When Harvard Law School released a report entitled, “What Courses Should Law Students Take? Harvard’s Largest Employers Weigh In,” a few years ago, 124 respondents listed accounting, financial statement analysis and corporate finance.
Accounting? Financial statement analysis? Not very long ago, pure law courses would have been seen as the best way to prepare lawyers to handle their clients’ matters. The accounting side would be left to the accountants, and the business side to the company’s C-suite executives.
Today, accounting skills are “absolutely” valuable for law students and young corporate lawyers in any area where legal advice butts up against the business strategy, says Karen Werger, Managing Partner for Deloitte LLP’s Toronto Financial Advisory Practice and National Leader of the Legal Services Sector. She says being both a lawyer and a Chartered Public Accountant is an “extremely valuable combination,” giving lawyers a well-rounded financial background and reminding the accountant in them to keep potential legal or regulatory issues top of mind.
She says clients increasingly expect their external counsel to be true partners with a strong understanding of their business, which includes the intricacies of financial statements and how a legal decision may impact the bottom line. “To be valuable, the advice we give to our clients must include many angles. … Legal issues simply cannot be considered in a vacuum; the broader business context must always be top of mind.”
Werger says that’s equally true for law students who want to join a corporation one day, perhaps working as in-house counsel. To be considered a trusted advisor by the company’s senior management, she says, in-house counsel need to have a deep, well-rounded understanding of the business that includes “being able to read and interpret their company’s financial statements, for example, understanding what drives revenue and profitability, forecasting where future growth will come from, identifying potential disruptors, etc.”
Rick Orzy, leader of the national Restructuring and Insolvency practice at Bennett Jones LLP in Toronto, agrees business literacy is hugely important but doesn’t believe it’s strictly necessary for lawyers to get the Chartered Public Accountant designation as well as a law degree – although he says law students who do definitely have a leg up.
Many needed business skills can be learned in joint law-MBA programs, he says. Most major corporate law firms also bring in people for seminars on accounting and financial literacy. Deloitte offers training programs catered to the legal profession through Deloitte University North and the Deloitte Greenhouse. Many law societies also offer business and finance courses, as do private companies offering continuing legal education.
“You don’t necessarily need to be a CPA,” Orzy says. “You can probably be an effective corporate, tax or insolvency lawyer without the designation but if you go for it, you’re so much better armed. You’re more effective because you’re not just taking everything at face value, you’re able to understand it.”
Orzy, who often acts for bondholders, major foreign creditors, high-yield investors and others in large complex insolvencies, studied accounting and actually summered one year at Deloitte. He was short one credit of the CPA designation, auditing, when he decided to concentrate full time on law.
He says the difference between a lawyer, and a lawyer who’s an accountant, is not unlike someone who is unilingual versus someone who’s bilingual. “Say you’re given a translated document. If you don’t speak the language the document was written in, you have to accept every word in the translation because you have no ability to translate it yourself. But if you’re sitting there and you speak that language, you get some nuances that aren’t in the translation.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt the people who recruit and decide who’s going to work at a law firm have great respect for financial backgrounds. In litigation, for example, if you’re into shareholder dispute, your ability to detect what’s BS and what isn’t in people’s financial filings and arguments is actually very useful.
“So having an accounting background or either business or finance, either one — although both are better — is hugely helpful. It gets you respect. I have sought out students or young lawyers in my firms, I’ve specifically asked who has an accounting background and had them work on certain matters with me because I knew it would be extremely useful.”
Nancy Stitt, Director of Student Programs at Goodmans LLP in Toronto, acknowledges that becoming a CPA is a serious investment of time and money for anyone who has invested in going through law school, as is going to law school for anyone who is already a CPA. Still, a few do.
She says the firm doesn’t often get applicants who have both degrees, but “my general thinking is if someone is very interested in both accounting and law and is so inclined to do extra years required for the double designation, which I know isn’t insignificant, it’s a great combination.”
She says what firms are seeing much more of is law students with joint MBAs, “which have a finance portion, and only take one extra year to get.” In fact, she says, joint law/MBAs seem like they’re almost “a must” for law students who want to be competitive, although she stresses there are many excellent lawyers around town who don’t have one. “Everyone brings something to the table.”
Still, Stitt says, a student with a CPA designation, or who is partway towards it, “would absolutely be a bonus when it comes to hiring because it would suggest someone who has worked hard at another profession or is training towards it, is smart — it’s not easy to get the CPA — and someone who would bring something to the table that other people wouldn’t.”
Werger of Deloitte says at the end of the day, the lawyer’s role is only going to become more interdisciplinary in the coming years as the role of business lawyers continues to evolve. Whether it’s accounting and legal, financial and digital, or digital and legal, “the world has become more complex. Nothing should be looked at in isolation.”
And that’s something today’s law students should keep in mind.
