The Law and Business

A recent article on Above the Law came into inbox titled, “Law Schools Are Not Exposing Students To Real World Business.” Hooray, I thought, recognition, even if from an imperfect source with more than one axe to grind, that the law is both a profession and a business.

I was only slightly disappointed to discover that the last word had been cut off. Business Development. Rainmaking, in other words. (Click here for the actual article.)

Biz Dev is important – pay the bills and all that – though I’m not convinced it needs to be taught in law school. But what about the world of business itself?

Here’s a short and incomplete list of skills I learned as a business leader:

  • Understanding a spreadsheet – not just reading the numbers, but learning how to uncover the hidden assumptions.
  • Financial analysis – budgets, profit-and-loss statements, market forces, etc.
  • Managing others.
  • Leading a team (not at all the same as managing one).
  • Presenting effectively.
  • Writing clearly.
  • Communicating with people in different styles.
  • Keeping meetings both short and useful.
  • Project management. (Okay, I sort of had a leg up on that one from my days as an individual project manager.)
  • Office politics.
  • Mentoring (and being mentored, which is not a passive act).
  • Delivering bad news.

There’s more, of course, but here’s the thing: Is there any skill on this list that is not important for a lawyer who wants to be more than an individual contributor within his or her practice? (For that matter, even individual contributors need to know much of this stuff if they have business-world clients.)

Yet how are lawyers supposed to develop these skills? Some, of course, come with time and experience. Smart people learn through living. But many of them seem alien to practitioners in the legal world, even after twenty or thirty years. Indeed, some lawyers take a weird pride in not being able to read spreadsheets and in do-it-my-way-or-else “leadership.”

Yet they’re not skills easily taught in law school, notwithstanding the amount of purely legal stuff that needs to be consumed within a few limited years. You can truly learn few of these skills in a vacuum, without real-world experience to draw on. They need to be taught “on the job” – not necessarily on the fly, haphazard, but in a context of the day-to-day business ocean in which lawyers swim.

We need good lawyers to be intimately knowledgeable of both the law itself and how it applies to the messy, ambiguous situations so prevalent in the real world. But we need great lawyers to fortify themselves not just with legal knowledge but with business skills as well, so that they can truly lead not just within their practices but with their clients.

I don’t know that there’s a simple answer – especially when so many senior businesspeople themselves can’t give an effective presentation, run a compact meeting, or even build a team whose parts sum to more than the whole. I do know, however, that the legal world needs to find a way to meet this challenge – because we all benefit when our legal representatives are skilled not just in the law but in the way the world works.

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