April 21, 2010
Minding Our Own Business: Against Legal Entrepreneurship as a Unifying Principle of Legal Education
Posted by Gordon Smith

During this Masters Forum, both Christine and Larry have endorsed the notion of training legal entrepreneurs. I trust that my bona fides on the study of law and entrepreneurship is unquestioned, but I do not believe that "legal entrepreneurship" is a viable business model for law schools.

For one thing, there is the fundamental question whether entrepreneurs are born or made. I assume we could all agree that law schools are capable of teaching skills that are useful to entrepreneurs -- such as basic accounting and finance (see below) -- but I think we would also all agree that these skills are not the essence of entrepreneurship. Understanding this, Christine and Larry both emphasize the need to recruit students who have a demonstrated entrepreneurial inclination. I would happily add "entrepreneurial proclivity" to the list of plus factors to be considered by the Admissions Committee, and I suspect this is the extent of what Christine and Larry are proposing with respect to admissions.

But surely there must be more to the idea of producing legal entrepreneurs than selecting entrepreneurial students. If legal entrepreneurs are desirable graduates but we can't train legal entrepreneurs, then shifting the business model of a law school to legal entrepreneurship merely results in a search for rare talent, much like the current search for high-LSAT candidates.

Christine and Larry both seem to recognize this and implicitly assume that training is an important step in the creation of legal entrepreneurs. But what sort of training?

Christine is hiding the ball: "I would posit that the law school of the future should position themselves as the school that can identify, recruit and train law graduates that will have the confidence and personality to be 'client-ready' at graduation."

Larry attempts to fill in some gaps:

Offer a course in legal entrepreneurship. I envision that as starting with but going beyond "law office management" to conceiving of “law practice” as fundamentally the conveyance of legal knowledge, and then considering alternatives to conventional law practice that fit this model.

Ensure that all law students have basic business knowledge. I’m not talking about a semester traipsing laboriously through the Delaware fiduciary law cases (which could be an elective). I mean elements of accounting, finance, and possibly how to construct a viable business model.

Larry's first idea appeals to me. Law schools should do a better job at presenting students with varied ideas about what they could do with their legal training. We over-emphasize litigation and under-emphasize transactional work, and we should go beyond those two categories. I wouldn't package these messages in a course that most students would never take, but attempt to integrate these ideas into mainstream courses or make them part of a first-year lecture series, as we have done to some degree at BYU.

Larry's second idea seems simultaneously too ambitious ('all law students") and too weak ("elements of accounting, finance, and possibly how to construct a viable business model"). I encourage all prospective law students to take an accounting class and to learn some economics and finance, mainly because I think they are good life skills, but plenty of lawyers will continue to make a good living without these skills. And more to the point of this post, teaching the elements of accounting, finance, and business planning will not produce legal entrepreneurs. The primary value of teaching these subjects in a law school is to equip graduates with the understanding necessary to employ their legal skills in a business setting. So I would argue that Larry's idea is too weak if it is not married with meaningful transactional training.

Joan is headed in the same direction: "I think many of us, as legal educators, need to focus on an intermediate goal first: providing law students with the legal skills that they need to do meaningful work early on." She is talking about planning and drafting legal documents, which is a good thing, but I believe that she discounts the importance of non-legal knowledge when she writes: "before we focus on teaching and supporting non-lawyering skills in legal education, we should ensure that every law school student engages in meaningful planning and drafting before leaving law school." 

My aspiration for law schools is that we marry the teaching of accounting, finance, and business planning with the teaching of lawyering skills and an understanding of the theories of private ordering. We won't be creating legal entrepreneurs, but we will be creating graduates with a valuable combination of basic skills that will be useful to them, whether Big Law lives or dies.

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