Tuesday, June 10, 2008
[posted by Bill Henderson]
Last week, I attended the Indiana State Bar Association (ISBA) Solo & Small Firm Conference. I first started attending this event back in 2004 when I was preparing to teach my course on The Law Firm as a Business Organization. (In fact, the first year I attended the "boot camp" for lawyers who want to open their own practice.)
It is often said by practicing lawyers that law school does not prepare students to practice law. Within the law school environment, this is commonly interpreted as lack of practical skills training. Thus, externships, clinics and skills courses are often cited as the solution. Yet, my regular attendance at the ISBA Solo & Small Firm Conference has given me a different gauge to understand where we come up short. And frankly, I think the gap between law school and practice is often about something much more fundamental and human.
For example, this year (like every year), some touchstones of success included:
- Listening to clients--it is amazing (a) how unnatural this skill is for most lawyers and (b) how it can revolutionize your career if you learn how to do it.
- Updating your client monthly with a (free) status
report--well-informed clients are usually more satisfied, less likely to
complain, more likely to pay the bill, and more likely to refer business.
- Leveraging technology to increase office efficiency, including the importance of paying for high-quality training--few people are more tech-savvy than the solo and small firm crowd. Why? It is really a matter of financial survival.
- Learning to say "no" to matters outside your area of competency or to a client who has unrealistic expectations--which is extremely hard to do when you are experiencing cash flow problems. Yet, in small firm practice, poor judgment has serious and potentially irreversible financial consequences.
- The importance of networking, reputation, and not being a jerk--the most successful small firm lawyers enjoy relationships with people as an end in themselves. And from these relationships flow tremendous referral business.
None of these "skills" are taught or even signaled as important in law school. Indeed, with the
large tilt in law schools toward professors with large law firm
experience--and virtually all as associates rather than equity
partners--it is likely that we law professors undervalue the importance
of commonsense and practical judgment in building a successful
career. (How many of us could meet a payroll twice a month? What a daunting prospect!) Law schools supposedly teach students how to think like a lawyer,
but this often takes the form of an appellate lawyer who manipulates
the law under a fixed set of facts--with the most proficient having a shot at becoming a law professor.
But in my observation, this is a extremely truncated view of how
lawyers add value to clients and ultimately earn a living.
In sum, I want to go on record with my admiration of many solo & small firm lawyers who juggle a wide array of difficult client problems with such good humor and grace. They also provide concrete evidence that professionalism and integrity are the cornerstones of successful and happy careers. That is a message I hope to convey to my students. I am immensely grateful to the ISBA Solo & Small Firm Conference for once again giving me the opportunity to learn more about the lives of lawyers.