With an emphasis on theory, not practicality, law schools are falling short in teaching proven business concepts needed to more purposefully develop individual practices and provide the necessary skills to deliver best-in-class service to today’s clients.

Most lawyers didn’t go to business school. Instead, they spent three years independently synthesizing thousands of pages of case law, engaging in endless Socratic debate and learning how to examine every angle of an issue. What’s missing is an understanding of key business concepts, in addition to an emphasis on the soft skills that are crucial for long-term professional success and an understanding of the sales and service role that lawyers have to adopt to build their practice.

Contrast that with business schools, which teach students in a totally different way, focusing on applied business principles such as differentiation, collaboration and driving growth.

No matter how large the law firm, a lawyer must take individual ownership of their practice. It is the business of law that a lawyer’s individual success directly impacts the firm’s success, and as such, they must understand the practical side of running a business.

In today’s competitive world, it takes more than doing good legal work for an attorney to build a solid book of business. It takes true differentiation to propel our industry into the innovative, client-centric and business-focused world that our clients have occupied for years. Here are five fundamental business school concepts that can enhance the practice of law:

Taking Risks

Businesses take risks every day. Private companies go public. Public companies play the opportunistic and volatile stock market—the riskiest platform in our business world. Lawyers, on the other hand, are trained to mitigate risk by examining all possible arguments and outcomes. Businesses would be paralyzed by the same level of risk aversion. Truly skilled lawyers help clients assess the amount of risk they are willing to assume and prioritize their investment in legal services as appropriate.

Conflict Management

Managing conflict is a healthy part of doing business. Whether it’s holding a partner accountable for something or receiving constructive client feedback, confrontation is rarely addressed, but remains crucial to success. Our industry needs to function more like a corporate business and recognize that conflict resolution as a business practice will help firms flourish.

Collective Intelligence

I’ve worked with lawyers for nearly 20 years, and they are some of the most brilliant people I know, but they sometimes lack the ability to see the big picture. Businesses understand the power of collective intelligence. Artificial intelligence, business intelligence and competitive intelligence are tools and platforms that the business community use daily to gain a competitive edge in the marketplace. Yet, few law firms have been able to adapt and harness these tools to impact their firms or help influence their position in the market. With the rise of legal project management and legal operations in corporate legal departments, collective intelligence will continue to be a point of differentiation for firms utilizing these resources.


By its very nature, law school is a highly competitive environment. Teamwork feels inefficient and precarious. The institutional bell curve and intense competition for post-graduation jobs do not foster a collaborative culture. Yet, most schools—from kindergarten to college—have migrated to team-based learning. Different perspectives, principles and experiences all bring insight and value to achieving goals. Clients want and expect their lawyers to bring their firm’s full experience to bear, something that is only possible through teamwork. Collaboration is an effective way to share opinions, work through conflict, allocate accountability and arrive at the best solution.

Client Experience

Think about any retail establishment that you enjoy visiting. What is it about the experience that keeps you coming back? For me, it’s Starbucks. Why do I pay $6 for an order that I can barely remember? Three reasons: It’s personalized—they always get my order right, and they put my name front and center for an added touch; it’s convenient—I can order from my phone and skip the line; and there are incentives—I get to participate in a post-visit challenge, and with every order I earn bonus stars toward a free drink. Is it better than the other coffee shops across the street? I have no idea. I haven’t felt the need to try it, because I value the overall experience Starbucks provides. They have earned my loyalty.

Erin Ryan, senior business development manager at McGuirewoods, is a JD who has seen the rising importance of business skills over the course of her 13-year career. She says, “An operational, business-driven mentality exercises a different muscle than the Socratic one. While theory, what if’s and nuanced research certainly have their place in a lawyer’s skill set, they are simply not enough anymore. Client service, business development, interpersonal skills and the economics of practicing law are essential. And if law schools continue to fall short, it is up to the lawyers to seek out this post-law school curriculum.”

So, you can go back to school and get your MBA, or you can seek out individuals like Ryan who can help you bridge this gap. Many law firms already have resources in-house. Look no further than your firm’s marketing and business development professionals to provide teaching and coaching on the skills that are needed to differentiate your practice: branding, positioning, relationship selling, business analysis and communications are just a few to add to the list noted above. If you don’t have an internal source, check out the Legal Marketing Association and its channel on JD Supra. LMA is a great resource for the legal profession to spot trends, provide training and identify talent to help you take your practice to the next level.

Jill Huse is a member of the board of directors of the Legal Marketing Association and will serve as its president in 2020. She is a partner at Society 54, where she provides consulting and coaching for professional services firms. Contact her at jill@society54.com.