This article first appeared in Sunday's State Journal.

UW-Madison law professor Jonathan Lipson wants to correct what he says is a big misconception about where he works.

The university's law school isn't anti-business, Lipson said, and it does a lot more than try to help the disenfranchised and free the wrongly convicted.

"There's this idea that we're focused only on the rights of criminal defendants, or that we have really strong left-leaning or anti-market politics," he said, in passing reference to the school's free consumer law clinics and its well-known Wisconsin Innocence Project in the area of criminal law. "When people outside think about the law school, I don't think business law is what comes to mind."

Lipson, a business law professor himself, hopes to change that with the Wisconsin Business Law Initiative, a program he launched last month at the direction of Law School Dean Margaret Raymond.

The effort, through targeted programs, outreach and networking opportunities, will seek to raise the public profile of business law — the dry but critical stuff of commercial bankruptcy, contracts, securities and corporate finance — while it works to better connect students and faculty with business.

"One of the things lawyers and clients in particular constantly express frustration with is people graduating from law schools not adequately trained in business law," Lipson said. "We're very definitely committed to improving that."

Third-year UW-Madison law student Nate Inglis Steinfeld liked the initiative's emphasis on practical business skills. He said learning to work more with data and computer programs would help graduates' career prospects.

"It's good to understand how businesses think, because the client is the business," Steinfeld said.

Project pleases lawyers

Chief lawyers for companies around the state also welcomed the effort, including Jerome D. Okarma, vice president and general counsel for Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls, a $44 billion operation in 125 countries, including a Madison office.

Okarma was part of a symposium on business law for students, faculty and lawyers last month at UW-Madison, in part to launch the initiative.

In an interview, Okarma highlighted the initiative's idea of letting company leaders and law firms provide more feedback about what skills and traits they'd like to see in law school graduates, which he called "our future legal staff."

"I'm all for it," he said. "We've made efforts in this direction in the past as general counsels, and we believe it would be a benefit to the law school, to companies and to the students themselves."

Gail A. Lione, who retired in May as executive vice president and former general counsel for Harley-Davidson, said she did a survey of general counsels in Wisconsin, asking them what one thing they would change in legal education if they could.

Most asked for more business training for students, she said, with some emphasis on "practical realities and practical skill sets," such as being able to read a balance sheet.

"Clients really want their law firms to understand their business," she said. "The reality is that most of your clients (as a lawyer) are businesses, whether it's a for-profit business or a not-for-profit. Most of them have a balance sheet, whether they're big or little, and it's just about equipping law students with some basic understanding of that."

Lione cautioned that any business emphasis should not overshadow what she called a law school's primary responsibility — to produce graduates who can "think critically and ask the right questions, and be able to communicate in ways that others can understand and be persuasive," she said.

"This initiative is a good one, but it is not the only direction the law school has," she said. "It's critical that law schools remember their primary objective is to help develop good lawyers, and to not have them go into niche areas too soon. You really do want a well-rounded and versatile law student graduating."

Constant collaboration

Beyond better training for students, the initiative will provide opportunities for professors to get feedback from lawyers and businesses as they develop research papers, rather than just collecting comments after an article is published, Lipson said.

And it will look for ways the university can help businesses directly, in keeping with the university's three-part tradition of providing public service or outreach in addition to teaching and research.

"At some point, we're just going to survey the major corporation counsel offices in Wisconsin about what their legal needs are — what keeps them up at night," Lipson said. "We could then very easily organize a series of programs to meet those needs. You don't want to compete with the private lawyers, but if somebody here is already working on that problem (in research), we could connect up that person with the company."

Legal challenges

In some respects, Lipson said, the initiative is just belated recognition and promotion of what the law school has long valued and worked on, if quietly.

"We've always had some extremely good business law scholars and teachers," Lipson said. "We just haven't emphasized it to the outside world."

It's different now, he says, in part because business law has such a crucial role to play in the country's recovery from the bursting of the housing bubble that helped usher in the global financial crash of 2008.

Dealing with the complicated new financial regulations put in place to prevent another crash — many as part of the Dodd-Frank Act of July 2010 — is one of the most pressing legal challenges companies face now, Lipson said. 

Other big issues that often require legal help include regulatory confusion stemming from globalization, especially for multi-national companies, and data security concerns raised by the business world's ever-increasing use of technology.

"Those are really difficult problems, and business law deals with that on a daily basis," Lipson said.

Eventually, the business law initiative might want to provide money to bring speakers to campus, and perhaps to hire someone to work part time advancing the initiative goals. Organizers hope to raise private funds for that, Lipson said.

"If law firms and lawyers and corporations are not willing to invest in this, then it means there's no market for what we're doing," Lipson said. "And if that's the case, then fine. We'll do other things."

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

Subscribe to our Politics email!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.