2008 Archives

The Chief Executives

September 29, 2008

Today, eight of the top Fortune 50 chief executive officers have law degrees – double the number from a decade ago. And many Wall Street insiders predict that boards of directors at large public and private corporations in the United States and abroad will give significant consideration to a lawyer as a leader.

Of the eight top Fortune 50 CEOs, three received their law degrees from SMU's Dedman School of Law – the most of any law school in the country. Harvard Law School comes in second with two. In fact, only Harvard Business School had more graduates (five) among the top 50.

Angela Braly
Angela F. Braly
David Dillon
David B. Dillon
Edward Rust
Edward R. Rust Jr.

The three SMU Dedman Law graduates – David B. Dillon of Kroger Inc.; Edward R. Rust Jr. of State Farm Insurance Companies; and Angela F. Braly of WellPoint, Inc. – all agree that their legal education and training played a significant role in their becoming C-level corporate executives (CEO, CFO, COO). Individually, they have been named by Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, and other prominent publications as among the most powerful and influential leaders of business and public policy.

Braly, Dillon, and Rust took different paths from law school to the chief executive's chair. Braly wanted to be a lawyer. Rust was in the joint JD/MBA program with an eye toward business. Dillon admits that he went to law school simply to further his education. He had no idea what he would do for a career, except that it would have something to do with groceries.

But the trio agrees that their journey through torts and contracts, bankruptcy, and tax law classes provided them with key skills that allowed them to be successful corporate leaders. And all three concur that the value of a legal education far exceeds the simple preparation to practice law; it shapes leaders, they say.

"The law experience, or that training orientation, pretty much prepares you for about whatever might come," says Mr. Rust, who received his law degree from SMU in 1975 and received the SMU Dedman School of Law Distinguished Alumni Award in 1988. "I think the legal training and the academic process and rigor around it serves you quite well, regardless of what you do after law school. I think I have benefited significantly from law school. I think the law school experience just really focused and honed my skills."

Braly, Dillon, and Rust say their legal education at SMU instilled in them basic skill sets that they employ as CEOs, including identifying and evaluating potential risks, having an analytical and impartial approach to problem-solving, understanding and navigating increasingly regulated industries, and being an effective communicator and negotiator.

Dillon says that he took "a wide variety of law classes," which he believes have directly helped him as a business leader. He points to real estate law and tax law, which have helped him think through complicated development projects and complex tax transactions.

"Those taught you lots of the basic principles of business," he says. "Law school helped me to learn how to think. The thing I like is thinking from both sides."

Adds Braly, "Law school teaches you a great way to think and identify issues and those are great skills that you use all through your business career."

Read interviews with the three executives by Law School Dean John B. Attanasio.


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