Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The great divide between legal education and practice

Legal education in the country is very expensive. Most students emerging from law school these days are stooping under the weight of a $100K+ student loan burden. They (and their law schools) justify incurring such debt by saying that it will prepare them for a profession that will pay more than enough to cover these loan payments. Reading newspaper stories talking about $300, $500, $900/hr billable rates for lawyers, and seeing starting associate salaries advertised at well over $120K, buttresses that belief.

The fundamental problem, however, is this -- law school does not teach students to be lawyers, it teaches students to think like lawyers. This leaves them completely unprepared to actually practice their profession, making it infinitely harder to guarantee that they can pay those outrageous student loans in any meaningful period of time.

As a law student, one concern looming over our heads was the bar exam we would have to take at the conclusion of our legal education. "Are we being prepared for taking the bar exam?" we would query on more than one occasion. "No," was the answer, "you'll take a bar review course [at additional cost, of course] for that later. Law school teaches you to think like a lawyer." Another concern was the practical nuts and bolts of, say, what paperwork needs to be prepared for filing a lawsuit. The response to our queries? "You'll learn those things when you are working as an associate." The topic of how to run a law firm was probably never breached and there certainly wasn't any formal education on the subject.

In defense of my law school (not Ivy League, but a Tier 1 school), this approach has been the accepted model for law schools. Law schools churn out eager graduates with sharp legal minds, but with relatively no skills that they can convert into a meaningful, enriching career. These finely tuned legal minds are:

  1. Recruited for the reputation of their law school and made to work ridiculously long hours to try to generate enough billable hours to cover artificially inflated entry salaries. These are often let go, or burn out, within a few years and a new crop of new associates take their places.
  2. Become part of law firm and temp agencies' cash cow of document review, sitting in basements in front of computers with no hope of ever interacting with other lawyers, being paid a small fraction of the billable rate to the client.
  3. Opt to work for themselves, working overtime to learn basic business skills while they try to generate enough income to pay their massive student loan bills.
There is a different way to approach legal education. It isn't novel or radical. It is just common sense.

Part of a lawyer's education should be practical, how to do tasks X and Y in the real world. While this part of learning a lawyer's profession used to be part of the mentoring process in law firms, it isn't anymore. A law firm's stature in the legal industry is, unfortunately, gauged by the number of billable hours they can crank out in any given year. Bigger is considered better. Training young lawyers in their profession is not directly billable time, thus dead wood that must be eliminated from the program. Those who decided to practice out on their own right after law school have an even worse situation. They are smart, they can learn, but it is a difficult financial curve to both educate yourself and bill enough hours to make your law firm stay afloat.

Another part of a lawyer's education should be in the business of law - how to run a law firm. I had the distinct pleasure some weeks ago to be invited to speak at one of our local law schools - Thomas Jefferson School of Law. Judi Sanzo, a local solo attorney, teaches a class called "Law Practice Management." I read the class syllabus with amazement. In a semester class, her students are taught about every aspect of starting and running a law firm - finances, marketing, personnel, insurance, everything. They even have mock law firms as part of the course. I daresay that her students emerge from law school with more practical business knowledge than most attorneys who have been practicing law for years.

As this new year starts and you begin working towards your business goals, look around you for sources of mentorship and education so you can bridge the gap between having a finely tuned legal mind and having a successful business as a legal professional. As you learn, share your knowledge and experience by mentoring someone less experienced than you.


Vik said...

Mock law firm / practice management courses, that focus on the codes of ethics which affect advertising, promotion, marketing material development, and personal branding - on-line especially, and even client relationship management and new business development would be revolutionary.

Many Bridge The Gap weekends at Bar Assocations/Academies of Law include soft skills, practice management, and other client development sessions. These are a first step to what I see already advancing.

~ Vikram Rajan

SBL said...

Good piece of writing...

Anonymous said...

How refreshing to read things that I've been saying for years. Law schools (like med schools) need to include practical training, as well as all the Socratic stuff, in their curricula. And lawyers desperately need to know more about how to run businesses and manage people.

Thank you for writing this. Now, if only the law schools will buy into these "radical" concepts.

Lyn Rubenstein said...

I own a 43-year-old national court reporting firm, located in Philadelphia, PA. I also reported for 36 years out of my career. I have a few suggestions for a new or relatively new attorney.
1. My first suggestion would be that if you do not have a strong business background, take a few extra classes in business, math, finance, etc. They will help you and your clients.
2. Next, go to different courtrooms, both civil and criminal and get a feel for how different attorneys try cases. Listen carefully to how they question each witness and try to glean what they want from each witness. You may learn a lot.
3. Court reporters can help you. Ask them what you don't know, such as what the usual stipulations are. The stipulations vary somewhat by state; so, I can't give them to you, but usual stipulations are only used in discovery depositions, not trial depositions.
4. If you don't know something, ask your boss. A mistake can be costly. If he/she yells, so be it. You've learned something or they've had a bad day.
5. As to debt, mostly everyone has debt and you will continue to have some form of debt. You went to law school for a reason. Practice law for that reason. Most of all, enjoy it.
Lyn Rubenstein
Lyn Rubenstein & Associates
Philadelphia, PA