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May 10, 2010 5:03 PM

The MBA Mentality Rethinks Itself?

Posted by Ed Shanahan

By Steven Harper

Last Tuesday, Nitin Nohria was named the new dean of Harvard Business School.

In leading the school, Professor Nohria will focus "on business ethics, a cause he has long championed, particularly during the financial crisis," as The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday. Nohria also has been, as the Journal describes him, "vocal critic of management education and the leaders it produces."

Why am I writing about the new dean of a top-rated business school in a space usually reserved for legal career topics?

As the great recession deepened, Nohria and a colleague, Rakesh Khurana, argued in the October 2008 Harvard Business Review that management should become a profession: "Managers have lost legitimacy over the past decade in the face of a widespread institutional breakdown of trust and self-policing in business. To regain society's trust, we believe that business leaders must embrace a way of looking at their role that goes beyond their responsibility to the shareholder to include a civic and personal commitment to their duty as institutional custodians. In other words, it is time that management finally became a profession."

It might surprise many attorneys that Nohria singled out lawyers as offering a better model. He did so largely because the legal profession abides by a code of ethics. Is he searching for nobility in the business world? If so, maybe Nohria has a fictional character in mind--Atticus Finch. Unfortunately, it's too late for the most lucrative and influential segment of the legal profession to guide business schools to better places.

For 20 years now, large law firms have been moving in the direction Nohria seeks to reverse in the business world. Following the example of their corporate clients, law firm leaders have adopted an MBA-centric mentality. In recent years, a large percentage of law firm managers have earned MBAs. And increasingly, they have come to rely on business-school metrics -- billable hours, leverage ratios, and profits-per-partner--to dictate decisions that shape the culture of their legal businesses.

How this has happened and the unfortunate behavior that adherence to such deceptively objective metrics has produced are topics to be addressed in a future post.

For now, the point is this: If Dean Nohria is looking for a new model of something that is truly a profession, rather than a collection of bottom-line businesses where MBA-type metrics set the tone, he'll have to look elsewhere. Many Big-Law leaders might consider a similar search.

TELL US WHAT YOU THINK: Where are the examples? Do you have a candidate to point Nohria to?

Leave your comments here.


Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University. He recently retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at www.thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com. A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.

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As an MBA, who worked in the business world, and as a lawyer, I am appalled that anyone would look to a law firm for management guidance. Most lawyers can not manage themselves out of a paper bag.

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