We mean business

I’ve been in legal journalism for more than ten years now, so I’ve heard pretty much all the clichés about the law (I’m guilty of having used more than a few myself).

My current favourite is the lament, “Law isn’t a profession anymore; it’s a business.” Lawyering is at least 400 years old, and I’m willing to bet that veteran lawyers were carping about this back in 1606, too:

“The honour of our calling’s much abused;
My time’s misspent in making clients pay.
The law is aught my eldest son should choose;
‘Tis but a petty busy-ness today.”

The increasing commoditization of legal services alerts us to the rising competitive tide that subjects lawyers to the vagaries of competition and client demands, just like any other business. But some lawyers would rather bad-mouth their insolent clients and try to ban their upstart competitors than accept the reality of the modern marketplace and look for ways to profit from the opportunities it presents.

The law is a business. It’s a professional business, to be sure, infused with high standards, strict ethics, a sense of vocation, and a duty of community service, all of which set it apart from other careers. But it’s absurd to pretend that the wonderful professionalism of law somehow makes its business side unnecessary, unseemly or unworthy of attention.

Many lawyers, of course, have an ingrained aversion to business. I’m certainly not the only one who entered law school with an undergrad degree rich in Arts courses and bereft of Business and Science offerings, along with a résumé that leaned heavily on summer jobs and our nation’s food services industry. Even my friends with B.Comms say that their degrees don’t help them find clients, manage business relationships or keep the overhead in check.

Accordingly, since law school teaches nothing about running a business and most Bar admissions courses offer little beyond Trust Accounting 101, it’s no wonder many of us end up uncomfortable with the demands of making a living as a lawyer. I’ll bet the growing number of “mature students,” who enter law school with years of work experience, will be the ones best positioned in future to ward off competitive threats.

In the meantime, legal organizations of all stripes could (and some already do) help by offering business training to lawyers, building their confidence and shortening the learning curve. When lawyers start to acquire and implement basic competitive tactics, then “commoditization” will have a much better chance of someday being relegated to the cliché bin itself.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the March 2006 issue of National magazine.