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Preparing the next generation of lawyers for a career in private practice – a commercial perspective

It is time for marketing and BD teams to step up and shape the law firm leaders of tomorrow, says Barbara Koenen-Geerdink.

Law school graduates have plenty of career options, but an obvious one is to join private practice and become a qualified lawyer. Although it seems a natural step, the transition from law school to law firm is huge. Not only because students turn into employees but also because joining a law firm means they are joining a business with revenue and profit targets. In short, they are entering a commercial world.

The gap between law school and private practice

Law school did not teach lawyers the fundamentals of doing business – it taught them how to best solve complicated legal issues. On joining a law firm, there is a knowledge gap as they are now required to keep in mind the objectives being an employee of the firm. If new joiners have the ambition to become a partner at the firm, they will have to educate themselves on the commercial side of that firm. How to grow a practice, how to build relationships, how to build your personal profile, how to manage a team, how to interpret the numbers. Running a business is a whole different ball game and lawyers usually only come to realise that when they join a firm for the first time after graduation.

This is often also the time when they may realise that this is not what they want, and they shift their careers and join in-house roles or decide that partnership is not for them but they like advising their clients and solving their legal problems.

How to bridge the gap

The good news is we can bridge the gap. Those who aspire to become business (wo)men in a law firm can do so with the relevant training and a lot of on the job learning and doing.

The law firm will have to play a role in facilitating the training but there is also some responsibility for those looking to build their own practice and potentially even run a law firm. The exposure to many different clients across various industries will also help to become more familiar with business principles. Especially corporate commercial lawyers that get to benefit from speaking to entrepreneurs and understanding how they operate their businesses. It is for a reason that more often than not law firm leaders have a background as a corporate commercial lawyer.

Prepare them for what’s to come

As said, law firms also have a role to play in bridging the gap. This could start with giving students a “look into the kitchen”. Invite students to join a career camp so that they will understand what it takes to become a successful lawyer and potentially even business (wo)men in law.  Aside from obtaining technical legal skills it is important to set out from the start of a lawyer’s career what their prospective career path may look like in practice. Learn from the best, not only in the legal sense but also from the best in law firm management. Most often, especially at the bigger law firms, a management team is established with the essential skillset to keep the law firm business running. Aspiring lawyers should be given access to the firm’s management teams, to help become more familiar from the start, to understand what it means to run a firm and who is involved from behind the scenes. A career camp is a good option to bring people together and show all aspects of the business.

Technical skills versus essential skills

Once graduates join, law firms have to fulfil their training duties. Not only the obvious technical legal but also soft skills training – or what should be referred to as “essential skills” training.   

Building a personal brand, a reputation in the market, growing your client base, speaking to large audiences, networking with people you don’t know, preparing a business plan, management skills, time management, etc. These would all classify as “essential skills” and law firms should ideally provide this training.

This is where the marketing team can also play a role. To help lawyers understand what a good presentation looks like, what it takes to build your personal brand, how to build a solid business plan, how to define your target audience, how to build a client list and much more. Building a practice doesn’t happen overnight and the sooner graduates start to acquire those skills and implement what they have learned on the job whilst doing billable work, the easier it will be in the long run.

It is time for marketing and business development teams to step up and play a greater role in shaping the law firm leaders of tomorrow.

Barbara Koenen-Geerdink is the Business Development and Marketing Director at Al Tamimi & Company and author of business book Beyond Billable Hours.  Visit www.tamimi.com.

Matt Baldwin
Co-founder – Coast Communications

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