A perspective from south of the border: a standard legal training fails to equip lawyers as business people, a deficit addressed by the author's firm’s training academy

Being a great lawyer doesn’t mean you are a great business person.

Along with other professional disciplines, lawyers excel in producing experts within their own specialisms. But what the pandemic has proved is that being a great litigator, conveyancing or private client lawyer does not necessarily equip them well for the challenges of running a business at times of great uncertainty.

A law degree is the strongest platform for a continued career in almost every domain. So it is all the more ironic that so many lawyers, and indeed firms, lack the basic business skills with which to appreciate and react to the challenges facing their clients due to COVID-19.

There are many contributing factors to this limitation, but a fundamental issue is the failure by most law firms to invest in non-legal training, development and mentoring.

Business insights, not just legal prowess

The last four months have probably changed the way we live and work forever. So how have we reacted? Our profession has always been accused of being too introspective, of failing to understand how our clients are evolving their behaviour when dealing with other professional service providers and the broader environment.

Let’s face it. Our clients will happily spend the same amount of money on a flat screen TV as they would a fairly complex will – especially as they can click and collect the TV. That said, credit where it’s due – a profession not known for its rapid adoption of innovation has turned to technologies such as videoconferencing, which many considered to be a suboptimal way of servicing clients, but which have been well received by practitioners and clients alike.

Necessity has also seen huge progress in the move towards electronic signatures for wills and other documents, benefitting clients with mobility issues and also allowing us to serve a far larger geographic area.

Let’s build a better lawyer

Crises of one sort or another are cyclical. Thirteen years ago it was a global financial meltdown, and 19 years ago it was 9/11. Such crises are infrequent, but the result is often that there will be a large number of partners across the UK who have never experienced business turmoil, and therefore have limited experience and knowledge to call upon.

But it’s not just crises that many lawyer trainee programmes fail to address. Practical issues such as cash flow, winning new business, client handling and how to run a meeting are often learned by osmosis rather than in a structured manner.

Another problem that often needs addressing is the fact that law is very siloed. The overarching needs of both private and corporate clients are often ignored, with the result that the solicitor lacks the depth of experience to discuss the wider issues. A prime example of this is the universal need for a power of attorney, which is just as important as a shareholder agreement for owners of businesses, and arguably should be put in place at the same time.

Real world training should be mandatory

Our “Parker Bullen Training Academy” strategy was devised to complement the structured legal training and “on the job” experience with real world content, to which trainees will not have been exposed, but which is nonetheless crucial in adding value when advising clients and colleagues on a day-to-day basis, and especially when a crisis occurs.

It should be noted that other law firms have participated, and the training is also open to accountancy firms, many of whom share the same issues as us.

The training modules have been designed in part around the unknowns that senior practitioners wished they had been told about when they were junior lawyers. Good examples are the importance of marketing as an integral part of one’s practice, and of making sure your colleagues know you: the all-important and overlooked “internal market”, not just that of the external customer.

Fit for a new environment

We’re not the first. Neither should law firms be the last.

When redesigning our training programme we looked at other organisations with similar business issues and customer dynamics to ours. The way Goldman Sachs train is an interesting parallel, and especially their approach to small businesses. How they develop their employees for future leadership roles, and how colleagues and clients behave in the workplace, were apposite learnings.

Training must also be flexible, to adapt and evolve alongside the needs of the business and clients. A good example in our  case has been the inclusion of a module on franchising, as we have a strong presence in the military, and many ex-forces personnel choose franchising as post-service employment.

In conclusion, COVID-19 has galvanised us. More than ever, we are striving to build a better and stronger business. Integral to this is a focus on training programmes that make us fit for purpose in a new business environment and better able to tackle whatever external events throw at us.

The Author

Mark Lello is a partner and head of the Commercial department with Parker Bullen LLP, Salisbury and Andover

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