Learning the Business Side of Law; Practice-Ready Graduates?

From The Practice March/April 2015
Highlighting key stories about the profession you may have missed

Learning the business side of law

More top law schools are introducing courses that resemble MBA-style business studies. Facing pressure to develop and succeed in a shorter time frame than their predecessors, associates in large law firms are seeking marketing and business development skills to get a leg up on the competition. Educators and law graduates agree the change is long overdue.

In one program, 170 Brooklyn Law School students recently attended an intensive, three-day “boot camp” focused on accounting, reading financial statements, valuing assets, and other core business knowledge. Looking to draw in expertise from outside the law, the school partnered with Deloitte Financial Advisory Services, which helped model the program after one it provides to recent law firm hires.

Similarly, Fred Rooney, now director of the International Justice Center for Post-Graduate Development at Touro Law Center, created the first legal business incubator while at the City University of New York School of Law. The 12- to 18-month incubator teaches recent law school graduates the business skills required to build a law practice, including developing a business plan and staff management. Rooney estimates there are now more than 40 such programs across the country and worldwide, a number of which he has helped found.

Such business skills programs reflect the findings of a 2013 survey conducted by Harvard Law School (HLS) professors John C. Coates, Kathryn Spier, and Jesse Fried on the importance of business-focused courses during law school. The survey, which was sent to the 11 largest employers of HLS graduates from the previous several years, was intended to assist students in selecting courses valued by potential employers and provide faculty with information about how to improve the curriculum. Over three-quarters of employers surveyed said accounting, financial reporting, and corporate finance were the most valuable business-oriented classes offered at HLS.

Practice-ready graduates? Employers and students disagree

A recent survey by the bar exam preparation company Barbri found that perceptions of being “practice ready” diverge between soon-to-be lawyers and their employers. In the survey, two-thirds of third-year law students said they had “sufficient practice skills” and were ready to practice law “right now.”

Only 56 percent of practicing attorneys surveyed believe third-years will arrive at their firms ready to practice law.

Perhaps they shouldn’t be so confident. Only 56 percent of the practicing attorneys surveyed believe third-years will arrive at their firms ready to practice law. That number dropped to just 23 percent when lawyers were asked whether students have the necessary “practical” skills to practice law.

Interestingly, only 45 percent of those charged directly with preparing law students for their careers—law professors—responded that they believed their students have sufficient skills upon graduation.

The survey, which Barbri plans to conduct every year, also asked questions about the value of law school. Perhaps surprisingly, given recent law firm hiring cutbacks and the overwhelming debt many students take on to pay for their legal education, the majority of the students expected to realize a return on their investment in a law degree—despite their large up-front costs. This supports the findings presented in a Center on the Legal Profession Research Paper entitled “The Economic Value of a Law Degree,” by Michael Simkovic of Seton Hall University School of Law and Frank McIntyre of Rutgers Business School, which pegs the pre-tax lifetime value of a law degree at approximately $1 million.