Think like a lawyer and you may be a very good lawyer. Think like your client, and you may be a great one.
Having management skills can make a huge difference to a lawyer’s career, and a joint law-MBA degree is an excellent way to start to acquire that kind of knowledge, says Ed Waitzer, a Partner at Stikeman Elliott LLP and a Director of the Hennick Centre for Business and Law at Osgoode Hall Law School and the Schulich School of Business at York University.
Waitzer says there are four elements to management skills useful for lawyers. The first involves being able to direct a large team. “When I’m doing a transactional work I’m often managing a team of 20 or 30 lawyers. I’m managing the interaction between the lawyers and the bankers and the PR people and management of the company. So on transactional work, part of the skill is management. I suspect it’s the same thing in complex litigation.”
Management skills are also important, he says, because part of being a good advisor “is learning to manage difficult people.”
A lawyer will also need business and people management skills if he or she hopes to become involved in running a law firm one day, he says. If you end up steering a firm like Stikeman, which he did for 10 years, “it’s a reasonable-sized business — a couple of thousand employees, hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues, offices in lots of locations, liabilities, client relationships, conflicts, technology, all that kind of stuff.”
Another reason management knowledge is important is that today’s law student may be tomorrow’s CEO. “Many lawyers end up gravitating towards clients, so it’s not surprising that a disproportionate number of CEOs have legal training because they’re the ones who have exercised judgment on behalf of the organization, given counsel, became the trusted advisor, and then moved sideways into the organization.”
Do law schools do enough to teach law students management skills? In his view, no, especially when it comes to teaching teamwork. Law schools put a premium on individual performance so they’re highly competitive, he says, compared with business schools, which are all about teamwork. At Stikeman, teamwork is so important that the firm actually looks to recruit law students with outstanding achievement in team sports, “because that’s a way of compensating for what they learned in law school. Because what does being a great hockey player, for example, tell you? It tells you somebody is highly disciplined and knows how to work in teams.”
Jillian Frank, a partner in Dentons Canada LLP’s Vancouver office, and Chief Talent Officer of Dentons Canada, says management training, whether through a joint MBA program or private coaching, “makes you think about how to be more resilient and you think about the lessons learned from other industries or businesses, and how they’ve adapted to change.”
Whether it is for a client, or perhaps eventual law-firm management, “it will give you some basis for, when things start changing, not to have your first reaction be: ‘No, we can’t do it that way because we’ve always done it like this.’”
One of the messages Frank gives lawyers at Dentons is that they are all in the talent-management business. “You have to work with people to do your job. Typically, when you work for a business law firm, you have to work in teams. So when you’re an associate you’re going to have to learn to delegate work to your student, work with your assistant properly. When you get to be a partner, you’re going to be managing associates, paralegals, groups of people that are going to enable you to do your job. And if you don’t know how to engage them, how to give instructions and feedback – then you’re not going to have a successful team. So without some management training on how to do that, I think you’re at a disadvantage.”
Management courses, seminars and coaching are not the only way to learn those skills. There is also on-the-job experience with a company. In fact, this spring, six students from Osgoode Hall Law School were selected for Hennick Centre business law internships. The paid summer work placements, five of which are being funded by McCarthy Tétrault LLP, will provide full-time workplace exposure to the client side of legal practice for the five law students and one joint law-MBA student. They’ll be at organizations ranging from the Ontario Securities Commission to the World Bank Group in Washington, DC.
Sam Ip, an Associate in the Technology practice group at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP in Toronto, worked at BlackBerry from 2004-2010, eventually reporting to the Senior Vice-president of Corporate Development and Strategy before deciding to go to law school. He worked on everything from engineering and coding to product management and mergers and acquisitions.
Ip feels his business experience has given him currency with technology clients, supplementing his legal advice. “Every time I talk to an executive that seeks advice from my law firm, I’m always talking to them in terms of their business model. We can talk about that. We can talk about their revenue model.”
He thinks the kind of hands-on experience he got at BlackBerry also helps him when he’s dealing with a company’s general counsel.
“A lot of in-house counsel are quite sophisticated and they tend to ask more and more discreet questions.” I can say, ‘This is what I saw when I was at BlackBerry.'” He says that experience delivers “an increase in value, a confidence, where you win that trust. And that means there’s a good chance they come back. They appreciate the practical advice.”
His counsel to law students is that acquiring management-type skills is increasingly critical and he’s a big fan of hands-on workplace experience.
“It pushes you up the value curve, without a doubt. I think there’s value in business education but nothing quite takes the place of having been out there working with the very same clients you deal with by taking a role at the company. So I would really encourage that. You’ll get perspective plus skills that can bear into the way you frame legal advice when you become a lawyer.
“And, of course, you’ll become a much more competitive contender.”
