Recently, a group of Harvard Law professors released the results of their survey of 124 attorneys from 11 large firms, asking what courses Harvard students ought to take to prepare for Biglaw practice. Overall, financial courses such as accounting, financial reporting, and corporate finance, topped the list, as noted by Will Baude over at the Volokh Conspiracy. But the study got me thinking: what courses should lawyers interested in starting a practice — either directly after law school or a few years down the road — study in law school?
If you ask this question of solos or consultants, most will argue that law schools need to teach business-type classes like how to write a business plan or how to market a law practice. And while law schools should certainly make those classes available to interested students, I don’t view them as imperative. Let’s face it, most of this material isn’t rocket-science (high school dropouts open successful businesses, after all), and the web offers a bottomless treasure trove of this type of information. (As an aside, one of my personal faves is Canvarise, a one-page template that pulls together all of the elements of a traditional business plan).
Nor do I believe that substantive courses — bankruptcy, family law, immigration, copyright — are all that important. Substantive law is state-specific, so it’s tough to teach and it’s always changing. What you learn as a second-year law student may no longer be valid a few years down the road. Plus, it’s not difficult to pick up the basics of a new practice area on the fly. Think about it: most students studying for the bar gain a quick understanding of as many as 25 different substantive practice areas in a summer. No reason the same isn’t true in practice.
In my view, law students should focus on studying and acquiring the kinds of skills that aren’t easily found or readily mastered in practice. With that as a guide, here’s my top five list of classes that will help prepare students for solo practice…
1. Legal Research and Writing
Hands down, the most important law school course for all lawyers, particularly solos-to-be, is legal research and writing. Solos who write well will immediately have an edge over their less-than-literate small firm colleagues (sorry, solos, but collectively, your writing doesn’t match up to your Biglaw peers who benefit from input and review of multiple lawyers) while solos who write poorly will be treated as second-class citizens by many judges. There are some short-cuts: experienced solos with decent-paying clients can rely on legal research and writing services for quality product. Unfortunately, many solos starting out don’t have that luxury — and even if they want to improve their writing, they simply may not have the time to do so starting out. Finally, legal writing is actually one class that law school teaches effectively. Since most law professors have clerked, they’ve read dozens of briefs and written just as many opinions, so they know what persuasive writing looks like.
Still, students shouldn’t limit their legal writing to briefs and memos. Writing classes should include correspondence (both letters and email) as well as a session or two on translating jargon into user-friendly, but accurate content for blogs and client newsletters.
As for legal research, aspiring solos need to avoid addiction to LEXIS and Westlaw so that they don’t suffer withdrawal when they can no longer afford it. Students should familiarize themselves with other affordable substitutes for the WEXIS-fix like Fastcase, Jenkins Law Library, or Google Scholar.
I only added drafting to my top solo skills list recently — largely after becoming a regular reader of Adams on Drafting and recognizing just how inadequate most standard forms are, particularly those available online for free. Because many solos are apt to rely on cheap or free resources, a drafting class would enable them to draft their own higher quality forms for use in practice. And solos could actually draft modernized representation agreements that actually provide protection against unreasonable clients.
3. Real-World Ethics
Ethics is another tremendously important subject for aspiring solos — since many won’t even recognize unethical conduct. To be sure, in most cases, ethics isn’t rocket science, but even so, ethics deserve attention in law school if only because the consequences of unethical conduct can be devastating. But ethics shouldn’t be limited to the first-world problems of Biglaw. (Do we have a conflict if we represent the $4 billion dollar client that takes an adverse position to its 3rd relation, $20 billion affiliate that we also represent in a similar docket? Or, cann I churn those hours? Instead, ethics should help students recognize ethics faux pas that normal people would never think of — such as whether you can use the clause “and associates” if you have contract or part-time lawyers or even whether solos can call themselves a firm to appropriate trust account treatment of flat fees. And of course, ethics related to use of social media and the cloud.
4. Contracts, Torts, and Criminal
Even if students don’t plan on a career in personal injury or criminal law, the first-year trifecta of contracts, tort, and criminal provide the analytical tools that are critical to success as a lawyer. Collectively, these three courses teach issue spotting, assessment of both sides of an argument and, for criminal law, the interplay between statutes and conduct. Honestly, I can’t remember an iota of substance from any of these classes, but the analytical skills that I learned still serve me in practice.
5. Clinics and Practice Classes
Finally, students who plan to solo out of law school should have some practical training. Believe it or not, they can actually find that training in law school by taking skills classes like Trial Advocacy or Appellate Litigation or participating in clinics, mock trial, and moot court. No student will ever become a trial or drafting expert in a few semesters of law school — but taking a few skills classes will certainly provide the foundation for starting a practice down the line.
So there you have it, my top five. What about you? Post your comments below.
Earlier: Best Classes For Biglaw
Carolyn Elefant has been blogging about solo and small firm practice at MyShingle.com since 2002 and operated her firm, the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant PLLC, even longer than that. She’s also authored a bunch of books on topics like starting a law practice, social media, and 21st century lawyer representation agreements (affiliate links). If you’re really that interested in learning more about Carolyn, just Google her. The Internet never lies, right? You can contact Carolyn by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @carolynelefant.