Friday, February 15, 2019

How Do We Teach Law Students and Lawyers To Think Like Business People ?

When I was in house, the biggest compliment I could receive was “sometimes I forget that you’re a lawyer.” Of course, you don’t want to hear that from certain clients because that means that you haven’t clearly established your role and authority. But, when dealing with business people, they want to know that you understand business strategy and their pain points and not just the law. 


Last Saturday, Laura Zagustin, the General Counsel for Viacom International Media and the Americas, served as the keynote speaker for the Miami Law Symposium on doing business in Latin America. She told the audience that although she’s the general counsel, she tries not to be “too much like a lawyer.” She didn’t expand on this, but during the Q&A, a student asked about the tensions between the profit driven requests of the business people and the need to follow the law. Zagustin focused on the necessity to protect the company and secure revenue while educating internal clients. She’s actually become so business savvy that she’s been able to negotiate with a business counterpart without any of her company’s business people with her.


She advised students to learn how to develop solutions but most important, to act as a business partner and not just a lawyer. She has also told her outside counsel that they need to act as business partners too. 


As she spoke about business and political risks with foreign direct investment and doing business in politically volatile environments, I realized how little junior lawyers at law firms know about what their clients really deal with. It may not be as drastic as the potential or nationalization of company assets, but every business from 

a restaurant owner to a multinational conglomerate has a risk tolerance and counsel often don’t appreciate that sensitivity. Good lawyers know how to understand that and render advice accordingly. 


Whenever I teach a class on business or compliance issues, I teach from the perspective of the client because I was a client for so many years. The students don’t typically have the “aha” moment about what I’ve said until a guest speaker comes in and says the same thing. But that’s ok.

Below are a few suggestions for law schools/professors to prepare students for practice in the real world. 


  1. Teach students that business people care about tax implications, levels of control, mitigating risk,  and  legal liability, regardless of business type or size. Students must be able to advise through that lens or associate with others with appropriate specialties (such as tax) when needed. 
  2. Add more compliance coursework that includes skills-based work. The GC who spoke indicated that it’s a number one concern for US public companies. Private companies and those considering an IPO also have significant compliance obligations. 
  3. Encourage students to take courses in the business school. Sitting with business students will provide an entirely different perspective. Similarly, open more law school classes to business school students. 
  4. Weave in risk management issues into the curriculum. 
  5. Have as many business people speak to students as possible. Students will quickly learn how much the theory they learn does not correlate to the work that real-world clients face.  
  6. Add more business clinics. This allows students to meet with budding entrepreneurs. Their readings on entity selection will come to life. 
  7. Ensure that students have at least one course that deals with international issues. The business world is global and even the smallest businesses are often part of a global supply chain. 
  8. Have panels at the law school with in house lawyers, lobbyists, and  lawyers who don’t work for firms so that students can get another perspective on practicing law. Have them focus specifically on the realities of dealing with business clients. 
  9. Consider short courses on negotiation for business clients. Even better, have a full course on business negotiation. Most law schools focus on litigation, leaving students who want to practice transactional law underprepared. 
  10. I know that law students are focused on ABA requirements and bar passage rates, but encourage students to take coursework on employment law, tax, cybesecurity/data protection,  intellectual property, and administrative law.  Even if students take short courses in these topics, they will have an enormous advantage when starting out. 
  11. Ensure that transactional drafting courses include real world examples of risk allocation when discussing representations, warranties, and indemnities. 
  12. Encourage students to read comment letters on regulations. That will show students what business people really care about when laws and regulations are in the drafting stage. 
  13. Teach about emotional intelligence, resiliency, and grit. Lawyers aren’t usually known for their EQ but it’s important, especially when dealing with business owners. 



If you have additional suggestions or disagree with me, please post your comments below.

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Great point. I generally say, "I was a consumer of legal services before I became a provider." As someone who made the transition from business owner to law practice, I would encourage upcoming law students to work in HR, purchasing, etc., departments in a business to try to get a feel for the concerns. Of course, I've always said, "until you have to invent the widget, manufacture the widget, sell the widget and collect for the widget" you never have an overarching view.

Posted by: Tom N. | Feb 16, 2019 11:54:40 AM

This is so true. I've worked with over 20 lawyers throughout the years, and there were really just one or two that thoroughly understood business strategy and understood the legal strategy as simply a subset of that larger business strategy. It's interesting, because I'd talk to these attorneys and explain to them the larger business objective, which would explain why I'd want to take a different legal route, but they really weren't getting it. They would understand the business strategy but they would discount its effectiveness in favor of their legal strategy. They wanted to win legally. They would agree to move forward sometimes, but I could tell, they really were just stuck looking at the situation through a predominately legal lense. Sometimes these issues weren't complex, but it was hard to get them to relax their gaze and see and properly value the larger frame in their internal algorithm. You have some good suggestions. I think an important key is to drill in the point that their legal work is just a subset of a larger business objective and getting them used to doing their legal thinking within the larger frame.

Posted by: Burner Combustion Systems | Feb 24, 2019 2:38:39 AM

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