Why Would Law Schools Be Any Good at Teaching Law Practice Management?

law-school-business-skills

Yesterday, I sat in on the ABA Young Lawyers Division council meeting in Minneapolis. The council was considering a resolution to recommend to the ABA House of Delegates that would require law schools to teach business skills to law students.

Better-equipping law students to practice law ought to be the job of law schools, after all. But, I can’t help thinking, what makes anyone think law schools would be any good at teaching business skills?

I mean, few law professors actually have any practical experience. What do they know about teaching business skills? Apart from theoretically, that is. Of course, I suppose classed on law practice management are the sort of thing that would probably be taught by adjuncts — practicing lawyers — who might actually have some real-world business experience. But someone has to develop the curriculum. Who will law schools find to do that?

Plus, law schools aren’t exactly known for adapting to changes in the marketplace. The tools of business aren’t exactly static. How will law schools keep their curriculum up-to-date? Teaching business will also, presumably, involve teaching students about business-related products. Software, hardware, tablets, phones. Is it a good idea for law schools to choose Time Matters over Clio, or QuickBooks over PC Law?

I’m not saying it’s impossible for law schools to develop a good curriculum or come up with a way to teach students about practice tools without turning into shills; I just think it’s important to ask how they will do it before we start demanding they do.

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bilal-kamoon/6835060992/)

,

  • http://www.passthebaton.biz/ Susan Gainen

    My fear: if business management is perceived to be really important, tenure requirements for scholarship could easily overtake holding and developing a practical skills set.

    Sam is right. Be careful what you wish for.

  • http://www.directlaw.com Richard Granat

    Existing law faculty are not competent to teach law practice management in law schools, but you could structure a curriculum component that is supported by practitioners-in-residence and other lawyers with management experience. Understanding the intersection of legal technology with the practice of law is critical knowledge for understanding how legal service delivery needs to be reformed, and this should by taught by lawyers with experience in this space, teaching skills, and a vision of how the legal profession is going to continue to evolve during the next decade. For many law students who are now graduating, their primary employment path will be to go directly into solo and small law firm practice. It is irresponsible for law schools to not train law students in practice management skills, and to assume that they will some how just pick these skills up. It is also dangerous to client’s to let these students loose without any understanding of how to actually run their law practice.

    • http://www.rollinsandchan.com Mark Rollins

      Luckily when I was in law school, Professor Richard Granat, taught law practice management. Unfortunately, I think the law school has taken the course away. Great course.

  • Mark Barbour

    But they make tons of money and isn’t that what business is about?

  • Dan Moffett

    Don’t make it a requirement for law students to take the course. Offer it as an additional, elective. Any law student worth his weight would gladly take the course, unless their previous degree is already in business management.
    As for faculty, agreed most current law professors know nothing about business management, there are plenty of business management professors out there to pick from.
    As for Mark Barbour’s comment, lawyers don’t necessarily make tons of money. Granted, if they are lucky enough to get into a firm that is willing to pay them tons of money that would be great. But they don’t need business management skills to work for someone else. Running their own law firm, however, is a different story. With no business management skills they are just setting themselves up for failure. A solo practitioner isn’t going to make tons of money, the money can really only flow when they can bring in other lawyers to do the work for them. That’s where business management comes in.
    For those lawyers with small firms that are trying to get ahead but are having trouble check out the following site. It’s an awesome program.
    http://www.howtomanageasmalllawfirm.com

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Did Rjon put you up to this? Every other time I’ve heard about him, it’s from someone annoyed at his self-promotion.

  • Matt Kezhaya

    I am a law student, and I was hired as a research assistant to help develop a solo/small firm class. I pushed hard for it to prominently feature law practice management topics, but a higher-up quickly changed the class to “general practice,” a course which will give a (very) broad overview of ten different topics over fourteen weeks. The idea is to have a capstone course, which will bring in local attorneys to tell the students “here is what I do, and here are some forms you can have.”

    When I confronted the professor of the class about the change, she expressed relief that we were moving away from business topics. I was upset and annoyed by this, because I thought it was the school’s duty to prepare its students for a career in the law, and knowing how to run a solo practice is foundational to a legal career for a substantial number of those students.

    I came to realize, however, that a proper business education can’t be imparted in the course of a couple semesters by someone who has no understanding of business. Even bringing in an adjunct professor, or several guest speakers, would be insufficient because lawyers tend to be terrible entrepreneurs and I’m not confident that we have a sufficient pool to find that diamond-in-the-rough entrepreneur/lawyer. Even those who do well on their own likely don’t have the management concepts boiled down and ready to disseminate over the course of an hour-long lecture.

    Further, most of my classmates come from liberal arts backgrounds. Of my section of 75 students, three had some kind of business background. In other words, my class lacks the education necessary to fully understand the business concepts which will necessarily be shot at them in rapid pace. I recall my classmates flipping out at the Hand Formula in Torts (Negligence if B < PL; where B is the burden of prevention, P is the probability of damages and L is the damages, or losses, incurred by the accident). There is no way that this group can transition from struggling with simple algebra to understanding the reasoning behind simple accounting principals or the cost-benefit analysis of economics.

    In short, the law school is incapable of imparting this knowledge in a semester, and the vast majority of my class–and presumably most other law school classes–are incapable of accepting this knowledge. It's just not practical, and I therefore agree with the decision of that higher-up to focus on the legal side of a law practice by changing solo/small firm to general practice.

    If law students wanted so badly to create their own practice when they got out of school, then they should have done the smart thing and taken some business courses. For those that don't want it so badly, they just want to do too poorly in school to get hired and be unwilling to take some business classes, I think you'll be hard pressed to find a less sympathetic crowd.

