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Dual ML/MBA degrees combine education in law and business

September 09, 2019

Law and business are among the most closely connected of all disciplines, as business professionals are routinely responsible for reviewing and understanding contracts, ensuring their companies comply with federal and state regulations and guiding corporate decision-making and governance. At the University of Pennsylvania, students have a unique opportunity to marry a Master in Law degree from the Law School and an MBA from Wharton, combining foundational knowledge in law and business from two of the most respected institutions in their respective fields. Recently, three ML/MBA graduates — Arif Damji WG’19 ML’19, Raul Martinez WG’19 ML’19, and William Matson WG’19 ML’19 — shared their perspectives on how the program enhanced their legal knowledge and prepared them for the next stage of their careers.

Several years before beginning business school at Wharton, Damji moved to the United States from his native London and completed a Master’s degree in Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. Afterward, his work in several companies from different industries exposed him to the wide range of roles he might play in a business setting. Directly after graduation, he worked at McKinsey and Company as a consultant for travel and hospitality companies, and then moved to an early-stage Software-as-a-Service startup company where he spent four years working on marketing, sales, and strategy for a technology platform that companies used to administer their loyalty programs. Finally, he landed at a private equity-owned winery in Sonoma, where he helped to devise innovation strategies and think critically about the needs of the company’s customers.

“That’s when I got to the point where I said this is wonderful, I’m having a great time, but it’s time for me to press the reset button and really rethink what all these somewhat diverse experiences mean for me going forward,” said Damji. He decided to enroll in business school at Wharton, and shortly after arriving on campus, he learned that he could also take classes at the Law School through the ML program.

“I have a lot of respect for lawyers, but I never thought about being a lawyer. At every stage of my career, I’ve been involved in legal conversations as they pertain to the business,” he explained. From understanding the legal components of a $100 million procurement deal between an airline and a cruise line while consulting at McKinsey, to reviewing contracts with grape providers at the winery, Damji has experienced moments in which a background in law would have given him a leg up. The ML program offered the opportunity to fill in that knowledge gap.

“You come here [to the ML program at Penn Law] and you’re told you will be educated to understand the critical business parts of the law, and that was what sold me on it,” he said.

Martinez and Matson similarly felt that a deeper understanding of how the law works would be a benefit for future work in business. Martinez spent four years as a math teacher in Los Angeles before enrolling at Wharton to pivot toward a career in business and finance. He discovered the ML program when he arrived and was immediately drawn to it.

“I was interested in the law side of things because it’s so applicable in business,” said Martinez. “It’s important to be able to understand what your lawyers are saying and understand what is important in a contract and what isn’t.”

Matson came to Wharton after working at JP Morgan for five years, most recently as an M&A investment banker in London. He began business school with the aim of moving into a career in private equity investment, and the ML program was part of that plan.

“Particularly in private equity, good investors work with M&A and transactional lawyers a lot, and I wanted to focus on building those skills,” said Matson. “Also, at a higher level, as an engaged citizen, [the ML program offers] a great education on how the world and the U.S. government work.”

As an ML/MBA, students take required core foundational courses of General Business Law, Navigating the Regulatory State, and U.S. Law and Legal Methods.

“[The core foundational courses] gave me a good footing in terms of understanding legal jargon, how to analyze potential issues, and gaining a strong legal framework for setting up a business,” said Martinez. Those courses provide the knowledge base from which students can go on to specialize. Taking core foundational courses alongside other ML students, many of whom are working professionals, provides a unique classroom experience.

“It enriches the class conversation because people bring a lot of different perspectives,” said Matson. “In some ML classes, for example, you’ll have people who work in the General Counsel’s office at the University, people that negotiate license agreements, or people that do labor relations for the University — those perspectives are really valuable.”

The ML/MBA also puts students into close contact with Penn Law’s JD students as they learn alongside one another in courses from the JD Curriculum. As an ML/MBA graduate student, Matson sampled a wide range of business law-oriented JD and ML courses at the Law School, including Corporations, M&A Through the Business Cycle, Private Equity Transaction Skills, and Contracts and Negotiations. Damji especially enjoyed a course on IP Valuation with Professor David Abrams, a small seminar where students dove into the details of how to value patents.

ML/MBA students carry valuable legal knowledge with them into their summer jobs and eventual careers. For example, during the summer after his first year as an ML/MBA student, Martinez found he was able to use what he had learned at Penn Law as a finance intern for Exxon Mobil.

Working in the oil and gas industry, he explained, “there are a lot of contracts with foreign governments that you have to read, so it was interesting to apply some of the things I learned in my law school classes.”

Damji, Matson, and Martinez each graduated in May 2019 after completing the ML/MBA degree in just two years — the same amount of time it would have taken to earn a standalone MBA from Wharton. Since finishing their studies at Penn, all have embarked on careers in business throughout the country: Damji is now a Senior Associate at venture capital firm Conductive Ventures in San Francisco, CA, Martinez is a Senior Strategy Consultant at Accenture in Houston, TX, and Matson is the Group Chief Financial Officer and Head of M&A at Apex Service Partners in Tampa, FL.

As they move forward in their careers, they are confident the education from the ML degree will continue to inform their work, deepening their understanding of the legal issues that companies contend with on a daily basis.

“TheML/MBA degree combines a foundational understanding with the ability to specialize enough so that you are competent when dealing with lawyers, but also able to operate in some capacity without them,” said Damji.

“The ML program is phenomenal,” said Martinez. “You can complete it in two years and graduate on time with your MBA, and it gives you a really strong framework for understanding the law better, which is an invaluable skill for any businessperson.”