We are delighted to have Adam Au, former General Counsel of a Sino-American private equity fund, share his thoughts on pursuing an MBA as an experienced lawyer. A graduate of Brown University and Oxford law, Adam started off his career as a transactional lawyer at top-tier international law firms. In order to have a broader strategic perspective of business management and technology, Adam took a break in 2019 to pursue a one-year Master of Business Administration (MBA) at MIT. In this interview, Katherine discussed with Adam about his MBA journey.
KF: Katherine Fan (Managing Director, Hughes-Castell)
Adam: Adam Au (Former General Counsel & MIT Sloan Fellows MBA Candidate)
KF: Why did you choose to study an MBA at MIT?
Adam: I realized quickly in the law school that we were not taught to be a good manager. Being a good lawyer has no bearing on whether one is a good manager. At the very top senior management position, this gap is keenly felt. I chose to do an MBA because it bridges the knowledge gap by bringing management, finance, entrepreneurship and law together. With the growing complexity of legal needs, an in-house lawyer needs to be a jack-of-all-trades. With constant access to ever-evolving technology, expectations to deliver services efficiently and accurately are at an all-time high. While all companies attempt to navigate challenges daily – not the least because of the difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic — being an in-house counsel faces tough balancing acts. One of the biggest struggles is continuously being asked to tackle new areas of law that you have no expertise.
I am a firm believer in lifelong learning and consistently embraces every opportunity to learn operational management skills and to acquire in-depth knowledge of intricate activities in the changing business world. An MBA at the entrepreneurial environment at MIT gives me the right mix of business knowledge and technology savviness.
KF: Have you experienced any challenges during your studies?
Adam: Lawyers prefer to work in a structured, methodical way and believe in precedents and established judgment. This could not be more different than the norms and culture of the business world. The most challenging aspects is not the process of learning unfamiliar subjects nor enduring the late nights, but how to use my unbiased lawyer’s lens from a business angle to identify the underlying problems and to add value to clients.
KF: What do you think the significant benefits are for lawyers to obtain the MBA?
Adam: The world of law is changing, whether we are prepared for it or not. The industry has become ever more competitive. With the advent of technology, law firms and companies alike rely less on human resources and more on technology to build differentiated practice and products. New clients are demanding greater efficiency and personalized customer service, and technology is a crucial enabler of future success for companies of all sizes. The heightened competition has profoundly impacted the business of medium-sized law firms and junior lawyers seeking jobs in the market, as they are the cohort most susceptible to technological disruption.
I firmly believe that a lawyer with an MBA is far better suited to participate in, and make meaningful contributions to, strategic planning that dovetails with legal requirements in a company. A lawyer with an MBA has an inventory of relevant tools and skills in common with businesspeople that permit them to all speak the same language. It is very empowering for lawyers to be able to understand not only business terminology but how all decisions made in the businesses. Unlike in a law firm where one of the key metrics to promotion is the business you pull in, in an-house setting, it is far less defined. Also, a lawyer with a globally recognized qualification such as an MBA has more credibility in the C-suite.
KF: What would be your advice to lawyers considering to complete an MBA program?
Adam: Lawyers offer a unique business perspective to an MBA program. After many years of practice, you may not enjoy your career only being a lawyer in a large corporate machine. As you rise through the ranks, your company or law firms would like you to do a more in-depth analysis on the business rather than acting only as a gatekeeper. In a law firm, partners will evaluate the performance of senior lawyers beyond excellent legal and execution skills, such as leadership, management, and vision to build a sustainable practice.
If the above appeals to you, my advice is: go for it. The market is undergoing a paradigm shift. Law firms in the future will use fewer traditional associates. I believe the pandemic will give rise to a new troop of “zoom lawyers” – lawyers who no longer ensconced themselves under the brick and mortar of a law firm but leverage on technology such as zoom to broaden their service reach to clients all over the world.
Learning new skills, be it through an MBA or otherwise, is imperative to stay relevant in the job market. It is not just an add-on to your CV – an MBA can help build a good business network and rein in more business opportunities. In my experience, pursuing an MBA degree after obtaining a law degree, rather than doing them in tandem, has proven extremely useful. As a lawyer with experience, you know precisely the knowledge and service gaps you need to fill because your classmates might be your future clients. It provides valuable business insights that will be instrumental in helping me manage an organization more intelligently in the competitive scenario. I firmly believe I will come out of business school as a better lawyer and manager.