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University of Maryland law school means business

Michelle Harner and Robert Rhee, co-directors of the business law program at the University of Maryland School of Law
Michelle Harner and Robert Rhee, co-directors of the business law program at the University of Maryland School of Law - Steve Ruark
Law professor Daniel S. Goldberg takes a moment to chat in his faculty conference room before he begins his scheduled classes at the University of Maryland. He outstretches his hand, carrying a ceramic coffee mug bearing the logo East Coast Coffee Co.
 
It’s not the name of his favorite coffee shop. East Coast Coffee Co. doesn't’t even exist. Goldberg’s students invented it for his course on business planning at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. Limited to 25 law students at the downtown Baltimore campus, there is always a waiting list to get in.
 
Goldberg makes the course as real-life as you can get in a classroom. Students develop a company —  in this case, a coffee shop empire reminiscent of Starbucks, down to official namesake mugs. They take it from startup to the business world’s version of a happy ending — a successful initial public offering.
 
If this sounds more like an MBA program rather than a law school curriculum, then the University of Maryland faculty members have achieved their goal. The law school revamped its business law program and courses like Goldberg’s, which take a fresh approach to the topic, are the result.
 
The impetus for change came from the students themselves. The school had a business law program, but the feeling was it no longer met the needs of the students or the law firms and businesses to which they would apply for jobs after graduation. The University of Baltimore School of Law is taking the same route in making sure its courses are relevant. Dwindling admission applications and a job market that tanked with the 2008 recession have led to a highly competitive environment for law schools around the country.
 
That means law schools need to set themselves apart and teach skills that will help graduates make money and find jobs—even if it isn’t the traditional career path as the partner of a corporate law firm. Christine Hein says she enrolled in University of Maryland's law school because she wants to practice in the food industry, whether for a manufacturer, restaurant, international company or regulatory agency like the U.S.. Food and Drug Administration.  
 
A spring graduate, Hein says she is better prepared for the business world, and more marketable, after taking the business law track. For one course, she performed an investment analysis of Sparks spice maker McCormick & Co. Inc. “I read the financial information and understood it,” she says. “I could be the in-house counsel to a food company and I would know what the terms mean.”
 
Executives from Colliers International, T. Rowe Price Group Inc., Legg Mason Capital Management and others helped University of Maryland faculty revamp its program.

“There was a groundswell of interest and student demand for business involvement,” says Michelle Harner, a former corporate restructuring lawyer. She and Robert Rhee, a lawyer and former investment banker, are co-directors of the business law program.“There was a groundswell of interest and student demand for business involvement,” says Michelle Harner of the University of Maryland law school.
 
The University of Maryland's business law program has undergone an extensive overhaul. Existing courses were revamped and new ones added to keep current with the marketplace. Core business skills stayed the same but a working knowledge of terms and practices, like being able to read a balance sheet, were added. For-credit internships at federal agencies and nonprofits provide practical experience.
 
The Law School Admissions Council reports that applications have declined 38 percent from 2010 to 2012. In 2004, there were 100,000 applications to law school; in 2013, there were 54,000 applications.
 
The Association for Legal Career Professionals reports that 86 percent of Class of 2011 graduates were employed nine months after graduation, the lowest number since 1994, and compared with 92 percent in 2007.
 
In 2007, the University of Baltimore School of Law revised all of its concentrations, including business law. Last year, UB Law formed a long-range planning committee to review the concentrations again.
 
As law schools try to make themselves more competitive, “the push is to create more practice-ready law school graduates,” says UB Associate Professor of Law Fred Brown.
 
“Law firms used to hire and train law school graduates. They don’t do that anymore. The movement is to make law school more experiential,” says Brown.
 
At the University of Maryland, law students enroll in the business law track at the start of their second year. They are required to take certain courses, receive one-on-one mentoring and participate in an internship. Upon graduating, they get a personalized letter of completion from Harner and Rhee highlighting their skills.
 
One example is a course Harner and Rhee introduced called business boot camp, a few days of immersion in business and financial practices. All students can sign up for boot camp, but it is a requirement for those in the business track. The first boot camp, held in 2011, a year after Harner arrived, enrolled 30 students. A year later, in 2012, enrollment had tripled, to 90 students.
 
Likewise, the number of students enrolled in the business law track has increased.  The first year students were eligible to graduate from the track was 2012; there were two graduates. In 2013, about a dozen students graduated from the track.  Harner says that, judging by current enrollment in the track, 24 students will graduate in 2014, and 35 students in 2015.

“I was introduced to the buzz words," says University of Maryland law student Hein. "I learned about practical areas. The track brought me up to speed.”
 
Barbara Pash is BmoreMedia's Innovation and Jobs News Editor and can be reached at innovationnews@bmoremedia.com. She writes for Maryland Life magazine and is a former contributing editor for MarylandReporter.com.

All photographs by STEVE RUARK.

Click photos to read captions.
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