Getting the Business
The recession laid waste to the careers of thousands of practicing lawyers and dashed the employment hopes of just as many law students. It also exposed this fact: Most law schools aren’t teaching future lawyers how to run a law firm. “Now that law school students are finding it much more difficult to find jobs,” contends Tom Mighell, vice-chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section, “law schools are finally realizing a lot of them haven’t really equipped their students to run a business.”
That’s left small-firm lawyers to scramble to teach themselves, and law practice management advocates to make the tough sell for mandatory coursework at law schools.
“We have to first focus on the folks in law school,” argues Mighell, a senior consultant at Contoural Inc. in Dallas. “I’m aware of some education that’s mandatory along with voluntary classes at some law schools. I’d push it further and make law practice management mandatory in law school, but that’s harder to pitch.
“It also has to do with continuing legal education, consultants and whether state bars have some sort of practice management consultant available.”
The revelation of the deficit in practice management training may be one of the few positive outcomes of today’s tattered economy. According to 2008 research by Debra Moss Curtis of Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., 131 of the 195 ABA-accredited law schools offered no practice management courses.
“Law schools don’t teach it much because many law professors don’t have a lot of experience in private practice and running a law firm,” says Jim Calloway, director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s management assistance program in Oklahoma City.
The obvious outcome is that many solo and small-firm lawyers struggle to be successful, and clients may suffer.
“The economy is definitely changing students’ needs,” says Andrew Adkins III, who teaches practice management at the University of Florida’s law school in Gainesville. “A lot of times lawyers don’t know about managing a business. If they don’t learn that by taking classes, they try to do it on their own and sometimes they screw up.”
Not everybody is sold on pushing law schools to offer compulsory practice management courses. “Certainly having a class available would be beneficial,” says Carolyn Elefant, a solo in Washington, D.C., who offers training for solo lawyers. “I don’t think it should be mandatory because people practice in many different ways, and it may not apply to the way in which people are going to practice.”
Elefant also contends that resources are available for lawyers who dig for them. “More than 20 bar associations have law practice management advisers and resources available,” she says. “Many malpractice insurers also offer training. I’m sure there could be more resources, but I don’t think there’s a crisis on the order that some people are making out.”
However, solo and small-firm lawyers often operate on minute budgets that must already cover mandatory continuing legal education, and states are spotty in providing credit for practice management courses. That has left lawyers in a bind.
“On the one hand, I can’t afford practice management courses,” says Christopher Paul, a solo who opened his doors in Burnsville, Minn., last year. “On the other hand, how can I not afford them?”
Since the economy buckled, Elefant says, she’s seen growth in demand for the basics of how to start and build a law practice.
Keith Dias had a head start when he opened his Brentwood, N.H., practice last June because he took what he says was an excellent, elective practice management course at St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami. Dias has also taken advantage of the New Hampshire Bar Association’s mentor program for new attorneys.
Still, Dias wants more. “It’s an ongoing learning process, and I’d take law practice management classes if they were offered because I know I’m flying by the seat of my pants a little bit.”