AS LAW FIRMS continue to appreciate the value in process improvement and modern client service models, both involving the smart use of legal technology, lawyers who can also code software are becoming more in demand. Not just to the firms hiring, but also to the clients who hire the law firms — and that’s only going to accelerate, says Sukesh Kamra, National Director of Knowledge Management at Norton Rose Fulbright Canada LLP.
He predicts that a few years from now, lawyers will not only use smarter technology but will also wear it. “With blockchain, AI and The Internet of Things, technology is entering an era never witnessed before. The impact on the practice of law won’t be fully known until we live in it.” In the meantime, he says, law students and young lawyers who know how to code will be “at the forefront of the new normal” and “highly sought after by clients” interested in leveraging advanced forms of technology to make themselves more efficient.
“Most clients will have an appetite for this skill set, whether that means the ability to communicate more effectively with IT teams who are building applications that require some understanding of coding, or the ability to automate a process by building a tool that addresses a client’s pain point.”
His advice to law students in today’s competitive market is to focus on differentiating themselves. “One way of doing that is learning the operations of a law firm and the all-important business side of law. Things such as business development, profitability metrics and the use of advanced forms of legal technology should become household topics of interest if you want to stand out.”
Kathleen Hogan, Director, Knowledge Integration at McCarthy Tétrault LLP, says “our clients definitely are asking us in pitches and proposals what we’re doing to be innovative, what technology we’re using and how that drives down price. Clients are really pushing on this. They go to the same conferences we do.”
Increasingly, the answer is document automation, which is often supplemented by artificial intelligence. But at most large firms, Hogan says, the lion’s share of the automation is being done by third-party vendors with the platforms adapted and customized for each client as needed. The vendors often help train the lawyers using it to learn coding, she says.
Hogan believes as an increasing number of lawyers develop the ability to write code, some law firms will eventually start to develop their own platforms. “That will definitely make you leaner. The question will always be: Is this the place for you to be putting your time? That’s the piece that law firms will have to think about; whether they want someone with all this legal talent doing coding. To me, the answer is yes you do. That’s an investment in the infrastructure of the firm and it’s going to have long-term beneficial effects.”
Like Kamra, she believes having a lawyer who understands and writes software coding can also be a draw for technology or entrepreneurial clients. “Always, to have an ability to speak your client’s language is very important. I’m not sure law firms will package it that way but to have someone in the room at a pitch or proposal who can say: ‘I do this. I’m the person who’s drafting your document but I’m also doing the coding underneath it” can be a huge advantage.'”
Asked if there’s anything law students should know in this area, she says they should realize while everyone sees the train coming down the track, “many firms are still not spending a lot of time or money on developing new technology,” possibly out of worry things can change so fast they can invest heavily and still get it wrong.
“There is a bit of fear around that. But if a student can put their hand up and say, ‘I’m really interested in innovation and client-service delivery and how technology supports that, and I can do some coding,’ they should definitely do that. They’ll be able to present a unique skill set. The skills of being entrepreneurial and also being in the technical-coding world is really unique, and will be valued.”
Kamra of Norton Rose says there don’t appear to be a lot of law schools that offer coding courses. Chicago-Kent College of law, Stanford Law School and The University of Melbourne Law School are some that do. “In Canada, I’ve heard that Ryerson Law School, should that become a reality in the near future, has a curriculum focused on the business of law, which includes courses on coding.” But he believes the best place to learn to code are coding boot camps.
Maura Grossman, a professor of computer science at the University of Waterloo and principal of Maura Grossman Law in New York, teaches what she believes is the only interdisciplinary course for law and computer-science students in conjunction with Osgoode Hall Law School. She says lawyers in the technology-driven world are going to need more technical skills, and that probably starts with analytics and statistics — knowing how to use data to do analyses and make predictions — whether for the firm or the client.
It could be used to help clients assess their risk or, for example, “look at their portfolio of litigation and make estimates of their average cost of their litigation or maybe they want to decide the point at which to settle versus litigate.”
That hasn’t really been an offering of many law firms yet, she says, “but we’re starting to see law firms expand in trying to offer tools to help the client assess their risk, for example, from the general data-protection regulation that’s going to go into effect in the EU, or from Brexit.”
But Grossman, who also teaches e-discovery at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, is not convinced law students need to study coding per se to help their clients make those kinds of determinations. They just need access to the data and to know how to interpret it. “A single law school course on coding is unlikely to make someone a proficient coder, just like a single medical school course on surgery is unlikely to make someone proficient in neurosurgery. But it may help them understand the issues well enough to have a meaningful conversation with someone who is proficient.
“Knowledge of emerging machine-learning technologies and how they work, statistics and skills in analyzing data — including but not limited to coding — will become increasingly important in an AI-driven world. It will help law students differentiate themselves in a challenging legal market.”