  • Nadim El Haj

    “If there is a will, there is a way!” Lawyers of today’s international legal market should be able to grasp the business model and financial model pertaining to any investment opportunity across all industries. The lack of such analytical skills would materially undermine the quality of legal services provided by any lawyer. Furthermore, lawyers in the current global economic recession should, whether on the InHouse side or Private Practice side, be able not only to legally assess an investment opportunity, but as well to originate such investment opportunity.
    Lawyers with a pure back office work kind of mindset are NO longer required!

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      I’m not saying business skills are unnecessary; I’m saying we ought to make sure law schools are competent to teach business skills if we are going to require them to.

  • http://ethicsmaven.com/ Eric Cooperstein

    Spot on, Sam. The law schools should partner with bar associations to allow students to take practice management courses for credit. The students would be able to sit in classes with actual practicing attorneys and learn from both the attorneys and the presenters at the same time.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      So, more of an externship model? Sounds potentially workable.

      • http://www.painjurycase.com Dave S

        Beyond maybe taking the CLE practice management courses— why not look to the attorneys teaching those CLE courses and see if they would serve as adjunct professors for a law practice management course.

  • http://www.directlaw.com Richard Granat

    Sam raises the excellent question of how should law schools go about teaching law practice management. I have actually taught law practice management as an Adjunct in four different law schools, primarily to 3L’s. In addition to a J.D. degree, I have a M.S. in Management in Organizational Development from Penn, and was running a solo practice. (I still run a virtual law firm at http://www.mdfamilylawyer.com ). Each of my students finished the course with an business plan for either a solo practice or a small law firm, as the graduates of these particular law schools ended up primarily going down this career path. Many of these students actually executed on these plans, as I heard from a few of them years later, I was however less than satisfied with my own performance in teaching this course, partly because it was a part-time activity and I could devote only a certain amount of time to lesson planning, curriculum organization, and find good learning materials.

    However, I am still challenged by Sam’s question of how this learning experience could remain meaningful, academically rigorous worthy of a law school, and scalable. For some law schools, those where the graduates ended up primarily practicing in a small law firm environment or as solos, law practice management is much more important, that graduates of top tier law schools, since the management of Big Law firms is left to professionals.

    Here are some thoughts and issues that need further discussion – in no particular order:

    1. Business school curriculum is largely geared to running large enterprises — not solos and small law firms — with some exceptions both the curriculum and the orientation of the faculty of business is irrelevant. One should not need a M.B.A. to run a small professional practice.
    2. Being a lawyer is still a regulated profession and ethical rules intersect with every aspect of running a law practice. This makes running a law practice as a business a special challenge. The track record of business schools and their graduates, particularly our best business best schools, seem to me particularly devoid of any ethical orientation — but that’s admittedly my bias. (All of the recent convictions for insider trading seem to be graduates of Harvard Business School, ) e.,g., see NYT Magazine today- http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/magazine/rajat-guptas-lust-for-zeros.html?ref=magazine&_r=0).
    3. There are more insights in this Lawyerist blog about law practice management than one would find in any law school class.
    4. Law practice management could be the subject of scholarly research, as Bill Henderson work at University of Indiana Law School, is demonstrating with his empirical work on how to identify and select lawyers who will succeed in a law firm environment.
    5. Regular law school faculty do not have the skills or background to teach law practice management, and outside of clinical programs, don’t really care whether their students are practice ready.
    6. Law school clinics are basically law firms. Why can’t this activity be expanded so that a clinic is truly a model of a working law firm?
    7. We have student run law reviews. Why can’t we have a student run law firm operating within a law school (under faculty supervision) that demonstrates advanced methods of legal services delivery and best practices. Why can’t we have this model law firm charge fees and compete with lawyer’s in private practice with the proceeds going to the law school. Who cares if the law school law firm ends up competing with private practitioners? Maybe lawyers in private practice could actually learn something by observing “best practices” developed by an in-house law school law firm.
    8. Forget about bar association CLE as a source of education in law practice management. Bar association CLE in LPM tends to be fragmented, very short in duration, and in general not very deep intellectually. Just because a lawyer is successful in solo or small law firm practice, doesn’t mean that they can teach the subject.

    Sam raises a difficult question, with no easy answers.

  • http://fishtownlaw.com/ Jordan Rushie

    The problem is, teaching such a topic might require hiring a filthy solo practitioner who didn’t go to an ivy league school or even break 170 on the LSAT.

    You know, a bona fide trench lawyer who has mastered things like calendaring stuff, balancing a trust account, file management.

    The ivy tower has no incentive to expose law students to what the real actual practice of law looks like. Sitting in discovery court for half a day only to argue “he should give me the stuff I want”, or tracking down clients to pony up $1000. Spending half a day in your office saying “Where the hell did we put the Smith v. Jones file? Why wasn’t that deposition transcript scanned in the system?”

    That might scare the children.

    Instead, have them write a very formal research memo to a senior partner.

    Ah, much better.

  • http://www.stlpersonalinjury.com Todd Hendrickson

    Good post Sam. I think there should be more “practical” classes in every law school. There is a possible option to teaching it in law school though. I few years ago I decided I wanted to be licensed in South Carolina. (Visions of semi-retirement dance in my head.) South Carolina does not like people “semi-retiring” to SC apparently, because they have ZERO reciprocity. None. Nada. 20 years of practice (at that time) meant nothing. So I took the full bar exam again 20 years out from law school. And survived. And passed. But, as if to add insult to injury, I was then required to take a 3 day long state mandated CLE on “transitioning” from law school to practice. For me the CLE was a 3 day snooze and a chance to explore beautiful Columbia SC. However, I could see that it was a well intentioned and, for the most part, a well executed idea that at least attempted to plug the gap you’ve identified.