According to the syllabus for The Business of Lawyering, “The private practice of law is a business, and new lawyers—whether you are a solo practitioner or in a firm—must understand the law firm business model and operations in order to thrive. A successful career in private practice requires more than being a competent lawyer.”
The elective course, developed and taught by Hamline Law Dean Don Lewis, introduces law students to some of the more mundane – yet essential – elements of a successful law practice: business and financial planning, timekeeping, billing and collection, space, staffing, technology, marketing and client relations. Dean Lewis, a successful law practice founder himself, also guides students through the elements of starting a solo or small firm.
“It was the most useful class of my law school career,” said Mark Miller, who received his JD this spring. “And it reached far beyond lawyering. It provided great introduction to business fundamentals and got me thinking about things I hadn’t even considered, like insurance. It put everything into context.”
The course is a distillation of the wealth of experience accumulated by Dean Lewis, which includes nearly thirty years as a trial lawyer, serving as an assistant U.S. attorney and U.S. Justice Department trial attorney, and co-founding that prominent Minneapolis law firm, Halleland Lewis Nilan & Johnson (now Johnson Nilan Lewis, where he remains of counsel). Developing and opening the firm gave him invaluable insights into what it takes to launch and build a new business, one that holds the additional complexity of being a law firm. He is eager to share these insights with students.
“I’ve always believed that young lawyers could benefit from a better understanding of what it takes to operate a practice,” said Dean Lewis. “One of the things that make this course unique and valuable is that students aren’t just learning from my narrow perspective or from some law book. My teaching partners in the class, Carol Cummins and Judy Norberg, bring an incredible amount of hands-on, hard-earned, experience building and operating successful law practices and they do a great job communicating both the challenges and opportunities.”
Those teaching partners, Adjunct Professors Carol Cummins and Judy Norberg are both law firm management veterans with years of experience working for and with large and small law firms. Together the trio has developed curriculum designed to ensure that students understand:
- the operations of a law firm as a business, including key financial measures of law firm and individual lawyer profitability;
- the role of marketing, and the importance of client service and satisfaction in a successful law practice;
- the components of a basic business plan for establishing a solo or small law firm;
- the interpersonal skills and workplace strategies for satisfactory performance and advancement in a law firm;
- how the practice of law is shaped by technological developments and changing economic conditions.
Specific classes tackle topics that include: Finding Your Niche in Private Practice; Marketing and Client Development; Managing Client Relationships; Ethics, Malpractice and Risk Management; Timekeeping, Fee Setting and Collection; Office Process; and Office Relationships. Adjunct Professor Cummins explained, “I don’t think students spend much time thinking about these things or the inner workings of a law firm and therefore don’t really have a good grasp. In our course, they learn that to really deliver value to their employer, they need to understand how an organization works and what it’s trying to accomplish. They appreciate our course because what they’re learning is grounded in real-life experience from people who have been there.”
Miller, a successful chemical engineer who earned his law degree to increase his value as a consultant, was especially impressed by his teachers. “Dean Lewis obviously has great relationships in the business and legal community and was able to bring in outstanding guest lecturers who were able to speak directly to every topic in the syllabus,” he said. “I also learned a lot from Carol (Cummins) and Judy (Norberg) and put that to work in my consulting practice. I know many of my classmates have gone back to them for advice about specific issues and they’ve been really helpful.”
One of the course highlights is the final class of each term, when Dean Lewis walks his students through the “Emerging Trends in the Practice of Law.” As he outlines how new technology and the commoditization of legal services are fundamentally changing the delivery of legal services, students hang on every word.
"It’s important that students realize they need to aware of how things are changing and that they continually need to think about how they add value to their employers and their clients,” said Dean Lewis. “Our students have bright futures, but that requires being prepared and nimble. I like to remind them that Law does not exist to provide a living for lawyers."