Interview with William H. Byrnes, IV, Associate Dean at Thomas Jefferson School of Law

Professor William H. Byrnes was a pioneer of online legal education, creating the first LL.M. offered online through a law school accredited by the American Bar Association. Now as Associate Dean for Graduate & Distance Education Programs at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, Professor Byrnes teaches courses including Federal Tax, International Tax, and International Business Transactions. Professor Byrnes has an impressive record in academics and research, and was kind enough to set aside time to speak with MastersinAccounting.info.

william-byrnes1. How did your professional experiences shape your approach to the classroom?

As a Senior Manager then Associate Director of Coopers & Lybrand, a three year associate to a renowned senior figure in the international tax industry, and undertaking a three year fellowship at the International Bureau of Fiscal Documentation on the topic of transfer pricing. I advised clients in many countries. Large diverse multinational groups required a robust sensitivity for intercultural business practices and social differences.

In the nineties, I was a tax professor in South Africa during the time of its change to a full democracy with the corresponding upheavals. During those years, I experienced the challenges of classroom integration of cultures, languages, and economic backgrounds. Moreover, being a pioneer of online education in the field of tax during those years, I developed a pedagogical understanding of knowledge and expertise acquisition, and of mapping education processes to learning outcomes.

Finally, as a “foreign” student in The Netherlands, studying tax in (and struggling with) the Dutch language, I became highly aware of the feeling of being “a fish out of water.” I quickly learned the necessity of contextualizing information to be able to quickly store it and assimilate that information or interaction at a later time.

I bring all of these experiences holistically to a “flipped” classroom, learner-centered approach. I know that I must be doing something right because last year India’s National Board of Accreditation conferred its Education Leadership award upon me: “Professor William Byrnes’ leadership and contribution to the field of education is well known,” said Chairman of Awards & Academic Committee Edward Smith. “The position that you occupy in the fraternity is strategic and iconic. As a thinker and doer you are a role model and a believer in change. I am pleased that the Jury and Council of Board members would like to confer the Education Leadership Award to you.” Just recently The National Law Journal stated: “Perhaps no one in legal academia has more experience with online master’s degrees than William Byrnes. ” (May 20, 2013) The National Jurist also referred to me as a “… a leader in the online field…” (March 2013).

2. What should accounting students look for when choosing a master’s or other advanced degree program?

Most importantly, the advanced degree program should align to the specific long term career interest of the respective student. Program faculties, areas of strength, and networks differ – one program doesn’t fit all. Thus, the applicants needs to do their preparatory work by mapping out the universe of educational opportunities, by reviewing many descriptions of career positions via recruiter websites, firms, companies and government, and then interviewing various programs’ faculty members in the subject area of interest. Only at that point can the student ascertain of available choices, which one(s) will assist in obtaining a long term career goal.

3. What can undergraduate accounting or finance majors do to improve their competitiveness in the eyes of a master’s selection committee?

Obviously the GMAT/GRE score and undergraduate GPA are the most important starting point of any admission discussion. But among clusters of individuals within a range, a couple distinguishing factors come to mind. Firstly, business experience, especially management positions – when an employer provides reference for an applicant for a certain program, this sends a strong signal to an admissions committee. Secondly, admissions committee members in general want to encourage diversity among student populations. Diversity can include “out of the ordinary” experiences, not just cultural or national background. By example, a stint with Green Peace or Teach for America with a personal statement of the experience, its impact on the applicant and the applicants impact on it, will sway many admission committee members favorably.

An applicant that has published an academic piece in a recognized journal naturally attracts attention as well.

4. Do you see more students taking time off after earning an undergraduate degree to work before returning to complete a master’s degree? Do you think this is beneficial compared to entering a master’s program directly after graduation?

Absolutely. Should be a requirement really for a management degree. It is very difficult for an inexperienced student to contextually grasp some information. By examples of some important experiences that will greatly improve the candidates educational experience: relating to the factor of stress (management) in decision making, understanding the (ir)rationality of risk taking, and time management. I explain it this way to students: “It is hard to relate to, much less understand, pain and its impact until you’ve suffered through it. The avoidance of pain, after its experience, is highly motivating. It is these highly motivated students that will best question, probe, engage and generally interact with me.”

5. Do you think that the recent changes in the economy have impacted enrollment in accounting programs?

Total enrollment has been up, subject to normal fluctuations for some institutions over others. This trend will increase because of the increasing complexity of business, accounting, taxation, and compliance.

6. What professional development opportunities do you recommend to your students?

Absolutely professional designations, such as Chartered Wealth Manager. Recognized professional designations distinguish candidates for employers and HR departments. I have seen this increasing trend within firms for internal advancement and now suggest it for all my students to obtain a position.

7. Would you do anything differently in your education or professional experience if you had the opportunity?

I would have focused on learning two or three foreign languages fluently, Mandarin and Spanish being two, then take your pick. This is the weakness of many United States graduates – lack of language skills. This translates normally into a lack of intercultural skills as well. Limits the career opportunities over time. Not having language skills in a global economy is like running a race with a sprained ankle. Just getting by in a language is no longer good enough.

We extend our sincere thanks to Professor Byrnes for speaking with us. You can learn more from William Byrnes on his Wealth Management Professor blog.