Watching the accountants

Training lawyers to put the law into a commercial context is imperative, but Caroline Wilson says the bean-counters have beaten solicitors back

Do you still recall when law firms were measured by cases won or lost and keeping a client happy was all about power lunches and hourly rates?

Wake up. Those days are gone – and for those law firms that are still stuck in the world of long lunches, your days are numbered.

I’m not talking about the abolition of customer relationship management (CRM). Far from it – I’m talking about the evolution of our profession, providing advice that finds a balance between sound business guidance and legal expertise.

The accountants are streets ahead of the legal profession when it comes to the provision of real business solutions. We have got some serious catching up to do if we want to both keep our clients and keep them happy.

Since ‘value for money’ became the catchphrase for industry following the economic downturn of the 1990s, clients are looking for value in more ways than just straightforward legal advice. They’re looking for pragmatic business solutions that delve beyond the law and address the real issues at the core of their businesses. Legal advice is a given, it’s the minimum standard; it’s how that legal advice is then interpreted and implemented within the business that’s important.

For the industry to make this shift, it is the responsibility of both the legal profession and educational institutions to wake up to the idea that succeeding in the legal profession isn’t just about knowing the law.

We need to educate our trainees and lawyers about how the legal issues fit within the wider business environment. To compete, lawyers must be armed with business development and financial management techniques, people management and effective communication and client service skills.

This process is already taking shape at Eversheds. We have developed a training and development programme that assesses and trains our lawyers on how to put the law into context with the business environment.

I firmly believe that for the legal profession to change the way it delivers legal advice, we need graduates to emerge from law school with business skills that would compete with any business graduate. It is then our responsibility to develop and nurture these skills.

Law firms should be considering a wide variety of training methods to train lawyers to meet this expectation. Inevitably, for some lawyers, regardless of legal expertise, practising the law against the backdrop of the business environment will take real adjustment, while for others it will be a natural step. Industry secondments and management training should become a fundamental part of all lawyers’ learning and form the basis of all partnership development programmes.

Understanding what clients look for in terms of delivering business value should be the concern of all firms. Cost-effective legal advice must go hand-in-hand with sound business guidance. It is the responsibility of all firms to shift the perception of the industry from law providers to business consultants.

Caroline Wilson is the HR director at Eversheds