Alumni Partnership Yields Long-Lasting Results

December 15, 2020

International law and business combine in long-running course offering with an experiential focus

When George Hiller, L’91, approached fellow Richmond Law alum Bill Benos, L’88, in 1994 with an idea to launch a linked course in business and international law, the concept was something of a novel idea. Grounded in an experiential approach to learning, the course would bring together law students and business students to create a combined business plan for a real company.

Dean Joe Harbaugh accepted the course proposal on a probational basis – and over 25 years later, Benos and Hiller still bring together University of Richmond students with local businesses for innovative solutions.

Although the adjunct professors weren’t law school classmates, they did share a few things in common. Both had backgrounds in international law and business, and were excited about the prospect of working with young lawyers and business people in training. Hiller was in charge of Virginia’s export promotion programs in Latin America with the Virginia Economic Development Partnership at the time, while Benos was working as an international business attorney at Williams Mullen, a position he holds to this day. Working with then-associate-dean Clark Williams – who, coincidentally, taught both Hiller and Benos when they were in law school – the team designed a program that married business decision-making and analytical processes with legal issues and compliance in an international arena.  

First launched with University of Richmond MBA students, today’s version of the program pairs undergraduate students in the Robins School of Business’ Strategic Market Planning in Latin America course with students in the Law School’s International Business Practice Seminar. While the law and business classes are taught separately – Hiller teaches the business students, while Benos teaches the law students – the students come together to work on the solution for their clients.

The course has certainly evolved over those 25 years. “Today, you have client access around the globe instantaneously,” said Benos, who also works on a similar project with business students from Virginia Commonwealth University. “At that time, these things were all young and new and being explored.” Now, said Hiller, “The challenge is exactly the reverse: There’s too much information. It’s even more incumbent on these students to strategize and to look for info that is on point and appropriate for the client,” he explained. “It’s an interesting dynamic.”

Another important part of the course dynamic is the synergy between the two groups of students. “It’s important … for the business students to understand what the role should be – could be – of legal counsel, be it in-house or outside counsel, in the business planning process up front,” said Hiller. Likewise, he added, it’s important for law students to understand the role of business managers. The law students “are serving as the legal advisor to the business students, helping to educate each other and to mutually talk about issues and ideas and identification of the problems, and more importantly, the solutions,” said Benos.

The solutions-based approach is a crucial focus of the program. “I want [students] to solve problems, not to tell clients the 10 hurdles they’re going to face,” said Hiller. Student teams are tasked with creating for their clients a report and presentation that have, at their center, “this idea of solving business problems: trying to identify what the clients’ needs are and then to come up with a series of strategies and recommendations to try to address and solve those business problems.” That strategy is just one of the reasons that the course has seen long-term success, said Jack Preis, associate dean of academics. “The longevity of the program can be attributed not just to the creative, client-focused approach to learning, but to the fantastic dedication of the faculty, as well,” he explained.

As the program has progressed, so too have the sophistication of the projects, said Hiller, with clients including companies like Hamilton Beach, Brinks, UNOS, Sabra, and Owens & Minor. These days, “it is now the norm for large as well as smaller U.S. companies to be involved in international markets,” he added, and that’s why “students who are interested in developing a business practice need to have a basic understanding of key international business law principles and issues.”

One alum who puts that understanding to good use is J.R. Smith, L’97. Today, he’s a partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth, who opened the firm’s Tokyo office in 2011 and specializes in restructuring and corporate finance. But during law school, he was a student in Benos’ and Hiller’s course, working with business students for a local client called Founders Furniture. 

“What I do remember is Bill starting off and basically telling us, ‘We’re going to treat you like an associate at a larger law firm working in a corporate group’” recalled Smith. “That was a great way to start because it got us excited: Here we are in law school learning in a vacuum. This was an opportunity to actually see how you apply the paint to the canvas,” he said.

For Smith, the most long-lasting impact of the course, beyond his friendship with the two professors, is how “it reinforced the professionalism and just sort of the model for being a transactional lawyer in my brain,” he said. “We literally had a real client. We had to go and analyze real legal issues … The business team was looking at the economic side of the business viability of the commercial proposition. And that’s exactly what happens in real life.” 

That sort of real-life model was exactly what the two adjunct professors – and friends – hoped to achieve, according to Benos: “a really robust and engaging program that represented the full cycle of a client representation both in law and in business.”

Pictured: Bill Benos, L'88, third from right, and George Hiller, L'91, second from right, with students and colleagues. Photo Credits: Robins Business School (top) and Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (side).