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Business Commentary Why more corporate executives now have extensive legal training

I've noticed in The Globe and Mail appointment notices a number of marketing, human resources and administrative executives with law degrees. They don't practise law; I suspect they wouldn't call themselves lawyers. But they have degrees.

What's this all about? I think three things are at play.

The first is that business issues today are legal issues. You can rise only so far in an organization without seeing your corporate issues take on a significant legal aspect – ownership of intellectual capital; payment for export contracts; liability for a chief executive officer's slip of the tongue.

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At the same time, lawyers are increasingly asked to take a seat at the boardroom table and provide legal advice on the broader context of international business decisions.

Big organizations attract big legal activity.

For example, Canada's major banks deal with hundreds of legal actions every day. Indeed, Royal Bank of Canada's legal department has 155 lawyers. If it were a law firm, it would be in the country's top 25 by size.

Add the rise of regulation of everything from anti-money-laundering compliance to tighter Canadian governance rules, and it's little wonder that RBC alone now has 650 employees working on compliance issues .

So, if you want to be more valuable to your company, it may no longer be enough to simply call in outside legal expertise.

You need to be familiar and fluent with the subtleties and nuances of your own regulatory environment. Your decision-making will be smarter and wiser if you can actively take part in the discussion and, ultimately, the legal and business decisions that grow out of them.

The second reason for the rising presence of C-suite lawyers is that a law degree teaches you how to think analytically in the face of what can be stunning complexity. Indeed, managing that environment requires leaders who can not only think clearly but also marshal multiple layers of complexity and contradiction.

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The third factor driving this trend is the rising globalization of Canadian business. The latest Statistics Canada numbers show that from 2002 to 2012, the share of countries other than the United States buying our exports rose from 12 to 21.8 per cent.

Our fastest-growing customer is China, a country whose legal system is as different from ours, as its business system. So if you're a bright young executive in a Canadian company doing business with China, knowing the legal underpinning of the Canada-China trade deal signed last December may well advance your career faster.

The University of Toronto is among those seeing the need for a sophisticated program dedicated to training business executives in the law.

Five years ago, the university established what was then North America's first global, executive-style master of laws program for non-lawyers. The global professional master of laws is a one-year, part-time law degree that is open to lawyers and non-lawyers. We believed that a great law-school education needs to train women and men how to master that increasingly complex business environment.

Since its launch in 2011, enrolment in the program has been rising each year, and in the past academic year, more than 50 per cent of participants were non-lawyers.

As Allen Kwan, director of product management and development at NEI Investments, said: "It hasn't done away with the need for a lawyer when complicated legal issues arise. But it's made me more conversant and confident in regulatory matters, and it has enhanced my influence when it comes to decision-making."

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I rest my case.

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