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“To do a really good job at problem solving, you have to have an interdisciplinary approach,” Nicholas D. Chabraja told Kellogg students April 4. “Complex problem solving was a good skill that I brought to the business from the legal side.”

“To do a really good job at problem solving, you have to have an interdisciplinary approach,” Nicholas D. Chabraja told Kellogg students April 4. “Complex problem solving was a good skill that I brought to the business from the legal side.”

Lawyer up

Nicholas D. Chabraja, retired chairman and CEO of General Dynamics, advises Kellogg students on the career benefits of a law degree

By Sara Langen

4/11/2011 - To become the great business leaders of tomorrow, defense industry titan Nicholas D. Chabraja believes Kellogg students should consider pursuing law degrees in addition to MBAs.

“You may not think of law school as a place to develop leadership skills, but I know of no place that develops both written and oral communication skills better,” the retired General Dynamics Corp. chairman and CEO told a packed crowd of Kellogg students at the Donald P. Jacobs Center on April 4. “Very good lawyers are excellent communicators — what an important leadership advantage.”

Chabraja discussed the benefits of a legal background in the business world at an event sponsored by the Northwestern JD-MBA Association. Chabraja, who earned his undergraduate degree at Northwestern in 1964 and his graduate degree at the law school in 1967, began his career at Jenner & Block before joining General Dynamics as general counsel in 1993, where he quickly moved into an executive role. He retired as chairman and CEO in 2009 after increasing sales from $4 billion to $32 billion during his tenure as the longest-serving chief executive among the top five defense contractors.

Having a familiarity with legal concepts can enhance the skills one acquires in business school, Chabraja said. One of the greatest ways his legal background helped him achieve success in business was by enhancing his ability to understand the intricacies of regulatory compliance, he explained. Rather than burying compliance somewhere in the general counsel’s office, companies should embrace it and elevate it to become a critical aspect of overall business strategy.

“Missteps can be highly embarrassing, in addition to being costly,” he said. “But most industries today are highly regulated in one form or another. Carefully conceived legal compliance is a major business asset.”

While most CEOs make deals with a handshake and leave the details to the legal department, Chabraja’s background gave him the advantage of being able to negotiate the fine terms of agreements to the benefit of his company. Having a wide range of skill sets in your leadership tool box will help you be more effective at leading a company and handling whatever challenges you face, Chabraja said.

“To do a really good job at problem solving, you have to have an interdisciplinary approach,” he said. “Complex problem solving was a good skill that I brought to the business from the legal side.”