I recently noticed a post by James Levy over at the Legal Skills Prof Blog about LexisNexis’s new “Think Like A Lawyer” program. The program aims to help law students be more prepared to work at a firm while they are summer associates. But as Levy points out:
“Apparently some employers have hired summer law clerks chiefly for the purpose of taking advantage of their free computer research access which until now has been a violation of the end user agreement. But Lexis is changing that with the announcement this week of a new training program called ‘Think Like a Lawyer’ that, among other features, gives 1Ls and 2Ls free, unlimited access to computer research over the summer which they can use in their jobs. That’s going to make it easier for at least some students to find summer clerkships especially with smaller firms where free Lexis access will add value.”
Firms using summer associates purely for free legal research?!? Say it ain’t so. But if that’s the case, just call it the “Free Legal Research Monkey” program and not “Think Like a Lawyer.” Because my knee-jerk reaction was: “Ugh, law school graduates actually need to think less like a lawyer….”
Talk to anyone involved in legal education and they’ll tell you that the point of law school is to teach students to “think like a lawyer,” not anything as pedestrian as actually preparing students for the practice of law. Why would law schools do that?! Of course, once students graduate and become lawyers they soon realize that merely thinking like a lawyer doesn’t actually get you very far. There are all sorts of skills necessary to the successful practice of law that don’t even get a mention in law school. Especially anything that involves numbers or actually running a business.
But a survey of Harvard Law School’s largest employers reveals that accounting and business skills are exactly what they’re looking for:
[L]earn accounting, statistics, and how to analyze a financial statement — [this is] sure to sadden the legions of students who opted for a legal career precisely because they loathe number-crunching…. In addition to accounting, the attorneys advised students to take courses in corporate finance, negotiation and business strategy.
While Biglaw and small firms are often worlds apart, in this instance they are not. The skills that are valued in Biglaw are just as necessary in small firms — perhaps even more so, considering that small firms don’t have accounting or marketing departments, the resources to hire consultants, or the ability to outsource the things they are not good at. Small firms have to be able to manage their own balance sheets, track expenses, develop business — all while still practicing law. Small-firm practitioners have to be able to take on all of the roles typically found in professional service providers. They have to be finders, minders, and grinders, all at the same time.
In Biglaw, it’s okay to just be a grinder when you walk in the door. In fact, that’s what is expected of you. But in a small firm it’s likely that you’ll be expected to do all three. Everyone has to be able to pull their own weight. There isn’t room for someone who is only a grinder. I was having a conversation with an associate at a larger firm this past week and I mentioned that I frequently eat lunch with lawyers and other professionals. She complained that she usually ate lunch at her desk and wondered how I found the time. For her, time away at lunch means less time to devote to her billable requirements. For me, time at lunch with another attorney or professional often results in a referral or inroads to future business development. It’s worth it to me not to be a grinder for a couple of hours to get my “finding” time in. It’s necessary if you want a small firm to thrive, but “finding” is something that is completely skipped over in law school.
So sure, law school will teach you how to “think like a lawyer,” but don’t expect it to get you much further. It is your personal responsibility to learn about accounting, management, and business development. Explore areas ancillary to the legal industry and examine the best practices in those industries. Be aware of the world outside of law school and develop an intellectual curiosity about things you don’t understand. Of course you have to be a good lawyer as well, that’s the point of entry. But developing these other skills can mean the difference between getting by and becoming a success.
Keith Lee practices law at Hamer Law Group, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about professional development, the law, the universe, and everything at Associate’s Mind. He is also the author of The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice (affiliate link), published by the ABA. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @associatesmind.