Law Students Learn the Language of Business
When Michael Davis (JD ’19) worked for the University of Wisconsin—Madison’s Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic after his first year at the UW Law School, he knew there was a big gap in his ability to assist people seeking help with their startups.
“I felt I couldn’t help my clients with a lot of the nitty-gritty business stuff,” says Davis, who brought a science background to his law studies. “We had meetings where my supervising attorney would talk about the clients’ discussions with accountants and I was completely lost.”
Davis found the help he needed when the Law School added a new elective course in Fall 2016: Accounting and Law, made possible with a generous gift from Tom Ragatz (BBA ’57, LLB ’61). The Tom & Karen Ragatz Accounting and Law Distinguished Chair, which helped bring Tom Linsmeier (MBA ’80, Ph.D. ’85) to the Wisconsin School of Business, has created a collaboration between the WSB and the Law School to better prepare attorneys to serve their clients.
Ragatz (BBA ’57, LLB ’61) is a retired managing partner at Foley & Lardner, LLP in Madison who began his career in accounting before pursuing a 42-year law career. He credits his accounting background with his success as an attorney, and wanted to help law students gain that advantage.
“Most legal problems involve some kind of financial element and a financial solution,” Ragatz says. “They call accounting the language of business and I think learning it is a big plus for someone going into a business law practice.”
Dean Margaret Raymond, the Fred W. and Vi Miller Dean and Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin Law School, agrees.
“Tom Ragatz’s gift to the Wisconsin School of Business created an enduring opportunity to help law students understand accounting, not as a practicing CPA would, but as a trusted business advisor and counselor needs to,” she says. “Tom’s desire to ensure that the next generation of lawyers brings that same understanding of business finance to their clients created this collaborative initiative between the Law School and the WSB, in the best tradition of UW—Madison.
—Tom Ragatz (BBA ’57, LLB ’61)
The course introduces students to basic financial accounting principles and their most common business and legal applications. Among the goals of the class are reading, analyzing, and applying financial statements in business and legal contexts, and recognizing potential “red flags” that suggest financial difficulties or even financial fraud.
The Ragatz Chair helped WSB recruit Linsmeier to his alma mater in Fall 2016 after a decade with the seven-member Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), where he helped set accounting standards throughout the U.S. Now, as a professor in the Department of Accounting and Information Systems, he brings his depth of experience and knowledge to the WSB and beyond.
“It’s an honor to return to the Wisconsin School of Business and to be able to do so because of Mr. Ragatz’s generous gift,” Linsmeier says. “I view this as an opportunity to pay it forward.”
Students took to heart Ragatz’s and Linsmeier’s commitment to connecting accounting and law to help clients.
“I feel that as an attorney I have a responsibility to serve my organization in any capacity they ask,” says Jélan Passley (MIPA ’14, JD ’17). “I knew that knowing business would be critical.”
Davis has a goal of working as a general counsel for a research hospital, and the business classes he avoided as a high school and undergraduate student suddenly seemed like a good idea.
“I knew a career choice at a hospital would involve business administration, looking over numbers, and preparing financial statements,” he says. “When I got the email that Accounting and Law was going to be offered, I thought, ‘Perfect. This is exactly what I’m looking for.’”
On the first day of the semester, Tom Linsmeier invited Tom Ragatz to class so he could express why he felt accounting was important for law students to learn. By the end of the semester, students knew the answer.
“I hope Mr. Ragatz knows that this is a really helpful class, that his gift was not wasted,” Passley says. “I’m a better law student for it, I’m a better attorney for it. The class wasn’t easy but it was so worth it."