What's a Law Degree to a Fortune 500 CEO?
Michael Roth ('71) discusses the role of his legal education in running a $7 billion company
When it comes to Fortune 500 CEOs with legal training, Michael Roth stands apart from the pack: Of the 498 running the top-grossing firms in the United States, Roth is the only one with both a J.D. and an LL.M.
"My view is that law school gives you an amazing perspective on business issues," he says. "You have that legal perspective of what can go wrong and what you can do to make it right."
Roth, who earned his J.D. at BU Law in 1971, is currently CEO and Chairman of Interpublic Group (NYSE: IPG). One of the world's largest global marketing communication companies, Interpublic employs over 42,000 people across 100 countries in marketing disciplines like advertising, public relations, social and mobile marketing, media services, and events. Top clients include GM, L'Oréal, Johnson & Johnson, Sony and Unilever.
Roth's path from J.D. candidate to Fortune 500 CEO wasn't inevitable, but decisions about his education were strategic. After graduating with a degree in business administration from the City College of New York and earning his CPA, Roth wanted to attend law school because, in his view, a CPA and law degree would be the "best background a businessman could have."
Roth transferred to BU Law from Suffolk Law for his second two years of school, simultaneously working in the tax department of Coopers & Lybrand in Boston. "I always worked while going to school," Roth said. "It was a tremendous benefit to practically apply what I was learning."
In one of his most memorable moments at BU Law, Roth recalls trying to get into a class on business strategy that was already full. He remembers, "I went to the professor and said 'I have to take this class; it's what I want to do!'" He told the professor about his work at Coopers & Lybrand, and the professor agreed to let him into the class on one condition: Roth had to teach the section about tax.
After graduation from law school, Roth's expertise led him to become a tax lawyer for the New York offices of Cooper & Lybrand, during which time he also completed an LL.M. from New York University. He was made partner in the firm by the age of 30.
Roth says he began his transition from a "tax guy" to a "financial services guy" in the 1980s, when a client he was working with "made me an offer I couldn't refuse."
That offer was to take the principal role in transitioning the American Can Company, then the leading manufacturer of tin cans, into a financial services company. As chief financial officer, Roth successfully directed the transformation into Primerica, a financial conglomerate that eventually formed part of Citigroup.
After a brief retirement and the 1987 stock market crash, Roth joined on with Mutual New York, helping to reposition the company into the MONY Group, and worked his way from chief financial officer to chief operating officer to chief executive officer and chairman of the board. In 2005, he was named CEO and president of Interpublic Group after serving on the board of directors.
The key to his successful transition from law to business, Roth notes, was leveraging his law degrees in conjunction with his bachelor's in business administration.
A legal education gives you "tremendous insight" into running a company, he says. "I encouraged my own son to go to law school, even though he didn't want to practice law, because of the background it would provide for him."
To students looking for career advice, he similarly emphasizes the importance of a strong general-thinking education. "Get a professional background," Roth recommends. "Find yourself in a company that fosters diversity and open-mindedness in their approach, and that rewards people who put their head down and go to work."
Reported by Chelsea Sheasley
August 3, 2012