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Take off the business blinders and take a business course

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Attorney with blinders on

As law students, you still have the opportunity to take a business course as part of your electives – not business law, but a genuine business course (or even an accounting course if you’ve never learned about balance sheets and income statements). If you are thinking that you went to law school because you did not understand numbers or hated the sight of blood, I hope it’s the latter.

As a practicing attorney, the basic knowledge of business, whether you have your own firm or not, is critical. And don’t think you can escape to legal operation or in-house; they need numbers and metrics more than anyone these days. Finally, if you would like to launch a company in the growing legal tech space, you need more than one business class!

I have been in the work force for more than 30 years and only went to law school about seven years ago, but I did work at a large law firm as the director of finance. Of course, you’re probably thinking this article is supposed to be about technology adoption in the legal profession. It is, but you cannot adopt tech without understanding the business principles needed to evaluate the technology.

I recently interviewed Carolyn Elefant about the slow pace of technology adoption in the legal field, specifically among schools and students. “I have to blame students as much as professors. When I was in law school, Macs had just become available in a price range that was affordable to someone who spent the summer at big law (me!). Even then, when all I could do with a Mac was publish an underground newsletter and create and sell attractive resumes for my job-seeking classmates, I was captivated by the possibility it offered. I don’t know why so many law students, and law professors, just don’t understand how these amazing tools can help serve clients better. But in terms of what law schools could do, I think if they came up with ways to integrate new tech into the day-to-day classroom exercises and seminars and clinics, at least students would gain some familiarity with them.”

As a new associate, you may be given a billable hour target and be laser focused on simply delivering as many hours as possible. If you haven’t taken a business course, though, you may not understand that billable hours are not created equal. You really only want to bill hours that can be collected or realized. However, that does not mean to hide or leave hours off your timesheet. If you do not record all your efforts, your firm cannot measure the effort needed to deliver the work product.

There is a reluctance among lawyers to implement technology because of a misconception that technology will replace attorneys. Most legal technology companies are solving to improve efficiency or generate more business for attorneys which in turn provides a better client experience without eliminating the lawyer.

The sales cycle for technology companies into legal is notoriously slow. I started gathering some information on why lawyers were not purchasing technology by talking to attorneys and legal technology companies. Here’s what I found:

  • Firms want to be the fifth customer, not first. Law firms are resistant to what they feel is unproven tech. However, I would communicate to your firm the competitive advantages of being an early adopter.
  • Technology scares attorneys. The cloud, online security, and ethical considerations are all big hurdles, so a good understanding of these objections can be helpful to others in your practice.
  • The return on investment (ROI) of tech is not widely understood. We are back to the business of legal. Purchasing technology should be measured as any other investment, and firms must have a good system to measure the efficiency and other impacts of the technology.

As new lawyers, ask for technology when you arrive on the job. Make sure you do your research before you arrive, though, because many firms look to the new associates for the ideas. Be the champion, but be prepared with the financial impact and information associated with any technology. It’s my hope that practice management and the business of legal courses become part of the law school curriculum.

Mary Juetten Mary Juetten is the founder of Traklight, a self-guided questionnaire that issue spots for attorneys and educates small- and medium-sized companies on business risk and intellectual property. She’s also the co-founder of Evolve Law. She is currently writing a book for Thomson Reuters on key performance indicators for small law.