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I have been an attorney for 15 years. 1 ½ in government; 12 ½ in a bigger firm; 1 on my own. I took a class at Wisconsin Law School called The Business of Practicing Law, which was the most practical course I took on how to start and build a law practice.
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That's how legal education is moving forward. We have three years of education focused on the academics of the law. However, knowing the academic concepts is worthless unless you can combine them with real world practicality. When you are practicing law you don't have the necessary time to figure out what forms and motions you need, you simply need to know. Specifically, the most helpful classes were ones that had at least some "practical application" built into them. For example, in my first year civil procedure class we worked on two mock cases from start to finish-everything from investigating, deposing witnesses, drafting the initial pleadings to conducting the trial. It was a great learning experience and really solidified the legal concepts of the course.
Outside of that, my Federal Courts class was also very helpful. It combined the concepts of civil procedure and constitutional law. This set me up with a great foundation for the federal side of several of my cases.
Remedies was another great class covering and expanding on contract law and damages.
Finally, my best class was simply called, Law Practice Management. It was taught by a seasoned practitioner who had his own firm for 30 years and was very successful locally. Learning the ins and outs of an actual law office was great.
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But outside of all of that, talking with other practitioners and alumni of my law school is really what gave me the best advice on running my law practice-that combined with the will to succeed and an entrepreneurial spirit!
Shane A. McClelland
There is no class in law school that helped at all with starting my own practice. The business of law can sometimes feel totally at odds with being a passionate advocate. However, taking advantage of the clerkships and clinics your school might offer are the best career-building opportunities out there. You gain real experience helping clients, and you get to know and build a reputation with other lawyers in your community.
Dana W. Furby
I am an attorney in Washington, D.C. and I manage a five-lawyer firm. I also have taught part time at GWU Law School for the past 18 years.
In terms of running or managing a law firm, the most practical law school classes are (1) Employment Law; (2) Corporations/Business Law; and (3) Accounting for Lawyers (which most schools offer).
While there are many other valuable skills needed (marketing, organization, public speaking), law school does not address them. However, knowing how to legally hire and fire people, as well as seeing the types of employment claims that exist, can be very useful. Studying Employment Law not only provides you with rules of what to do and not to do; it also gives you an idea of successful and unsuccessful employment practices. That is vital if you ever have employees.
Corporations Law is also helpful in understanding how to run a business entity, even if law firms are technically not corporations. Again, apart from the "how to" rules, studying corporate law offers a view on how businesses are and should be run. For example, the business judgment rule, closely held corporations, and liability for acts of a corporation can all be applied to running a partnership, as well.
Finally, accounting is called the language of business and it is vital to understand that language and how to handle the accounting and tax issues you will face. It is not enough to rely on a bookkeeper or accountant. In fact, the ethical rules for attorneys expressly state that reliance on such persons is not a defense to a claim. Plus, to best manage a business you need to understand accounting to review budgets, analyze results and make forecasts.
Thomas J. Simeone, Esq.
The most useful course for preparing me for independent practice was the litigation clinic that I participated in at Boston University School of Law. There, I was able to represent real clients and handle real cases under the supervision of skilled and experienced attorneys. I met with clients, investigated cases, handled hearings in court and conducted independent legal research. This was helpful preparation for independent practice because it taught me to be self-sufficient, and to make independent judgments on cases. Clinics are a great way to put what you are learning in the classroom into practice!
Dean F. Swanson
Attorneys Are Entrepreneurs
Many attorneys start their own practices out of a law firm, so they are not used to the entrepreneurial-type style of hustling for business and running that business. This includes setting and negotiating fees. Attorneys coming straight out of law school face the additional challenge of practicing law on their own for the first time, as well as setting up their own business.
Basic business practice tools that are specialized for attorneys are easy enough to find and set up, like subscriptions to law journals, and hourly tracking and billing programs. However, the marketing aspect of starting a practice is often the biggest challenge. In most professions, particularly law and medicine, people are focused on practicing their craft. However, the craft can't be practiced if you don't have clients and most professional schools do little in the way of preparing their graduates for the highly competitive business world.
