Boning up on Business

Law firms are developing custom programs to give new lawyers the business fundamentals they need
LAST YEAR LEAH DICKIE, A SENIOR ASSOCIATE in the Calgary office of Torys LLP, made a series of trips to Toronto to attend sessions at Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. As part of a cohort of 20 senior associates drawn from the firm’s offices, Dickie participated in the Torys-Rotman Business Leadership Program. Composed of four, two-day sessions, the program focuses on strategy, negotiation, leadership and communication skills.

Dickie found the intensive business sessions immensely rewarding “in terms of how legal skills, together with business knowledge, can assist our clients in achieving their business strategies.” In addition, the sessions further focused her thoughts “about Torys as a business and the ways we need to adapt and evolve to meet our clients’ needs.”

The MBA-style sessions require significant associate hours away from the office, along with a commitment of financial and internal resources on the part of Torys. Cornell Wright, an M&A partner who helps administer the program and worked, along with Rotman professionals, to custom-design the curriculum, says this is time and money well spent. “Not only do associates gain a greater sense of the business aspects of the practice of law, they return to their practices newly energized.”

START BUSINESS EDUCATION EARLY

According to Lorne Sossin, Dean of Osgoode Hall Law School, “There is no more valuable experience for a law student than seeing how strategic legal advice can help a great business grow.” For example, he says, “Osgoode Hall Law School has teamed up with Toronto-based Wildeboer Dellelce LLP to launch the Osgoode Venture Capital Clinical Project. This partnership enables Osgoode students, supervised by lawyers at the firm, to advise early-stage business ventures on financing, equity structures and other legal issues.”

In addition, Osgoode offers multiple other business learning experiences, including initiatives from Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP. The law firm hosts the Advanced Business Law Workshop and recently sponsored a new certificate program for law students on “business fundamentals” as part of the law school’s Learning & Leading series.

TAILORED ADVICE

In fact, the emphasis on providing business education to lawyers is a thread throughout Davies. The firm annually holds an internal, two-day, cross-office Intensive Financial Training Program, led by an outside provider. Designed to enhance not only business skills training, but also internal networking and marketing, the program uses an integrated case study format involving an M&A transaction between two publicly traded companies.

Florence Simard, a senior associate at Davies, has attended the program. She says she found it so beneficial that she’ll participate in it again this year. The main question every client has, in any legal situation is, “What does this mean for my business?”

While responses will vary for each client, Simard says, “The only way a lawyer can respond with a practical answer is by understanding the client’s commercial realities. It is absolutely fundamental for a corporate lawyer to understand the rationale leading to an investment or other business decision and provide tailored legal advice.”

CORE BUSINESS CONCEPTS

At Western Law, a number of law firms partner on initiatives aimed at bolstering students’ business acumen. Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, for example, has since 2015 run a Biz Basics series during the academic year. John Valley, a Toronto-based corporate partner, is involved in the ongoing development of the series.

The intention, he says, is “to provide law students who don’t have a formal business education with a foundation to build from, as well as get them comfortable with the core business concepts that will help them understand and meet clients’ needs as they enter practice.”

Delivered by Osler lawyers and senior administrators, the 90-minute lunchtime panels, which focus on hard and soft skills, as well as informal networking and Q&A portions, is extremely popular, says Valley. As a result, last year Osler initiated a similar series at Queen’s Faculty of Law.

Western Law Dean Erika Chamberlain is unequivocal about the value of business education. “We want our students to be able to speak to their corporate clients on their own terms: to understand their business and financing needs and develop the most effective plans to address them,” she says. “They can only do this if they understand the complexities of modern business and its interaction with legal frameworks.”