. Nevertheless, both the City and the Law Society is interpreting it as a step in the right direction.

Nigel Knowles, managing partner at Dibb Lupton Alsop, perhaps more than most, can see the real benefits of management training geared towards the lawyer's specific needs. In 1995 he attended Harvard on a one week's intensive management programme. Shortly afterwards he was elected Dibb's managing partner. "No part of the lawyer's training concentrates on management and serious management issues," Mr Knowles says. "Yet law firms are becoming increasingly big businesses." His has a staff of 1,700 and turnover of pounds 150m. "To run that sort of business properly you have got to give some serious attention to management and you have got to have some serious training," Mr Knowles says. Nick Saunders, head of legal education at the Law Society, also emphasises that law firms are increasingly becoming big business. "It is vital that they are run effectively," he says. The society is pushing ahead with changes to its practice rules which would mean that in 10 years every solicitors' office is managed by a solicitor who is qualified to manage.

Ten years might seem rather long but the profession has been notoriously slow to adopt the corporate structures of big business. It was only last month that Ashurst Morris Crisp, a leading City firm, created the position of managing partner. A company without a managing director would be regarded as a ship without a captain. Even so the only current requirement for managing a law firm is that the solicitor has been qualified for three years.

Mr Saunders says: "This does means that practices are not managed by solicitors fresh out of their training contracts but we don't think that really deals with the problem." He points out that the Law Society has been encouraging the profession to move with the times so that firms are managed more like other businesses. The compulsory Best Practice course, which instructs qualified solicitors in basic business management skills, is under review and will be replaced later next year with a more "tailored" and "flexible" approach to the running of a law practice.

Mr Knowles believes the Manchester MBA course, if properly structured, could be invaluable. The Harvard course he attended was the first management course for professional skills services. Mr Knowles was so impressed with it that after returning to his firm he invited the professor who ran the course to address the whole Dibb's partnership.

Chris Schulten, an accountant by training and chief executive of the City law firm Richards Butler, acquired his management skills in industry, computing, oil and advertising, before joining Richards Butler. He believes that either employing a "general manager" or training a lawyer are both viable ways of managing a law firm. He recognises the virtues of a UK training: "Clearly there seems to be a need for this sort of course," he says. "The management challenges of running a law firm are as varied and demanding as running any outfit. It's not something that can be done on a part-time, amateurish basis."

Dr Graham Hall, joint course director for the Manchester MBA, hopes the reputation of both the university's faculty of law and the business school will draw lawyers to the course. Created in response to demands from within the legal profession, it is designed specifically to meet the management needs of lawyers identified by the law faculty, which has strong links with the legal community. The course is aimed at high-fliers from all over the country, Dr Hall says.

But a three-year course as far away as Manchester presents obstacles to City law firms thinking of send their stars for management grooming. "In an ideal world this would be a very useful course, but it may not be cost-effective to have a lawyer away from the firm for such a long time," Alasdair Douglas, managing partner at Travers Smith Braithwaite, says. Mr Schulten adds: "It's not terribly practical. You need a quick fix if you are looking to become a managing partner of a firm. High-flying lawyers tend to be pretty busy people. They don't have much spare time - they are much in demand from the client."

Mr Knowles believes there may be other ways to qualify. "I don't think you need to get a certificate," he says. "I think what you need to do is go and get properly trained on how to manage a law firm."

Mr Douglas also questions how much influence an MBA qualification will have on the other partners deciding on who should manage their practice. He says there are many skills a lawyer acquires throughout his career which enable him to run a law firm that cannot necessarily be taught by a college.

Dr Hall believes the course will be of particular use to lawyers who have proved themselves to be good and are then put on the programme as a reward.

The course, he says, will also help lawyers to understand the practice of modern business. "The legal profession has become far more market-orientated than it used to be. If they are going to run themselves as a business then they are going to have to have got to have the same sort of qualification as any other business." Nick Saunders also sees the long term advantage in the acquisition of general business practices: "It's important that they talk the same language as their clients"n