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November 06, 2008

Law Firm Training Programs and Other Fractured Fairy Tales

In Jim Hassett's Legal Business Development Blog we learn something rather astonishing (not) about the real agenda of law schools and law firms.

This month’s meeting of the Boston Legal Business Development Roundtable (Choate, Goodwin Procter, Goulston, Holland & Knight, K&L Gates, Nixon Peabody, and Nutter, McClennen & Fish ) was the first time we invited an outside speaker.   Seven senior business development professionals from Boston’s largest firms talked with Dr. David Nersessian about his work as Executive Director of the Harvard Law School Program on the Legal Profession, and discussed recent trends as viewed from the academy and from the trenches.

The reason I bring it to your attention is to help dispell the myth when you get a job at a Big Law firm right out of law school it will help you when you decide to leave to open your own successful solo practice.  This blurb is Jim's synopsis of the discussion and an anonymous quote from an attendee:

Law firms have wildly different ideas about how associates should be involved in developing new business, or even whether they should.  At one extreme, some firms see business development as the single most critical skill in any associate’s long term success.  At the other extreme, some firms honestly don’t want associates to think about business development, or anything else that distracts them from generating more revenue.  If an associate is billing 2400 hours, and encouraged to bill more, when exactly is she supposed to be developing new business?

For firms that do want associates developing business, law schools provide poor preparation.  In fact, some at our meeting said law schools don’t prepare associates to do many of the things that matter in their careers.  As one participant put it: “The irony of even a top tier legal education is how little it teaches about real world business issues, or core sales and marketing tools such as networking, asking probing questions that uncover pain, pipeline development, or building a brand--all skills that are arguably important to succeeding in a leading law firm in today's world."

If your ambition is to open your own solo practice, do not rely upon your law school or your first job at Big Law to provide the practical education you require in order to achieve your goals. If you know you want to go solo upon passing the bar or shortly thereafter, your 'education' needs to be through your own efforts while in law school, or within your current job and/or utilizing resources which cater to the unique challenges you will face as both a professional and a business owner.

This fanciful delusion of the benevolent mentor/employer who will teach you the ins and outs of both the practice of law and the business of running a law practice is distracting and costly for the serious entrepreneur.  Some lawyers never fully recover from their disillusionment.

(H/T to Edward Wiest)

(And in case you didn't see, check out our recent faculty announcements at Solo Practice University.

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Carolyn Elefant

I'm not sure that I agree entirely with you or Jim Hassett that law firms have nothing to offer in the way of training. After all, lawyers can learn from large firms' mistakes if not their example. But my main reason for commenting is to tell you that your "fractured fairy tale" title is one of the best headlines I've ever seen, bringing to mind images of egg-head lawyers falling off the wall like Humpty-Dumpty or associates stranded in a tower like Rapunzel with only a thin strand of hair connecting them to reality outside. My dose of humor for the day!


I believe the single most useful aspect of Big Law for the aspiring solo lies in the cache that *should* accrue to the aspiring solo based on the broad and vague prestige attached to Big Law. Of course, that cache must be utilized properly by the aspiring solo in order to truly impact marketing efforts. I certainly don't think that Big Law cache is by any means a prerequisite for hanging your own shingle--but it can provide a boost to marketing.

It's not surprising that law firms' training of associates generally seems to fail in providing them solo skills. It's classic self-interest I think: They don't want to hasten their best associates leaving the firm and competing freely in the market.

Martha Sperry

Points all very well taken. I always was amazed at how little attention senior attorneys paid to junior attorneys regarding marketing and "rainmaking". In fact, it almost seemed that younger associates were shielded from contact with clients until they had reached a fairly senior level. Any associate a large firm was moved to hire should have sufficient skills to interact positively with clients. And both the firm and the associate would benefit from the experience, whether that attorney stays with the big firm or moves out on their own.

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