Thursday, December 26, 2013
Once my son realized that the life of a lawyer bore no resemblance to the fun and games of Take Our Kids to Work Day, he quickly changed career paths. Now he’s applying to art and design schools to study visual arts, photography, and writing. Almost every school he wants to attend requires students to take a basic accounting course as a prerequisite for the Bachelors of Fine Arts degree. This led me to ask why law schools don’t require the same.
Two weeks ago I attended a local bar association luncheon during which several deans of Florida law schools informed the group of practicing lawyers and judges about the state of legal education. The deans also received an earful from the audience members about the kind of training they expect from the schools. More than one attorney bemoaned the lack of practical skills and business training from today’s law schools, which prompted one dean (not mine) to challenge the audience member’s hypothesis about the need for required courses beyond business associations. The dean asked why schools should force students to take additional courses if they want to litigate or do appeals. Some audience members disagreed with this response and so do I. When I was in law school I was convinced that I would become a public interest lawyer until I took tax and secured transactions and realized that there was another world out there that I had never considered.
As a commercial litigation associate in a large New York law firm I had the privilege of learning from the corporate partners about derivatives and mortgage-backed securities during mandatory firm-provided training. When I went in-house my company paid for me to attend a three-day course in accounting for lawyers, which enabled me to have more credibility with my internal clients. But the firm training was in the early 90’s and my general counsel had an incentive for me to understand the language of business. Most of today’s law firms don’t have the time or the inclination to provide that kind of training.
So should law schools have the time or the inclination for this kind of education? The second-year student who thinks she wants to be an appellate or family lawyer may change her mind after a few years (or months). Or, the only job that she can find may require her to advise small businesses, entrepreneurs, employers, nonprofits, divorcing spouses where a business is an asset, white-collar criminal defendants, or any number of clients for whom financial literacy would be required for her to provide competent legal advice. Co-blogger Anne Tucker discussed what the market wants in an earlier post here.
A number of law schools offer accounting or finance courses, but not many require them, and perhaps faculties should rethink that. Part of the reason that the arts schools require accounting courses is that art is a business. Of course, law is a business too. It would be a shame if my son, the aspiring artist knows more about a balance sheet and EBITDA after graduation than the lawyer he hires to represent him.