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March 27, 2007

"Is the Law a Profession, a Trade or a Hybrid?

I wanted to point you in the direction of blog post at Law Blog - WSJ  and the follow-up which takes on the eternal debate as to whether the law is a Profession or a Trade?  I took on this debate myself in The Connecticut Law Tribune last year:

You Say Profession, I Say Business.  Can't We Just Get Along?

Connecticut Law Tribune - 2006

I recently met a distinguished lawyer who pronounced at a seminar that he refutes and would handily dispatch anyone who subscribes to the philosophy "when you are a solo practitioner you are a businessperson." I was a little surprised and dismayed given that he is a very successful solo and thousands of solos have heard him speak through the decades. I decided to take the very challenge in this column because that attitude is what I believe is preventing a proper law school experience and stopping lawyers from venturing forth on their own.

The following definitions are taken from "Wikipedia."

Profession: An occupation that requires expertise or a high level of skill.

Business: a specific commercial enterprise or establishment. (Commercial : a money-making endeavor that involves a corporation or other formalized group of workers and management working toward the production of goods or services to participate in an economy.)

By definition, then, isn’t a law firm a "money-making endeavor that involves a formalized group of ‘professional’ workers and management working toward the production of services to participate in the economy?" And can’t the ‘professional’ worker and the management be one and the same individual, the solo practitioner?

"Professional" and "Business" are not mutually exclusive terms. Why do most lawyers and academia have a hard time wrapping their heads around this reality? Or better yet, why is there such an aversion to being identified as both a lawyer and a businessperson? Can anyone run a business but not everyone be a lawyer and therefore we must distance ourselves from the comparison? Is the managing partner of a law firm (large or small) somehow "less of a professional" because she dirties her hands with budgets, vendors, malfunctioning equipment and office space considerations in addition to litigation? Whatever the reason for the disdain it is a harmful mindset to instill in the solo. It is elitism dressed to the nines in arrogance.

Morality, desire to do good through use of your legal education and to honor the oath you have sworn to uphold, and a passion for justice do not suddenly disappear or become diminished because you simultaneously work hard at creating a thriving profitable business that enables you to live the way you choose as well as putting your children through college. Learning how to use an accounting system or maintaining a blog in addition to creating marketing campaigns to attract new clients doesn’t make you less qualified to litigate a high profile murder trial or diminish your oath.

Therefore, in order to be a successful solo practitioner you MUST be both a highly skilled professional and a competent businessperson. I dare say you have to be even more gifted in a variety of areas than the average lawyer who becomes an employee in a mid to large-sized firm. If you are not running your "legal services" business well it will fail and you will ultimately have to work for another. You will forego all the freedoms and privileges you came to enjoy as a solo. You can continue to be a professional but shackled to someone else’s wrist for the rest of your legal career because you were not also a businessperson.

When academia does not recognize the need to teach the business side of being a lawyer, they are further encouraging employment versus entrepreneurship and failing to equip its students. Yes, this is a song I keep singing, but it is worth repeating and repeating until such time as the refrain runs in an endless and irritating loop through every Law School Dean’s head until he or she can’t hear it one more time. Maybe then the message will penetrate and every law school curriculum will finally require some form of business education prior to graduating law school.

Solos don’t need to be experts in running a business but they need to be competent. And they should at the very least be provided some knowledge of the business side of running a legal practice while in law school; the basics of what will be required should they choose to be their own management while practicing their profession. So, I ask you, "are solos professional businesspeople?" Absolutely.

Susan Cartier-Liebel is solo practitioner, adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law and a business consultant for solo and small firms. Her blog, Build A Solo Practice, is at susancartierliebel.typepad.com. She can be reached at [email protected]. Copyright © Susan Cartier-Liebel (2006) All Rights Reserved. No portion of this material may be copied, transmitted, posted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of Susan Cartier-Liebel.

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» Law as a Trade or a Business? from The Dreams of a Solo
The title of this post fodder for great debate. A recent post by Susan Cartier Leibel titled "Is the Law a Trade, a Business or a Hybrid?" sums up this conundrum extremely well. [Read More]

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