Attorneys need to find the proper functions to attend in order to find high quality networking in their area of specialization or in general. Most attorneys will feel comfortable in attorney-on-attorney networking situations - while that's great for getting CLE credits, that's usually not where the potential client pool is to be found (unless your only goal is to subcontract to larger law firms). If you're an IP attorney, for instance, you might want to attend Licensing Executives Society meetings where IP issues are discussed - in other words find general industry functions where VP or C-level types are attending: that's the level that's going to hire you. If you are "shy" and don't network well, get over it fast and get out there or bring a wingman and network together.
Another excellent way to network is to get on panels. This puts you up front and center and starts to build your reputation as an expert.
Branding and Marketing
Attorneys must learn how to brand themselves (remember, in a solo practice You are Your Brand - in addition to the physical elements mentioned below, this means networking - clients are buying you along with your expertise).
Develop basic bare bones marketing materials (messaging and graphics) that are 360-degree consistent with each other and over multiple mediums. The best way to proceed is to find one person, or small company, that can handle all these materials for you - someone who understands all the mediums and how to strategically make use of them. Yes, you can get all these items really cheap on the Internet, but there's no strategy behind them and that will hurt you (by making you look unprofessional) and cost you in the long run (because you'll eventually have to go back and do it all over).
The copy should be written by someone else, not you. This is not a chest-beating exercise, but rather, informing potential clients how you can solve their problems and listing how you've done it for others (if there are others). Most entrepreneurs do not have the necessary perspective to be able to leave their egos behind and focus on the potential client's needs.
A simple color scheme and logo should be developed that can be used across all mediums (for instance, on your stationary and business cards, on your website, on your social media pages, on a PR folder and on the template pages that will fill the PR folder).
Have that person or company create, and either maintain, or teach you to maintain, your Web presence….this means website, Facebook page, LinkedIn page, and Twitter accounts at the very least. Join relevant LinkedIn groups, follow relevant groups or people on twitter and make sure your Facebook page is for your practice, not a personal page. You should probably also start a blog - once a month or once quarterly is a good beginning. Focus on a current issue that is interesting to your sector. This is important because the more you write, or in the case of other social media outlets, comment on others' writings, the more you will show up on searches which makes it easier for you to be found and make connections that can lead to business.
President & Founder of Holtzman Communications, LLC
Author of: "Lies Startups Tell Themselves to Avoid Marketing"
Having practiced for the past 34 years in the areas of medical malpractice and negligence, the most relevant law school courses, for me, included torts, product liability, evidence, legal writing, legal ethics and mock trial. I also orally argued in a moot court competition before a panel of judges to include Supreme Court Justice Byron White. Experience is a great teacher. I should add, however, that all first year courses are building blocks to the ability to identify issues in complex fact pattern scenarios and are, therefore, important and necessary. The ability to "think like a lawyer" is, in many respects, more important than substantive knowledge of the law, which varies from state to state. I attended Villanova Law School in Pennsylvania and then returned home to practice in New York. Knowledge of Pennsylvania procedural law was of little use to me but my ability to analyze and breakdown complex factual hypotheticals enabled me to pass the New York State Bar Exam on my first attempt, utilizing New York Substantive Law force fed to me over eight weeks in a commercial bar review course. I would, however, like to see the law school curriculum changed so that all students would complete two years of classroom study and one full year of practical training in the field prior to graduation. Many law students know little, if anything, of the "practical" aspects of the practice of law prior to graduation.
It is in some respects the profession least prepared for actual practice entering the workforce when compared to other fields such as medicine, dentistry, accounting and engineering. There is a move afoot in New York to effect this type of evolution in approach and I fully support it Perhaps most importantly, law students must be made to understand that a good lawyer knows the law but an exceptional lawyer knows that knowledge of the law, while important and necessary, is only a predicate to effectively and empathetically dealing with clients who are looking for professional assistance in a time of need. I would like to see law schools incorporate psychology and/or "people skill" course work to sensitize students to human interaction which is essential in most aspects of the practice of law. In the class at Villanova which graduated the year before mine, the most "successful" lawyer monetarily finished next to last academically. He is highly regarded by his clients and by his peers because he understands people, he understands juries and he cuts through the red tape to get the best result in the shortest time possible. All students should learn from that in preparing for actual practice.
The problem is that law school classes do not help you set up and/or run your law firm. They are primarily geared to the practice of law, not to the business aspects, which one really has to learn, even if on a trial-by-error fashion. However, I could design and teach an excellent course on this subject, if anyone's interested, based on my 37 years of practice, and 33 years of running my own firm.
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