There has long been the joke that lawyers and doctors make the worst businessmen, though doctors do at least take more of the brunt on this one.
But it is true that law firms are full of philosophy and history majors who haven’t taken the first business class. We may be the only ones who still are not overly bothered by this fact.
Dr. Silvia Hodges, a faculty member at Emerson and an adjunct at Fordham where she will teach a “Law Firm As A Business” course, suggested in today’s Am Law Daily that instead of lawyers learning to navigate the politics of firm life and client management on-the-job, they should learn this in law school instead.
Am Law Daily: What would a model “law business” survey course include? Many things, from a taste of business concepts and strategy to finance and economic indicators, from firm governance and organisation to firm ownership. Students also need basic knowledge about law firm economics, client relationship management, marketing and business development, as well as human resources. (All this in 14 weeks.)…
Students should learn how legal decisions fit into the larger business framework that clients are confronted with every day. They need to understand that businesses face many challenges, legal problems being one of them, but certainly not the only one. They need to develop a level of common business sense: Is it a good idea to initiate litigation that will potentially cost the client over $100,000 in legal fees on an issue worth $75,000? Obviously, not.
She also suggests students should learn how to evaluate ownership issues and billing discounts and learn to manage a staff.
Are all of these great ideas and things lawyers should learn? Yes. Should this course be taken in the place of a more traditional law school course — wills & estates or Fed courts or a domestic violence clinic? I’m not so sure, and it’s personal to each student.
These are all things associates need to know, but you have so little power over any of those things in your first years that it might be equally beneficial to learn them as you are going along.
Part of the movement to teach students about law firm economics is because clients do not like paying first years’ huge billing rates when young lawyers supposedly do not know what they are doing. But it’s all the market — the market is now demanding lower rates for first years and it is probably getting it.
But most of the work first years do — research, document review, and simple drafting — is something they are fully capable of doing. It may take them a little longer in the initial months, but any good partner is going to adjust the bill for that.
Being a firm attorney certainly comes with a steep learning curve, but presumably firms have hired associates smart enough to handle it. And unlike most companies who are teaching these sorts of on-the-job management skills to recent college grads, new lawyers have at least three more years of growing up under their belts, if not more.
The billing issues firms are facing cannot all be solved by reducing first year salaries or increasing training. The problem is much larger than the 20 or so first-years most big firms have.
It’s not that the class is not a great idea, it’s just that only some people will need or want to take it, and we aren’t so sure that that dividing line is those with a business background. For many, figuring out that that is common sense (be nice to your secretaries, consider the costs of things) does not need to be taught and for the more true business decisions, learning in the real world is just a better fit.
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