If you are going to be a successful 21st century lawyer, you need to have a 21st century legal education. As I wrote here and here, most lawyers are taught how to practice law as if it were the 19th century. While the looking to past legal precedent and the Socratic method may make us better lawyers, legal training hasn’t been updated to meet 21st century challenges.
Where is legal education lacking?
First and foremost, 21st century lawyers need to understand business. I strongly believe that if lawyers were better business people and their firms were run more like real service businesses (rather than “law practices”) lawyers would not be confronting some of the challenges they currently face.
This is as much a mindset issue as it is an actual business issue. Not understanding how businesses operate is one thing. You can learn how to run a business even if they don’t teach it in law school. However, most lawyers refuse to see that their firms are in fact businesses that sell legal services. Resisting the very idea that your law firm should run like other service businesses is just dumb.
In fact, the greatest and most harmful misconception amongst lawyers today is that their law firm’s are not (really) businesses.
Lawyers often tell me, “My firm is not a business. It’s a law practice. It’s different from ABC Company down the street.” When I ask why their firm is different from a business, the most common answer is: “Because we practice law.” As if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
(Sigh.) I understand why lawyers think this way.
First, they don’t know any better. Attorneys have always worked in law firms that aren’t set up like real companies. If you’ve never worked for a real company, you would think that the law firm business model is just fine.
Second, there are special rules set by various bar associations that constrain how firms do business, especially marketing. Lawyers have found a way to work within those rules. They aren’t going risk their careers or reputations by changing the way they do business.
Third, no one ever told attorneys the way they do business is wrong. Past success is the only proof they need to continue working the same way they’ve always worked. This leads to…
Fourth, up until recently, your bad business model worked. Law firms were successful in spite of the fact that lawyers are generally bad business people.
Finally, bringing us full circle, if understanding basic business concepts were important, law school would have taught it. (Right?) Too many lawyers think that because law school never taught it, it must not be important. Or they must not need to know it. (Sigh.)
Notwithstanding all of this, your current law firm business model has a few flaws. If you want to be a successful firm today and into the future, it’s time to redefine how your firm does business, or at least your attitude toward the business of law.
Next time we will talk about what is a business. For now, I’d like to know what you think. Can lawyers continue to succeed without business acumen? Can lawyers still just “practice law” as they have always done? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below.