JD to ESQ to CEO

Vol. 42 No. 2

By

Leslie A. Gordon (leslie.gordon@stanfordalumni.org) is a secret lawyer who works as a freelance legal affairs journalist and novelist. Her most recent novel is Cheer: A Novel.

Robert Musslewhite decided to attend law school because he thought he’d enjoy being a trial lawyer like his dad. “I thought courtroom action was interesting and I thought it would be an interesting education. I was one of those crazy people who thought law school would be fun,” he quipped.

He never made it to the courtroom. Instead, he found his calling in the boardroom. While he’s still an ESQ, the letters CEO are the title he uses. He currently leads 2,200 employees at the Advisory Board Company. His company is a research, technology, and consulting firm partnering with health care and educational organizations.

Even though he’s not practicing law, Musslewhite uses his legal skills all the time. “I’m trained to see both sides of every issue and understand problems from all dimensions,” he explained. “I know how to frame clear and logical arguments about what the company is doing and how to be persuasive. I learned oral communication from moot court. And law school teaches you how to be a great writer: clear, concise, precise, and logically organized. Those skills are tremendously valuable.”

Specifically, when Musslewhite first took the helm, the economy was struggling and it was a “tough time in health care,” he said. The Advisory Board Company had to make important investments in its future and everyone looked to him to clarify the reasons and the risks of the investments. “It was really important to communicate logically and clearly,” explained Musslewhite.

Lawyers are often described as risk averse. While that may be, it is more accurate to say that lawyers are trained to identify risk, provide understanding and analysis of risk, and limit a client’s exposure to risk. Musslewhite used, and continues to use, his lawyer training to guide his company through risk as it grew. Having been taught to navigate risk and clearly communicate, this secret lawyer helped his company see better days.

He’s sure that he would have enjoyed practicing law. Then, he added, “But I am fortunate to have found a career I love.” The path to this career began in law school.

Before graduating from Harvard Law School in 1996, he worked at Mc-Kinsey & Company, a management consulting firm. In an effort to recruit talented students from many disciplines, McKinsey had begun recruiting at Harvard Law. “I worked very hard that summer,” Musslewhite recalls. “The pace [was] tough. But once I got that distance, I realized I liked it. It involved teamwork and problem-solving, but in a different way from law.”

After graduating, Musslewhite returned to McKinsey after graduation. He spent six years at McKinsey specializing in pricing work for consumer products and media companies. His work took him to Dallas, Amsterdam, and Washington, D.C.

Eventually, Musslewhite grew frustrated that he wasn’t always able to stick around to assist clients in implementing his ideas. So in 2003, he joined the Advisory Board Company. Initially, he led the company’s strategic planning and new product development, which he calls the “perfect next step” in his career. Later, he launched the company’s new software products for hospitals. (Today, more than 50 percent of inpatient admissions in the United States flow through his company’s technology platforms.) Five years later, Musslewhite took the company’s top spot. n

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