Mind Over Matter
This article first appeared in the New Law Journal for 28 October. It suggests routes towards the expansion of educational horizons for lawyers
After five years of expensive study, newly qualified lawyers often settle back and reassure themselves that their educational travails are over for good. The problem is that law is a somewhat narrow area of study and lawyers who are no more than proficient technically sometimes find it difficult to advise their clients holistically or to manage their teams proficiently. Many larger law firms now insist that law firm partners have more strings to their bow than just a legal qualification. Areas such as construction law, employment law, banking law, finance law, and medical negligence law (to name just a few) are all examples of specialisms where a dual qualification offer immense benefits. Additional language qualifications are also a benefit – some lawyers are now learning Mandarin, for instance, as the importance of the Chinese economy increases.
Ownership and Management
As careers develop, so does the need for a wider educational horizon. Law firm partners have to fulfil three roles – those of owners and managers as well as producers. Ownership and management each requires skills which are not taught at law schools and demand both innate attributes and learned competencies. My work on the Nottingham MBA in Legal Services persuades me that – in common with other industry and professional service sectors – MBA qualifications can benefit many lawyers and help them to face their leadership challenges. The problem of course is that few managing partners and busy law firm members have the time for heavily time-intensive courses and programmes. At the other extreme, however, the traditional method of slow learning in the ‘school of hard knocks’ tends to lead to reinvention of the wheel and the repeating history of management mistakes. On the job learning can be very powerful but is unlikely to be sufficiently urgent or focussed to benefit firms quickly in an ever faster moving world.
It would help if lawyers became wider read. When I first became a managing partner with limited time, I felt it helpful to have a personal target of reading at least one management book each month. I often failed but managed to average eight or nine books each year and this helped me immensely to move up the learning curve of strategy, management and leadership. I managed to achieve at least part of this reading whilst on trains and planes. It often surprises me how few sector and business journals get read by lawyers who profess to be industry sector experts.
Change of Attitude
We need a change of attitude on the part of lawyers and their firms towards a learning culture in which extra qualifications become the rule rather than the exception, where learning is whole heartedly embraced, encouraged and rewarded at every stage, age and seniority, and where lawyers who fail to move beyond a narrow technical proficiency in black letter law find that they hit a promotion ceiling earlier in their careers than hitherto.
The big question is how to achieve this learning nirvana. One problem is that, whilst twin professional qualifications are good to have, they are also time consuming and costly to obtain. It is therefore helpful that short courses, executive programmes and individual coaching are now all widely available. With online learning also easily accessible, there is now no barrier to advanced education. What is clear, however, is that a learning culture is just as much a matter of individual inclination as it is an organisational behavioural norm in the best firms. Whilst the latter can reinforce the former, individual lawyers nevertheless need to develop the discipline and enthusiasm to “live every day as if it is your last, but to learn as if you will live forever”.