I’ve been practicing law for eight years now. I’ve worked at a large firm with over 700 attorneys, a small boutique firm with less than a handful of associates, and now in solo practice as an entertainment lawyer. Even before I’d graduated from law school there was an ongoing debate regarding whether J.D. programs were doing enough to prepare students for the practical aspects of lawyering. There’s a thoughtful argument that while law students are taught about essentials like the elements of a tort, the rule against perpetuities, and so forth, they graduate with little knowledge about how to file a motion with the court, how to draft a trial brief, or how to deal with opposing counsel.
My own experience suggests that there is some truth to that. My first job as an associate was challenging specifically because of just how much I had to learn on the job. Much of the substantive material I learned in school wasn’t particularly useful in my new practice area, and what little training I’d received in terms of practical skills (such as legal drafting) wasn’t enough on its own. To make matters worse, my firm lacked anything resembling a formal mentoring program. I was typically thrown into a deposition, settlement negotiation, motion hearing, and so forth, with little more than a pep talk and a pat on the back.
But, if I’m being honest, I’m not sure I would have been dramatically better prepared had I taken a year’s worth of courses on the “practical skills” before entering practice. Sure, I’d have been slightly less nervous, but the reality is that there’s a lot about lawyering one has to learn from real life experience. The best “lessons” I’ve received are ones that almost certainly had to be learned on the job: making a record of an unpopular position before a hostile judge, negotiating a settlement with a rude and/or belligerent opposing counsel, and having to admit to a partner/client that I’d made a mistake. In other words, even if I’d spent a year or more taking courses teaching practical skills or interning full time, there would still have been a lot left for me to learn. Some lessons just have to be learned over time.
What would have been helpful, though, would have been a course or two on the business of practicing law. Here are four critical skills that would have been useful to me in Big Law, at the boutique firm, and most certainly in running my solo practice.
Whether you’re an associate in Big Law or whether you’re a solo practitioner, billing is essential. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you’re an associate at a big firm, there’s a pretty good chance your career will rise and fall with your annual billable hours. That’s because, as obvious as it may be, a law firm is a business that derives most of its income from charging clients for units of billable hours. If you’re not billing, your not earning your firm money. If you’re not earning your firm money, you may even be costing them money.
Even if you ditch the billable hour, you still have to bill your clients for your work (either through flat fees or some other hybrid arrangement). For example, in my solo practice I try to offer my clients the certainty of flat fee arrangements, but even with flat fees I still need to determine how much to charge for a project. It can prove to be tricky and it’s something that law school doesn’t prepare you for.
Closely related to billing is accounting. This is something that becomes more essential when you’re running your own practice than when you’re working for someone else. I mentioned above that if you’re not earning your firm money, you may be costing them money. They’re paying you a salary, paying for your support staff, paying for the office space you work in, and so on. Once you’re running your own business accounting becomes essential to running a profitable business.
Marketing is harder than it looks. There’s a reason that companies that can afford to hire professional marketing teams. It’s because good marketing brings business and bad marketing doesn’t. Aside from those who are natural salesmen, most attorneys have little to no experience in marketing their services. But if you want to grow a law practice you need to find ways to connect with potential clients.
There are many ways to market your practice, but here are a few tips for how you can use social media to land new clients.
For some people, networking comes easy. For others, networking is intimidating. But like it or not, it’s an important part of being an attorney. Given the state of the legal industry, you could argue that the only true job security comes from building a big book of business. I’ve seen partners in Big Law take pay cuts and/or be asked to leave. I’ve seen profitable practice groups leave a struggling firm to join a more profitable firm. I’ve seen smart attorneys passed up for partnerships in favor of attorneys who have some money to contribute to the pot. The fact is that if you want to land new business for your firm, you’ll probably need to do some networking.
What do you think? What can law school do to better prepare students for the actual business of lawyering? Let us know in the comments section.