What They Don’t Teach You in Law School

What They Don’t Teach You in Law School

Law schools don’t teach you everything you need to know in order to succeed in today’s legal marketplace.  As the legal profession increasingly becomes more business-oriented, successful lawyers need to know more than just the law.  Business and management skills are becoming essential to advancement, whether you practice in a law firm or an in-house legal department.  Diligence and competence are givens, but personal qualities such as leadership, listening and communication, and organizational skills also are required for a successful legal career.

A basic knowledge of business concepts is almost essential to many areas of practice.  If you did not earn an MBA or take business courses in college, you may need to take at least a course in accounting or business for lawyers.  To adequately represent most business clients, in addition to the case law and relevant statutory and regulatory schemes, you also must have some knowledge of the client’s business and how it competes with in the particular industry.  You should be able to read and understand balance sheets, profit and loss statements, and annual reports and be able to perform some basic statistical analysis.  Business lawyers also need to comprehend the workings of the domestic and international private and public financial markets, stock markets, and financial institutions.  You also need to be familiar with your clients’ business structures, internal politics, and decision-making processes.  In addition to keeping up with changes in the law, you should keep abreast of business trends by attending seminars and reading financial newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal and your clients’ industry trade papers.  Of course, a wealth of information is available online.

In addition to having a grasp of basic business principles, excellent interpersonal relationship skills also are essential to the successful practice of law.  For example, all of the legal knowledge in the world will do you and your clients no good if you cannot relate to one another. To effectively develop business and service a client’s legal needs, a lawyer needs to fully understand the problem or goal at issue.  That requires the ability to hear the client’s concerns, creativity and strategic thinking to devise possible solutions, communication skills to adequately convey the various options available in language they can understand, and judgment to assist the client in selecting the best course of action.  In some instances, it also requires some empathy and appreciation of the emotional landscape surrounding the legal problem, especially in sensitive practice areas such as employment and family law.  Clients are looking for service and responsiveness, not just legal knowledge.

Similarly, an attorney must also exercise superb interpersonal skills in the office environment.  You must be able to get along and communicate with superiors, colleagues, more junior attorneys, paralegals, and staff, in order to get your work done efficiently. The practice of law is a team effort and you cannot afford to alienate any member of your team.  Moreover, you must learn to motivate others and delegate work properly, so that each person’s skills are being put to their highest and best use.  The ability to give supportive and critical feedback is necessary.  This is where management, leadership, and teambuilding skills come into play.

An essential skill for the successful practice of law is the ability to juggle numerous projects at once, and complete them all well and on time.  Thus, you need to constantly keep your eye on all the balls, while simultaneously focusing on the work at hand.  In the legal field, more so than with many other occupations, time quite literally is money.  Therefore, you must efficiently organize your work, manage your time and resources, set priorities, meet deadlines, and be able to foresee and head off potential crises—and be able to ensure that others on your team are doing the same.

Regardless of your seniority and status within the organization, you should think like an owner.   See the big picture, be proactive, and take initiative and responsibility for the success of the whole project although you may be working only on a small part.  Be entrepreneurial:  seek to understand the business aspects of your firm, including its structure and governance, revenues, billing procedures, and competitive environment and trends in the legal community at large such as mergers and globalization, so that you can do your part to contribute to its overall success.

It is relatively easy to determine whether you have a grasp of basic business concepts, but you need to be brutally honest with yourself about your interpersonal and management capabilities.  Your shortcomings may be brought to your attention through feedback from supervisors or colleagues, but you also might want to discuss the subject of your mastery of these skills or lack thereof with a trusted friend, colleague, or mentor.

Take advantage of any available professional development programs offered by your firm, but you may find that you need additional training in some of these areas.  You must be proactive in filling in the gaps in order to move ahead in your career.   Finding role models and developing mentors will help, and you may be able to gain some of this knowledge through continuing legal education courses. You also might consider taking some additional personal development, management skills, or business courses through a university extension or community college program and post-graduate courses offered by some law schools.  Although your professional plate is probably more than full with the practice of law and business development activities, it is a wise investment of your time to learn what they don’t teach you in law school.

Valerie Fontaine
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