Thursday, February 01, 2007

Business Skills - Life Skills

On a plane flight this week to Washington DC I sat next to a very successful corporate and securities attorney from our nation's capital. He had grown up in a working class steel town and had gone on to build one of the most successful business law practices in the country. Additionally, he was just a really nice guy.

I had spent four years working as the marketing/business development manager for two large law firms, and continue to consult lawyers on the topic, thus we had a very lively discussion. This guy was one of the few law firm partners I have ever met who really understand the importance of marketing, sales, finance and other basic business disciplines in a successful law practice.

We also talked about how law schools do not prepare their students for the real world of being an attorney. No law school in the nation teaches the business and personal finance skills that are needed to achieve true success after graduation. Most of the law school deans do not understand these topics themselves, so they view them as "fluff".

My new friend shared many stories of lawyers who earn over a million dollars a year who have no idea how to manage their money, and are basically broke. Nobody ever prepared them for the trappings of their wealth.

I think that business, sales, relationships and finance skills are important for everyone. It is about taking personal responsibility, which is not just a problem for lawyers, but for everyone in our society.

Some law firms realize this gaping void and host seminars for their associates to educate them on a variety of business and life skills. I recently spoke to a firm that quarterly holds mandatory educational classes for all younger attorneys and professional staff. They believe that by exposing their team to skills that can help them with their business and personal lives, they will create a better quality of partner in the future. They invest in more than just the technical legal training, as they understand that success lies deeper than quality documents and briefs.

Recently many major law firms raised the entry level salary for a new lawyer to over $160,000 per year in an effort to improve recruiting and retention (they will also give guaranteed raises of $20,000 per year! Few professions give lock-step guaranteed raises). They are making a huge investment, but are only focusing on money as the important issue. There is more to creating a good work culture than cash. Granted, these firms have profits per partner near a million dollars, so money is a motivating factor.... but real human capital success requires more than a big salary. Profitable firms can pay whatever they want, but they will not reach higher levels of success on salaries alone.

The guy on the plane wants to teach at a law school when he retires, but not law classes. He wants to pioneer the teaching of classes that can help future lawyers learn more than just the law. He wants to impact the lives of attorneys by educating them about real life. I wish him luck.

Have A Great Day.



Brad Harwick said...

Ahh, the good ole days....

I might argue that the starting point for business and life skills training for lawyers - and other well compensated, credentialed service professionals - might begin earlier than law school. The focus at that point is on what area of law to practice and whether to work for a big firm or small firm. It would be a thrill to see this kind of essentially training be part of required core courses at the undergrad level. Or, what if law school entrants were required to have a minimum of two years working in a business prior to starting law school? The better MBA programs require an amount of experience in industry to add more application to the heavy theory.

Andrew Flusche said...

Hi Thom,

I think that UVa Law is responsive to this type of problem. We have a popular class called "Accounting & Corporate Finance." It's not required, but many people opt to take it. It helps foster practical skills related to understanding business finance and accounting issues.

With that said, I opted not to take it. I sort-of take offense to Brad's idea of mandatory "business experience" before law school. I think these are things people can learn on their own, or in undergrad or business-life, if they choose to. There are so many routes people take after law school that make mandatory business training oppressive in my opinion. Does a prosecutor really need experience in business? What about a public interest lawyer?

Great article. Take care, Andrew

Brad Harwick said...


My earlier post was not intended to offend, just provide perspective. Thom's post was referencing his conversation with a senior partner who has seen the trials of bright, well paid lawyers not having sufficient business and life skills training. If we leave important training like this optional as you suggest, lawyers will be no further along than they are now. My compliments to UVA for being a trailblazer.

Thanks for your post.

Brad Harwick