Since my transition from large firm law practice to lawyer coaching six years ago, I have had a good deal to say about the failure of American law schools to graduate financially literate young lawyers. In my coaching practice, I have done my best to offer guidance to law students looking for training in business fundamentals, and to convince the “numbers aren’t my thing” crowd that these crucial electives are neither rocket science nor optional—not if they want to have a competitive edge in the real world.
To be sure, there has been some real progress — mainly in the range, quality and number of electives in accounting, finance and other business fundamentals. Practical problem-solving workshops, transaction simulation courses, and business-content clinics are also on the rise, as schools accept the need to offer more than legal analysis and doctrinal training.
At many law schools around the country, deans and faculty are lobbying for expanded course offerings providing the practical business lawyering skills that employers prize. If one of their students (1) gets the message, (2) is properly advised and (3) is willing to put in the time and effort, she can construct a second and third year curriculum that will launch her into private practice on a fast track to productivity and competitive advantage.
But law schools are coming up short. By covering business fundamentals merely in second and third year electives, they send too faint a message as to the value of business skills, and they reach only the self-motivated or job-seasoned students, many of whom are either business savvy already or undaunted by “numbers”-based content. The vast majority of law students were humanities majors in college, are only vaguely interested in the global financial crisis, and freely admit to being distinctly uncomfortable around corporate balance sheets and enterprise valuation formulas. They’re just happier in the doctrinal, pure law, classes.
Fixing What’s Broken
The best way to reach the unwilling or uninformed law student majority is by expanding the mandatory curriculum, ideally in the first year, to include business fundamentals.
And only one top school, Boston University Law School, has taken the necessary leap. In so doing, BU has established an appreciable lead over competing institutions in preparing its students for a job market where employers and clients alike want much more from them than legal analysis and hard work. Under the leadership of Dean Maureen O’Rourke, BU Law is rapidly implementing a long-term strategy to assure that all of its students acquire the basic real life financial lawyering skills that employers seek.
And this year BU broke ranks by upgrading the mandatory curriculum to include meaningful business and financial training.
I was stunned when I learned earlier this year about the new curriculum requirements. True, organic change? Concrete leadership on the professional topic nearest and dearest to my heart? And… all this happening in the heart of Red Sox Nation, just across the Charles River from my office? Heartened, I reached out to arrange a meeting with the Dean and her team. And I decided to write a blog piece to help remind prospective law students of the great, and ever increasing, value of a BU Law degree.
The Challenge for Legal Educators
“It is crucial that we train our students to be effective lawyers, and today’s lawyers need to be business-savvy, whether they’re working at a law firm or with a public interest employer.”
A clear message—made truly compelling by BU’s willingness to take concrete, innovative, steps to embrace the challenge of graduating “business-savvy” lawyers.
Be they corporate lawyers or litigators, novices or experiencedpractitioners, and with general or niche practices, all of today’s lawyers must understand the business terms of the client’s material contracts, the financial constraints within which it conducts it business, and the interests and concerns that drive it and its partners and competitors. If they don’t learn to speak the client’s language, then someone else will, and nothing good will come of that….(For my most recent rant on this topic: Financial Literacy: Don’t’ Leave School Without It.)
And yet, for reasons that defy logic (and the exigencies of today’s workplace), legal educators are almost universally loath to disrupt the core curriculum to make financial literacy mission-critical. The trepidatious, or perhaps just bored, humanities majors (yes, I was one of them), along with the rest of the “numbers” averse, are out of luck. They will have to learn on the job what they will deeply wish they had already learned in school.
The BU Law Solution
Some background: BU established its highly regarded Transactional Law Program in 2011. Now directed by former Skadden partner, Kent Coit, the program has received consistently favorable feedback from employers, according to Assistant Dean Fiona Hornblower.
“Our students are learning the process of structuring and executing business deals—including contract drafting, and legal analysis and negotiation. They are getting the intensive, hands-on training that employers really appreciate in new lawyers, and it’s paying off in practice.”
The big news?
BU Law intends to reach every student, not just those who seek out business skills courses, and to do so it has changed its core curriculum to require introductory business training.
- Beginning with the class of 2017, BU established a mandatory first year “Lawyering Lab”, an intensive one week introduction to “real-world” lawyering skills, including client counseling, negotiation, legal analysis and contract drafting. In this course, students build on fall semester transactional training to negotiate a simulated deal. As Professor Fred Tung, who led the inaugural session in January of this year, observes, ”while most law schools offer significant practical training in litigation, few have an organized approach to teaching dealmaking skills.”
- In addition to the Lawyering Lab , all BU students are required to complete, before graduation, an asynchronous online course in business literacy, “Introduction to Business Fundamentals”. The aim of the new course is to assure that no BU Law student enters the workforce without a grasp of fundamental business language and concepts, including financial accounting, capital markets and corporate finance. This is a step that other top tier schools have been unwilling to take.
- Oh, and by the way…., if that were not enough, BU recently announced an accelerated three-year (seven semester) J.D./MBA in Law and Management.
Across the River: The Future
The Dean described the planning process, and the rationale, for BU’s commitment to graduating financially literate students:
“We’re listening to our alumni and to the employers recruiting at our law school. We know that we must offer business fundamentals training if we want our students to be effective lawyers—whatever their intended practice areas. We are continually assessing our curricular offerings to ensure that BU graduates will understand of the environment in which their clients operate, and will be better equipped to offer constructive legal advice.”
Now this is a message that gets through to all students. All benefit — students, the employers who recruit them, and the school and its faculty.
Mandate for the Future: A Fair Return on Investment
Law students today shoulder a staggering burden in time, tuition and tuition debt. To offer full value for this investment, all law schools must go beyond electives and assure that they train all of their students. This means educating those who showed up equipped with a humanities degree, financially illiterate (like most of us), and not at all inclined to venture into the mysterious beyond of corporate balance sheets or enterprise valuation.
BU reaches out to the uninformed and the reluctant, the uninterested and the intimidated — not just the business-minded student who needs no convincing. And in so doing, it is rapidly gaining ground with the law firms looking to hire graduates with real-value practical skills and the ability to add that value (both billable and non-billable) from day one of their employment.
There is no getting around it: Until business fundamentals are taught in the corecurriculum, even the elite law schools will continue to come up short. Their students deserve more for their tuition.
Because it’s 2015.
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