By Grace Renshaw
Will Belton ’16 (MSF’16) didn’t start Vanderbilt Law School intending to pursue a dual degree in finance. After earning his undergraduate degree in psychology at Morehouse College, Belton spent two years playing professional basketball in Qatar and another two years working as a bankruptcy and credit counselor in Atlanta before deciding to embark on a career in law.
By his 2L year, Belton knew he wanted to focus on transactional practice. From his perspective, Vanderbilt’s innovative J.D./Master’s in Finance, offered by the law school in conjunction with Owen Graduate School of Management, provided an attractive opportunity to gain valuable finance expertise that would inform his law practice.
After graduation, Belton joined Baker Donelson in Nashville, where he had worked in the corporate and securities group during the previous two summers. He believes the teamwork and delegation skills he learned through his Owen coursework, where students often collaborate on projects, have enabled him to do a better job of structuring complex financial transactions for his firm’s clients.
“The deals are huge, there are lots of moving parts, and you have to parcel them out to members of a team,” he said. “Your duties on one deal may be different than your duties on another. I’ve learned a lot about delegation and how to break down a project into manageable parts by working on team projects at Owen.”
The J.D./M.S.F. dual-degree program grew out of discussions between Dean Chris Guthrie and M. Eric Johnson, dean of the Owen School, shortly after Johnson’s arrival in 2013. Both deans say that the program expands a natural partnership between the two schools and increases the options available to students interested in both business and law. “Owen is literally right next door to us, which is another advantage,” said Guthrie, who notes that the program has attracted interest from alumni who have ensured that scholarships granted by the law school will also cover tuition for coursework at Owen.
Guthrie believes the program’s specific finance focus gives its graduates an added edge. “I am very bullish on the opportunities the program creates for a select group of Vanderbilt Law students,” Guthrie said.
The J.D./M.S.F. builds on the law school’s existing Law and Business Program, which offers law students a specialization certificate in business. VLS has offered a four-year J.D./M.B.A. Program with Owen since the 1980s; Owen established its well-regarded M.S.F. Program in 2002.
Prospective J.D./M.S.F. students take both the GMAT and LSAT and must be admitted to both the J.D. and M.S.F. programs. The J.D./M.S.F. is a six-semester program; students spend their first four semesters at the law school, their fifth at Owen, and their final semester at the law school.
“Prospective students may apply for admission to the M.S.F. either at the time they apply for admission to the J.D. Program or as first- or second-year law students,” said Todd Morton, the law school’s dean of admissions. “Space is limited, so we encourage J.D. applicants who know they’re interested in this dual degree to apply to the M.S.F. Program before entering law school. But we also welcome applications from law students for any remaining slots.”
Randall Thomas, who directs Vanderbilt’s Law and Business Program, notes that the J.D./M.S.F. dual degree provides expertise that is highly valued by law firms and their business clients, but rare among newly minted J.D.’s. “Graduates going into a transactional practice are expected to have a good understanding of accounting and finance,” he said. “The businesspeople they work with are quite conversant in those languages, and they expect their lawyers will understand the issues. The J.D./M.S.F. allows students to get the same technical training in finance and accounting their clients receive, and they study with M.B.A. students—their future clients.”
Thomas, the John S. Beasley II Professor of Law and Business, worked with the deans and faculties of VLS and Owen to structure the dual-degree program before its launch in 2013, but many of the pieces were already in place at both schools. For example, VLS already offered introductory courses in finance and accounting as second-year electives. “Students typically take these courses if they lack a background in business and finance,” Thomas said. “The J.D./M.S.F. Program allows them to augment these basic skills by taking a full semester at Owen during the fall of their third year to get a thorough grounding in the principles of finance.”
After graduation Dan Ward ’16 (MSF’16) joined Calfee Halter Griswold in Cleveland, where he focuses on patent law. Ward, who earned his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from Miami University of Ohio, chose the J.D./M.S.F. Program as a way to gain insight into the business world without adding a year to his studies. “This program is an excellent way to socialize yourself in the business context, to know what your clients are thinking and how to relate to them, and build value,” he said.
He also appreciated the program’s strong emphasis on the mechanics of financial transactions and the exposure to finance. “The coursework at Owen is hardcore finance,” he said, “and the networking opportunities are great because people you’re working with every day there are going to be at investment banks and firms. On a practical level, that was a great value-add for me.”
Ward applied to the program after talking with Kevin Saunders ’15 (MSF’15), an associate with Baker Hostetler in Cleveland. The partners at Ward’s firm were enthusiastic as well. “They loved the idea,” he recalled. “It doesn’t take extra time, and it’s one more asset I bring.”
A member of the first class of J.D./M.S.F. graduates, Saunders comes from a third-generation family business background and earned an undergraduate degree in accounting at Ohio State before deciding on Vanderbilt Law School. He found the program a perfect fit because it combined his two career passions: business and law. He had already taken four credit hours at Owen as law electives when he heard about the J.D./M.S.F. Program. “I’m a huge proponent,” he said. “It really made that third year count.”
After two years of law classes focused on developing critical thinking, writing and speaking skills, Saunders found the added dimension of the M.S.F. coursework “intense but refreshing—it really allowed me to think quantitatively and develop the other side of my brain.” He also believes his finance coursework enhanced his preparation for working on team projects at Baker Hostetler. “You don’t work on an M&A deal or due diligence project alone—you’re part of a team of three or four other attorneys,” he said. “Learning how to work in a group dynamic and manage personalities and skills to achieve a final outcome transfers over to the practice of law quite well.”
Likewise, graduate Patrick Tricker ’15 (MSF’15) believes his J.D./M.S.F. gave him an edge in the job market. “The partners at my firm were really impressed with the degree—especially the heavily mathematical, quantitative component,” he recalled. Now an associate with Davis & Harman in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on tax work with life insurance products, Tricker has found his finance training valuable. “We deal with spreadsheets created by actuaries, and it really helps if you fully understand the concepts and math that connect the cells,” he said.
Will Middleton ’16 (MSF’16) was sold on the J.D./M.S.F. Program after spending a summer working on syndicated loans and credit agreements with Moore and Van Allen in Charlotte, North Carolina, the firm he joined after graduation. “Something went wrong with a deal, and we ended up working out of a bank manager’s office,” he said. That confirmed his interest in focusing on financial transactional practice.
“I tell 2Ls considering the program this: If you’re in a negotiation across the table from me and you didn’t go through this program, you’re at an instant disadvantage,” he said. “Interviewing attorneys tell me the biggest complaint they get is ‘Clients tell us we don’t know business.’
“Now I can speak their language.”