Do it Yourself Business School for Lawyers: Bring in the MOOCs!

Few lawyers know much, if anything, about the exploding MOOC (“massive open online course”) phenomenon.  (Novices: Look here; and for more, see my very favorite infographic here, described in the comments by a particularly disheartened soul as a “spider web of academic death”.)  Even the elite MOOCs now offered by the likes of Stanford, Harvard, MIT and Berkeley have yet to claim a place in the rarified world of BigLaw or its feeder law schools.

But I’ve been watching  carefully for some time, spurred by a fascination with interactive e-learning (my kid’s school went presciently “paperless” in ’08, with Wikis, Ning, YouTube….and I used a Ning web platform to support my first business development curriculum), and inspired by a transformative consulting gig with
Fullbridge, the leading business education company in the transition-to-work space.   (Fullbridge has developed a media rich delivery platform offering highly engaging online exercises and team projects  Freed from the classroom, its participants “learn by doing”.)

I recently met the first law professor –the only lawyer–to enter the field:  Last year, Drexel Law’s Karl Okamoto deployed the breakthrough ApprenNet online training platform (“The Modern Apprenticeship”) he developed for LawMeets in a MOOC on business acquisitions.  This course offers law students a way to translate their transactional studies to the real world of law practice.  Since then ApprenNet has brought LawMeets to law firms as a means of training associates in practical lawyering. LawMeets logo So while corporate trainers, LinkedIn and pretty much everyone else begins partnering with Khan, Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, NovoEd and edX…. I see a use in our risk-averse little legal world for the MOOC–one or two MOOCs in particular–that has nothing at all to do with “massive” reach.

This fall the Wharton School, in partnership with the MOOC market leader, Coursera,  launched a suite of MOOCs that duplicates much of its first year curriculum, only minus the hefty tuition and the cost of room and board in Philly.  The Wharton Foundation Series really is a gift, especially for under-trained business lawyers interested in developing business.  It’s free. It’s digitized.  It’s identical (or almost) to what the MBAs are getting.  Did I mention that it’s free?

Coursera_logo The Wharton MOOC could indeed be a boon to those law firm professionals who recognize business skills as critical to associate success, but have not yet convinced their firms to allocate the funds to build the Fullbridge XBA or other “business bootcamp” into their training programs.  A stop-gap solution, perhaps—but a good one, if done right.  (And, for those forced to wait, there’s always Harvard Business School’s ultra-secret new HBX, expected to debut in Allston in the spring of 2014.)

If I were still practicing law I would view the elite Wharton MOOC as a brilliant, low cost way to teach my associates the basic business and finance skills they didn’t learn at law school and without which they cannot become the “trusted advisors” their clients want and need. A roadmap of sorts is provided a few paragraphs below—-food for thought.  Simply put:  The key to a successful MOOC-based business skills program will be the team of partners and staff enlisted to “translate” the B-school course material to the real world of law practice and client development.  The best word for this essential task is  “contextualization”:  so very hard to achieve even in an immersive business bootcamp, and impossible to do well without committed partner teachers from the participant’s practice area.

Background polemics– The dilemma restated in four bullets

1. Every client worth having wants counsel to understand the client’s business and speak its language–counsel who can read a financial statement and identify strategic business concerns presented by a complex legal arrangement—whether in negotiation or in dispute; a “trusted advisor”.

2. The proverbial “school of life” (where my partners and I picked up our business skills) is no longer sufficient to the task.   Financial products, business transactions and legal work are all much more complex, the large firm client conglomerate is vastly less accessible, and many of the partner teachers who should fill the void have hours, silo practices and portable billables to protect. (I’ve been going on and on about this for years–here and here for example.)

3.  Most firms do not offer a quality “mini MBA”, XBA or “business bootcamp” to their incoming first years (or anyone else).

