Law Students Need to Learn Practical Business Skills

As we all know, the legal job market is tough and getting tougher everyday.  Law school graduates are coming out into the workplace with fewer prospects to land that "big firm" job or even a salaried position with a smaller law firm or government agency.  This has lead many to think about the prospects of "hanging their own shingle" but, how does law school train you for running your own practice?  The answer is that many, if not most law schools provide little, if any, practical training courses on how to operate a "business."

As an attorney that has run his own personal injury law practice (Steven M. Sweat, APC) for the past 17 years, I know how hard it was to take that first step.  Luckily, I had several years of work experience to draw upon but, I've often thought of all the things I wish I would have known that I had to learn about running a law practice.  Some practical tips would be as follows:

  1. Have A Business Plan: When I first started out, people would ask me, "What type of law do you practice?"  I would reply, "Street law -- because I take whatever cases come in off of the street!" In hindsight, this was not a good "plan."  Even if you want to have a fairly "general practice", it is always best to determine what types of cases you will take, what your fee structure will be and what type of budget you will need.  For example, will you take civil and criminal cases, will you charge an hourly fee with a retainer up front, will your fees be flat for each service provided, or will you have a "contingency fee" arrangement.  Depending upon the answers to these types of questions, you will know roughly how many cases per month you will need to meet income goals and whether or not you may have to plan for a "waiting game" to obtain revenue (e.g. with contingency cases -- it could take months or even years to get paid and you have to account for case costs and overhead in the meantime).
  2. Learn How to Market Yourself: In the movie, "Field of Dreams", the famous saying was, "If you build it, they will come!"  This is not the case with a law practice.  Simply finding a place to work, printing up some business cards and "telling everyone you know" to refer you cases, is not enough.  The legal market is tough and competitive.  Take the time to learn real strategies and techniques for marketing your law practice. Join different organizations that focus on teaching business marketing skills, read and go online to learn about how to use the internet for marketing, and create an actual system for drawing referrals.  This takes time and effort but, without this type of education, the chances of success are much less.
  3. Find Good Mentors: The phrase, "no one is an island" could not be more true when it comes to establishing a thriving practice.  Even if you are a "solo practitioner," you can't go it alone! Finding experienced attorneys that are willing to help you is not as hard as it sounds.  For example, in the personal injury field, I found that there were many larger law firms that were more than willing to help me with both case costs and workload for a percentage of the fee in cases with decent value. (Note; This assumes you are in a jurisdiction, like California, that allows attorneys to "split fees" and comply with all the ethical obligations). Setting up shop in a suite with other attorneys is also a great way to surround yourself with persons with whom you can consult. In general, older lawyers and even business people in other professions can provide you with the best information and assistance to help you succeed. 

While these are not all the things you need to know to start your own law practice, they are a good start. The bottom line is that, with a little planning and effort, you can succeed in the practice of law as a solo or even starting a partnership with your fellow law school graduates.  It does take committment and effort and you must do a "little every day" to move your business forward but, in the end, this can be one of the most rewarding paths in the legal profession!

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