New Zealand Law Society - Why executive education matters

Why executive education matters

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Twenty-seven years ago, I was a disillusioned criminal defence lawyer at a career crossroads. I was acutely aware of the limitations of my specialist knowledge and so, with a view to broadening my horizons, I sat and completed a one-year full time study MBA (Master of Business Administration). The programme was intense and covered a broad range of subjects I had never been exposed to at law school such as economics, marketing, statistics, finance and organisational culture.

Since then, I have often observed how many lawyers struggle to relate with, and talk the language of, their clients, often due to a lack of business education. In today’s climate, technical expertise alone does not “cut the mustard”. To remain competitive and commercially relevant, lawyers need to have a grasp of the essentials of business that I learnt on my MBA.

Yet, 27 years on and law schools are still churning out graduates with little or no grasp of some of the basic business principles. However, in recent years there have been signs that things are changing – at least overseas. In the United States, law schools are now placing greater emphasis on developing business skills in their curricula.

In the United Kingdom, several MBA programmes specially tailored for lawyers have been offered by some universities now for nearly 20 years. Indeed some large firms have been running their own in-house MBA programme for some time.

However, you don’t have to sit an MBA to learn business skills. My UK-based Law Consultancy Network colleague Andrew Otterburn, author of the best-selling book Profitability and Law Firm Management writes how some innovative firms are now introducing their own in-house management skills programmes, typically involving several modules over a 12-month period.

As Andrew writes: “an investment of this type is expensive in terms of time; however the payback and return on investment can be huge. It can be the difference between success and mediocrity in the future”.

One firm who introduced this type of programme is Yorkshire firm Ramsdens. Commenting on its success, Managing Partner Paul Joyce said:

“...we set up the management training programme because we wanted to ensure that our younger solicitors learned the skills that we think are required to manage a modern law firm and to enable us to identify potential future partners not only based on their legal ability but also on their ability to manage their own team and potentially the firm itself. The programme has been a massive success as the people who went through it are thoroughly engaged with the business, several have been promoted and the next generation of solicitors are very, very keen to be included on the programme when we run it again.”

For those firms in New Zealand that might not have the economies of scale to invest in such a programme, I encourage them to take advantage of CPD programmes that focus on developing management, business and interpersonal skills.

For those readers who like to do some DIY learning, here is my top 10 list of activities that will broaden your mind, enhance your confidence and build your reputation:

1. Read business books relevant to your business

For example, The Future of the Professions and Tomorrow’s Lawyers, both by Richard Susskind.

2. Understand your clients’ business

Create opportunities to learn about your clients’ business such as reverse seminars (where clients come to your office to tell your team about their businesss, client visits, social occasions and client feedback. In my experience, clients welcome your keen interest (not chargeable time of course!)

3. Become business literate

Learn the essentials of business such as economics, technology, marketing and finance so that you develop fresh perspectives. Books and CPD programmes address these topics in depth.

4. Become a confident communicator

The ability to speak confidently in public is a vital skill, especially if you or your people are to be persuasive ambassadors for your firm.

5. Write in plain English

The ability to write in plain language that lay people can easily understand will distinguish you from most other lawyers who still cannot get past writing in “legalese”.

6. Manners

Some lawyers, it seems, still need a lesson in simple business etiquette – understanding how to dress, eat, groom, behave, and socialise when at work. This is vital to enhance their (and your firm’s) reputation.

7. Get comfortable with ‘selling’

Understanding how to build relationships, to network, and represent your firm knowledgeably will be vital for the lawyer of the future.

8. Use social media

Most “millennials” are already adept at this so perhaps they should be educating their leaders on how to use social media! Linked-in, Twitter and Facebook are increasingly must-have tools for every law firm.

9. Manage your time wisely

With more demands placed on people’s time, the challenge is not how to generate more hours in the day but how to prioritise. Get focused and get organised!

10. Keep learning

Becoming a more rounded person will make you more valuable to your clients, your colleagues and your community. Take advantage of educational media, conferences and seminars; eg, TED online talks, self-help books and attendance at relevant workshops or seminars.

The legal services industry is now evolving so rapidly that it behoves all self-respecting lawyers to avail themselves of the many resources now available and heed the warning of philosopher Eric Hoffer:

“In times of change, the learners will inherit the earth while the learned will find themselves equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

Simon Tupman is a business mentor to lawyers and law firms internationally. He will be presenting a one-day business skills programme for solicitors, associates and in-house counsel in Auckland on Tuesday 25 October, see

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