Among the stand-out exceptions are Skadden Arps (and the other firms offering the Fullbridge XBA pioneered in 2011) and Milbank Tweed, a once stodgy Wall Street firm with the good sense to create “Milbank@Harvard“, a visionary mid-level associate training program.  (See Bill Henderson’s update on the program here, and watch Lee Pacchia‘s video interview of Milbank’s David Wolfson here.)  These two firms are doing three unusual things very right:

First, they are actually planning for the future—years in advance, and not simply for the next partner comp schedule,   Second, they get and speak the essential truth—that teaching business lawyers the language of business offers numerous marketing, client satisfaction, associate retention and recruiting advantages.  And third, they are investing comparatively immense, otherwise distributable, dollars in their people—and are already reaping the benefits of those investments.

4.  The average large firm, tyrannized by the billable hour, is leary of immersive, out-sourced programs, deeming the cost in fees and lost billables prohibitive.   Yet its training budget pales in comparison with the time and money committed by management consulting and accounting firms. 

One solution:  Facilitated, Contextualized, Open Online Learning

So, you’re a lawyer or legal professional anxious to bring financial literacy to your firm’s associates, with all the benefits to the firm and its constituents that this implies.  Cost, risk aversion, a dread of change–whatever the impediment, you’re willing to keep trying.  I have one solution in mind, one that will succeed if you have colleagues within your firm prepared to invest in the process:

Damn the torpedoes and bring in the MOOCs Instead of boarding your associates eight days a year at Harvard, or paying Fullbridge (vastly less) to run them through a business bootcamp, why not offer these young lawyers a glimpse of Wharton in the comfort of their offices—for a song?

For starters:

  • Pick a willing (or, even better, industry) group and register half a dozen volunteer associates in Wharton’s introduction to financial accounting or corporate finance MOOC, at zero cost.  They can watch the lectures, read the materials, do the e166576277xercises and attend virtual office hours on a flexible timeline.
  • Assign a professional development director or practice group manager to register as well, follow the course curriculum, herd the various cats and monitor progress.
  • Anchor the team with a gifted, willing teacher, a partner who can quell lost-hours anxiety, answer questions not addressed in online “office hours” and, with the assistance of your knowledge management team and other colleagues, develop case and deal specific exercises and other personalized wrap-around content to contextualize the Wharton material, connecting all the dots in both one-on-one and weekly group discussions.  

There’s a bonus ROI in my version of the personalized MOOC business school: The firm’s professional development team will be able to offer the participating associates something outside trainers really cannot give them:   True, practical, vivid context.

  • Only your firm’s lawyers fully understand the specific types of deals and cases your associates will likely encounter, and the specific tools most useful in that work.
  • Only you can best match finance and accounting skills to the industries served by your firm’s marquis practices.
  • And, let’s face it, only you know what you never really learned especially well yourself.

Make no mistake about it:  The market for personalized, coach or tutor driven MOOCs will be extremely lucrative.   I’d suggest getting out in front of the trend while freemium pricing remains the rule.   There is good press to be had here, along with brand burnishing (though who can beat “Milbank@Harvard”….?), enhanced recruiting, client appreciation and confidence (perhaps a reduction in fee sensitivities) and, most importantly, smart, skilled and satisfied associates and future rainmakers and general counsel. In fact, if I had the time and capital to invest,

  • I would partner with either Coursera or ApprenNet (LawMeets) and Wharton (or the change-agent school du jour) and build a coach-supported, “personalized” MOOC business training curriculum with wrap-around guides for three or four BigLaw practice groups.
  • I’d hire the best and brightest JDs, JD/MBAs and KM professionals to write tailored exercises and other content applying the material to the real world of law practice, using the Apprenat/LawMeets custom model.
  • And then I’d license this product to premier law firms for a fraction of the cost of the Fullbridge XBA or Milbank’s HLS/HBS training program.
  • The firms would, ideally, assign partner instructors to coach associate participants through the curriculum, using the Apprenat/Law Meets platform to scale, but could also access a roster of former BigLaw lawyers equipped to do the same for a moderate fee.

At this point, mind you, with some dignified fanfare, Richard Susskind will enroll the specialized business-MOOC trainer-translator in his catalogue of careers for “Tomorrow’s Lawyers”…and I will awake from my dream… I figure the result would not be wild and crazy enough to be “disruptive”;  but I would see no reason whatsoever not to gun for Legal Rebel status.

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