It's not the type of question that law students typically field: If you owned 5 percent of Geico Corp.'s stock valued at $55 a share, and Warren Buffett offered to buy them at a price of $70 a share, would you sell?
One hundred Georgetown University Law Center students assembled last month in a sprawling lecture hall took to their laptops and smartphones to weigh in via an online poll conducted by business professor Sandeep Dahiya. The results came back within seconds: Nearly three-quarters of the students said they would sell. The Buffett/Geico case study was part of Dahiya's crash course in the time-value of money — the basic financial theory that money today has different buying power over time given interest and inflation.
Dahiya's lecture kicked off a brand new class on finance and accounting that Georgetown offered to upper-class law students this year. "Demystifying Finance boot camp," as it was called, was the first in what dean William Treanor hopes will be a series of new courses focused on skills typically taught in business school but neglected in the legal curriculum.
Georgetown administrators spent two years querying alumni, faculty and legal employers about how the school should prepare students. The consensus? New graduates need a broader set of capabilities. Basic finance and accounting skills came up most often, so administrators started there. "We've always focused on teaching them legal analysis, but in order for them to succeed as a lawyer they have to be able to communicate effectively," Treanor said. "They've got be able to manage. They've got to be able to do strategic planning and understand finances."
Georgetown developed an intense, five-day course that would cover the basics — understanding the present and future value of money; bond and stock valuation; reading an annual report; understanding the relationship between an income statement and a balance sheet. The law faculty worked with professors from Georgetown's McDonough School of Business to identify the areas most relevant to lawyers and the best ways teach those skills to law students. Although in the pilot phase, Treanor expects to offer the course twice a year and add courses in management and strategic thinking.
MORE SIGNED UP THAN EXPECTED
Administrators didn't initially know if students would sign up for the finance course — particularly since the boot camp required them to return to campus two weeks early. They had hoped to get 80 2Ls and 3Ls to sign up; 220 attempted to enroll.
Dan Kunstlinger was wait-listed, but took the train down from New York anyway and showed up on the first day of class, hoping to secure a seat the first day. Kunstlinger, a 3L, had just completed a summer clerkship at Cahill Gordon & Reindel and will head back there as an associate following graduation.
"I was very excited when I heard they were doing this class, because I'll be doing corporate work and I want to gain some sort of a foundation," said Kunstlinger, adding that he was particularly interested in learning about high-yield debt.
Several other students in the boot camp said their goal was to learn finance and accounting terminology so that they could keep up once they were in the work force. "I realized that I shy away from discussions about the stock market, and it's because I don't understand the language," said 3L Christina Hennecken.
Students also liked the price tag: the course is free. Alumnus Jules Kroll, who founded corporate investigations firm Kroll Inc. in 1972, is bankrolling the boot camp.
"I find that the amount of financial literacy that is necessary to practice law is really lacking," said Kroll, who sits on Georgetown's board of visitors. "People really are, for the most part, financially illiterate. You need context, which I think in the real world is something that's really missing. [The boot camp] introduces them to a whole new vocabulary."
The timing was strategic, as administrators wanted 2Ls and 3Ls to develop a foundation in finance and accounting before taking advanced courses such as corporations and securities.
The Buffett/Geico case study offered the law students an accessible introduction into the world of finance and how investment decisions are weighed. Although most students said they would take Buffett's deal, a few were skeptical. "If Buffett's offering so much more than the stock price, what does he know that we don't?" one student wondered. "May­be it's smarter to hang onto the stock."
There was no way to know for sure, Dahiya responded. Buffett might believe that Geico's stock was poised to take off, or that the market was undervaluing the company.
If history is any guide, the majority of the class had it right, The case study was based on a real-life business play by Buffett, who announced in 1995 that his Berkshire Hathaway Inc. would buy the remaining 49 percent of Geico that it didn't already own at well over the market price. Both Berkshire and Geico stocks were buoyed — the deal paid off.
Beyond offering an introduction to finance and investments, the class forced the law students to dust off their rusty math skills. Dahiya spent half of the first class reviewing a series of algebraic equations that would allow students to calculate the present and future value of money. Recognizing that some students landed in law school in part to avoid math and numbers, he encouraged them to download specialized financial calculators from the Internet to do the heavy mathematical lifting for them.
"Full disclosure — I haven't taken a math class since high school. But I thought it was important to put myself in that position," said 3L Ami Shah. "I think the biggest challenge for a law student is wanting to stay in your comfort zone, but needing new skills."
By the end of the course, Shah said, she had a much better handle on basic finance and accounting principles, and she appreciated that a significant portion of class time was devoted to working through different financial calculations.
"We had a lot of time to play with the principles, which made the concepts less abstract," Shah said. "By Friday, when we went back and discussed the [Buffet/Geico] case, I went, 'Oh my gosh, it makes sense!' "
Karen Sloan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.