The Right Kind of MCLE
Lawyers – like accountants, doctors and plumbers – are required in virtually all states to undertake continuing legal education, generally 25 hours in three years or eight-plus hours per year. Other professions and trades often require more. Even so, some lawyers complain about being compelled to take continuing education programs. Not the good lawyers, who take and teach the programs. But the sticking point for many lawyers is the mandatory aspect.
The ironic aspect of mandating legal training is that the practical skills that lawyers most need to keep their practices profitable and problem free – training in effective client service and law practice management techniques – either are not covered or actively eliminated as legitimate MCLE credits. They also happen to be skills that no law school faculty would dare touch, lest they be considered “trade school” instructors. Just try to get law schools to include management programs in their curricula. You haven’t seen a strong lobby until you attempt this.
This attitude at the very start of training is too often perpetuated throughout a lawyer’s lifetime by the dearth of CLE courses in management and client service issues. Yet running a law firm in a business-like way improves the professionalism of the practice of law. The purpose is not simply to get more money for the lawyer; it also benefits the client. A profitable law practice is much more likely to avoid such ethical problems as dipping into client trust accounts, either as direct fraud or as a stopgap “loan.” Moreover, a law firm run as a business will also approach client service more efficiently – returning phone calls promptly, creating and adhering to budgets, providing sufficient details on invoices, and so on.
The issue is one of business competency. The lawyer who has it understands the operation of the firm as a business, how each attorney determines firm profitability, and the importance of clients and their own businesses. I registered the phrase, “The Business of Law®,” because it not only summarized the basics of my law firm consultancy, but also because so many lawyers seemed to lack an understanding of the concept. Many lawyers feel they have neither an efficient nor an effective way to learn how to build a better practice that better serves clients. But the Internet, local community colleges, professional coaches and even business school courses (such as the specialized ones for lawyers at Northwestern University and the Wharton School) are just a few of the readily available opportunities to learn management skills. Lawyers who pursue such resources are better equipped to become cost-effective contributors to their firms, and value-added resources to their clients.