Business Law Experts: Our Knowledge Is Critical for CEOs

Professor Robert Bird (left) speaks during the Summit on the Academic Profession of Business Law, with Interim Provost John Elliott (Right) behind him. (Nathan Oldham / UConn School of Business)
Professor Robert Bird (left) speaks during the Summit on the Academic Profession of Business Law, with Interim Provost John Elliott (Right) behind him. (Nathan Oldham / UConn School of Business)

When 60 thought leaders in business-law education gathered at UConn’s graduate campus in Hartford last week to look at the future of their profession, there was one message that resonated with all:

Never has there been a more critical time for legal education to be embraced as a fundamental part of a high-quality business-education curriculum.

“No business student anywhere should graduate without coursework in business law. To do otherwise is to graduate a ticking time bomb into the marketplace,” said UConn Business Law Professor Robert Bird, who organized the Summit on the Academic Profession of Business Law.

In support of his remarks, he noted that a single rogue trader who committed fraud cost UBS $2 billion; a survey of board members and C-suite executives found that changing legal regulations and enforcement was the No. 1 risk for their organizations; and that when CEOs have a legal background, their companies face significantly less litigation.

“There is no more important time to be a legal educator in business, and no more important time for business students to receive a robust legal education,” Bird said.

Summit Initiated New Conversations

The event, on May 30-31, drew some big names in academic circles, including: Marisa Pagnattaro, president of the Academy of Legal Studies in Business, and the Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Programs at the University of Georgia; Caryn Beck-Dudley, chair of the Board of Directors of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and the Dean of the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University; and UConn’s John A. Elliott, currently the Interim Provost and AACSB Vice-Chair/Chair Elect.

Beck-Dudley, the AACSB Board Chair, talked about metric assessment of learning in a rapidly changing higher-education environment. How do you evaluate an instructor who is an industry professional but not a formal educator? How do you measure resilience and cultural awareness taught at a university? Should publication in a top journal still be considered a marker of success? Business schools and business law faculty must remain agile in order to respond quickly to the inevitable disruptions to come on business education, she said.

“You have to reinvent your school every two years and prepare to change quickly,” Beck-Dudley said.

CT Lieutenant Governor: Champion the Inclusion of Women, People of Color

The luncheon keynote speaker was Connecticut Lieutenant Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, who spoke about how important business law is to the creation and growth of jobs.

Prior to becoming lieutenant governor, Bysiewicz spent six years helping Connecticut companies, often biotech and green energy, get access to $200 million in financing to create new jobs.

“It’s exciting and exhilarating to be around entrepreneurs and growing companies. I believe the best lawyers want to help their business clients get where they want to go,” she said.

As this young generation seeks to work with companies that have a strong sense of social responsibility, the work of business law educators is a great calling, she said. Bysiewicz urged the professors to teach the value of diversity and to champion the inclusion of women and employees of color, because diverse perspectives create more successful companies.

Summit First of Its Kind for Profession

Dan Cahoy, professor and Dean’s Faculty Fellow in Business Law at Penn State, said the discipline is disparately represented in business schools.

“This conference is a good way to collect our knowledge and have conversations with people who are leaders in the field,” he said. “Robert [Bird], through his reputation, thought leadership, and contacts, was able to bring in the lead agents, the top thinkers to discuss where we are and where we’re going as a profession.

“We’re trying to figure out what we can do as a community in what we see as a critical discipline in business schools,” Cahoy said. “This is the first time a comprehensive conference about our capabilities has been held.”

Among the discussions were pending changes in the field, the presentation of knowledge, and the assessment of success. The professors also attended discussions ranging from business law leadership through innovative programs, to transformative practices in business schools, and integrating corporate compliance into business-school teaching. They also addressed curricular innovations, working with the media, and mentoring great business law faculty.

Interest in Business Law Abounds

Pagnattaro, the ALSB president, said there is a groundswell of enthusiasm among students for legal expertise. The University of Georgia offers a certificate in legal studies and 300 students are enrolled.

Elliott said he believes strongly in the value added by lawyers to business students. At UConn, our faculty not only offer the rigors of traditional legal knowledge but also the ideals of social responsibility and philanthropy, sustainability, and advocacy for protecting startups and unusual industries, he said.

Tabrez Ebrahim, a law professor at California Western in San Diego, wants to propose short programs for business executives—many of them working in technology, biotech and pharmaceuticals—to give them broader legal knowledge. He said he was excited to tap the expertise of his colleagues as he moves forward.

“In today’s modern regulatory environment, legal education is an absolute must for business undergraduates and MBA students,” Bird said. “Knowledge of and respect for the law is the last frontier of competitive advantage for organizations, and one that can transform the culture of an organization.”