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A Head for Business: An Interview with Dean Vincent Rougeau

Turning a law degree to advantage in the corporate arena.

Photograph by Adam DeTour

James M. Micali ’73 spent thirty-one years at tire giant Michelin and was chairman and president of Michelin North America from 1996 to his retirement in 2008. Now principal of Micali Advisory Services, he serves on the boards of directors of Sonoco, SCANA, and American Tire Distributors. In 2004, Furman University named him a Distinguished Senior Fellow in Political Economy and Leadership Management.

VR: Corporations generally prefer hiring lawyers who have had prior law firm experience. Is there a way to overcome this?

JM: If you can get an internship prior to graduation, then the company knows what you can do and may take a chance on you. Or if you have some business or manufacturing experience or a degree in chemistry or speak French or Spanish, then target companies that need those skills.

VR: What do corporations value in a law degree?

JM: Seeing both sides of an argument, being able to parse through the determinative facts from the ones that weren’t really important or were superfluous, putting that into a cogent argument to persuade somebody that your client’s view or your view of the issue is the right one—those skills are critical in today’s business environment.

“Companies know the value of accountability and reputation. You’ve got to do everything you can to make sure that your brand remains at a high level of integrity.” —James M. Micali ’73

VR: We try to communicate that about a law degree. None of us knows how these skills will travel with us through our lives, but in any job, the fact that you can analyze facts and write well, that you are a logical thinker and can make a cogent argument, every organization needs someone who can do that.

JM: Exactly. Suppose a company must decide whether to make a $250 million investment. Factors to consider are whether the product is needed, which markets to ship the product to, which countries to build a plant in (or not), where to find the people to run that plant. Senior management is pretty busy. They don’t have the time or desire, frankly, to read a 100-page document. If you can get that down to three or four pages, you may well carry the day.

VR: A case can be made that lawyers also bring character skills.

JM: That’s true. When you learn how to write a brief and you have to cite a case, you’re telling the court that case stands for a certain principle. That will get tested, by the judge and by the other side. When you claim that the record contains a statement and it turns out that’s not so, that’s not the best position for a lawyer to be in. A law school education teaches you integrity. Companies know the value of accountability and reputation. You’ve got to do everything you can to make sure that your brand remains at a high level of integrity.

VR: There’s been a lot of discussion these days about whether someone with a law degree also benefits from having an MBA.

JM: One of the biggest criticisms you’ll hear is that very few lawyers get a lot of accounting or financial education in law school. They may not have marketing experience, or know how to read a balance sheet or an operating statement. So, I think a JD and MBA are very complementary degrees.

VR: We’re starting to provide course work here that will give law students the option of getting some of those skills as part of their general law degree.

On another note, today’s workplace allows you to do a lot of work virtually. How do you think that is changing the practice of law?

JM: Today’s connectivity lets you decentralize your in-house staff, not just throughout the US, but globally. In-house lawyers are now in satellite offices, working day to day with local management. They have a much better understanding of the issues, the problems, and solutions. Connectivity makes that possible.

VR: Right. And emerging technology and artificial intelligence are already doing document review, and that’s only the beginning. If technology can handle those tasks at very low cost, you probably don’t need a big suite of offices where all these lawyers are working.

Plus, there are changes in how people live. Younger employees have different expectations about the workplace and the work-home balance. I think technology is opening up new possibilities there.

JM: And technology is having a huge impact on discovery and document production. Instead of having an associate look at 300,000 documents to find the fifteen you have to prove, you have a tech tool that will do that for you.

We also have a competitive advantage in that globalization puts an English-speaking law degree in a very good position. But it’s still extraordinarily useful to learn another language, and not just to be globally competitive. If you’re practicing law in Miami and you’re not bilingual, it may be hard to do the kind of job you want to do there.