As a first-generation law student, I came into my 1L year with very little knowledge of what work a lawyer actually does. I assumed that lawyers took meetings with clients, read legal textbooks and tried to come up with solutions to legal problems. I can confidently say, now, that I knew nothing.
Even without even working in a law firm yet, I know that a lawyer has to be able to bill, run payroll, manage cases, keep an orderly schedule, draft documents, manage staff, evaluate clients, bring new clients in, and so much more. In the sea of tasks that a firm has to do to stay afloat, there are always opportunities to drown. And even though I know there are solutions and processes that make these tasks more manageable so that lawyers can spend more time with clients and less time doing medial tasks, I don’t know how to use most of them.
Even with resources like the Digital Initiative that OU Law offers, podcasts, and bogs, it is difficult to keep up with what tools and practices are actually helpful and which ones do little more than complicate issues. So the question is: How do law students learn how to be lawyers? Currently, the answer is that we intern and work for a firm during the summers and then learn different practice methods as associates.
While this system has endured over the years, perhaps it is time to rethink our educational structure. Why shouldn’t law students learn about different business models as ways to run a firm? Why shouldn’t we at least have the chance to experience different models before committing to one immediately after passing the bar?
In my opinion, law students and firms alike would benefit from integrating a practice management course in law schools. Not only would students graduate with a better understanding of the business side of law firms, but they would graduate while being readily qualified to actually help with running the firm. More and more firms are expecting students to graduate and be proficient in using software such as Word and other technologies. It does not seem like a broad leap to expect them to also know how to run practice management software.
Granted, some courses that have long been taught in law schools would be displaced or condensed. For some, that sacrifice may not be worth adopting new curriculum that also strays from the typical course structure of law classes. However, for law schools that are focused on creating the best possible lawyers for practice rather than law review writers, judges, and clerks, this would be a reasonable sacrifice.
Students are already exposed to the theoretical and ideological aspects of law in their traditional courses. I will admit that these classes are vital so that graduates leave with a deep understanding of the law itself. I don’t want to be misinterpreted as saying that the law school structure needs to be scrapped. Instead, I think that small changes like this could add to the already rich education that students receive. Not only would we gain the academic value already provided by law schools, but we would have the knowledge to go out and create value in the legal market immediate after graduation. Firms could spend less money training new associates. New graduates could begin earning higher rates sooner in order to pay of student debt. Schools could use their success in these courses as a reflection of the value they offer both prospective students and firms looking to hire new associates.
I know that law school is not a trade school. I don’t want to see schools abandon their academic structure either. All I am advocating for is that schools, filled with professors who have experience practicing law in most cases, offer a semester of insight to the business side of law. I, and so many others, have recognized the value that these courses may provide for students, schools, and firms if it were to be provided.