How It All Adds Up

Accounting ‘boot camp’ is added to a growing roster of law and business courses at HLS

Stephanie Atwood ’13 started her 3L year several days early in a basement classroom of Wasserstein Hall in a new intensive “boot camp” on accounting and finance.

In just three days, Atwood and 44 classmates learned a credit’s worth of previously foreign-sounding concepts such as internal rate of return and the cost of capital.

Credit: Adam McCauley

The boot camp is just one on Harvard Law School’s growing roster of law and business courses, which now includes classes in business strategy, corporate finance and how to lead law firms.

These courses ensure that students headed to law firms can speak a “common language” with their clients and understand the business environment in which both operate, said Professor Kathryn Spier, who teaches a course on the business of law firms.

“They can do a better job providing clients with legal services if they understand their clients’ broader needs,” Spier said.

The spectrum of course offerings is designed to take account of HLS students’ diverse backgrounds. Some students majored in economics in college or worked in consulting before enrolling, while others view finance as a completely alien subject.

Preparatory classes, such as Visiting Professor Bala Dharan’s accounting and finance boot camp and Professor Reinier Kraakman’s introduction to finance concepts, help make sure the uninitiated aren’t at a disadvantage when they enroll in classes on corporations or accounting.

“What we wanted to do is make sure those without any background can already hit the ground running,” said Dharan, who also teaches semester-long courses on accounting and financial reports.

He will teach the three-day boot camp again before the fall semester starts, as well as a similar version during the first part of the semester for students who may not be able to return to campus early.

Atwood, who majored in psychology and women’s studies in college, said the three-day course is particularly useful as she prepares for her first job out of law school doing transactional work at Cleary Gottlieb in New York City.

Learning to read and understand income statements and balance sheets, she said, has “given me the tools to at least do a rudimentary financial analysis.”

Kathryn Spier

The boot camp ensures that students headed to law firms can speak a ‘common language’ with their clients, says Professor Kathryn Spier, who teaches a course on the business of law firms.

How much finance makes sense for students depends on their intended career path, said Assistant Professor Holger Spamann LL.M. ’01 S.J.D. ’09, who teaches a corporate finance course each year. “Any lawyer who litigates has to be aware of discounting and finding the right discount rate, and then people who want to practice in finance will need more than that,” he said.

So this coming academic year, in addition to the three-credit finance class, Spamann will offer an extra one-credit supplement for students interested in learning more about topics relevant to transactional lawyers who plan to practice in areas such as securities or mergers and acquisitions.

This kind of knowledge is increasingly expected at law firms, some of which send first-year associates to their own one- or two-day boot camps in corporate finance when they start work, Spamann said.

Students interested in learning about the business of law firms can enroll in a business strategy course taught by Spier and in Professor Ashish Nanda‘s class on law firm leadership.

Atwood said Spier’s business strategy course, as well as classes on the regulation of financial institutions and an introduction to financial institutions at Harvard Business School, has helped her prepare to practice transactional law and increased her interest in hedge funds and tax law as areas of focus.

“Learning about the business side of things makes the legal work more interesting,” Atwood said.

According to Spier, what students learn in these courses also helps those who might later go into business themselves or start their own law firms.

“Giving them a broader education will help them with that transition,” Spier said.