Monday, September 29, 2014

What I Wished I Learned in Law School

I'm coming up on my law school reunion and my social media circles are buzzing with former classmates reminiscing about what they recall from our shared law school experience.  While going over the various top 10 lists being posted, I can't help but also think about all the things law school didn't teach me.  Don't get me wrong, I loved my time at law school and the unique programs that I was able to participate in while obtaining a certificate from the Center for Law, Science and Technology within ASU.  The basic IP and contract drafting foundations I received has helped me tremendously - but most law students don't take those courses (if they're even offered at their school.) With articles coming out daily on the disastrous legal market  and struggling law school grads, I can't help but think if law schools incorporated some of these missing lessons into the course plan these baby lawyers would be more prepared for the real world - and thus more valuable to those of paying for them.

1. Your role as a lawyer is an adviser, not hall monitor.  Business make decisions everyday based on a calculated risk.  Your role as counsel is to provide the necessary information so that the business can assess the risk.  This includes worst case scenarios, but you also have to communicate the probability of that happening.  Yes, if customer A or vendor B breaches clause X as written it could be a catastrophe; but 99.9% of contracts are never materially breached and customer A depends on vendor B almost as much as vendor B depends on customer A. So the likelihood of a situation that clause X would cover can't be handled through the ordinary course of business is not very probable.  Let's not hold up a multi-million dollar deal that means a lot to both companies because of the .1% chance.

2. They won't always listen to you - don't take it personally.  You're used to being one of the smartest people in the room.  You're confident and persuasive and people generally do what you want them to do.  And then you go in house.  Half the time you're not invited to the decision making conversations and when you are, they're just as likely to ignore your advice as they are to take it.  It's not personal.  You haven't lost any IQ points and you are just as persuasive.  But you only represent a piece of any decision being made.  Sometimes, those other pieces outweigh you, even when you're right.  It may be economic, it may be political, it may be someone's ego.  It doesn't matter, because it has very little to do with you personally.  If you find you're being ignored a lot and left picking up the pieces after everything blows up time and again - find a different employer.  On the other hand, if your voice is occasionally drowned by competing interests, but the business doesn't materially suffer from it - suck it up.  That's your job.

3. Math is way more important that you think it is.  I often joke that I became a lawyer because I'm too squeamish to be a doctor and couldn't stand the math required to get an MBA.  It's partially true - I can't stand any bodily fluids and math has never been one of my favorite subjects.  But it's absolutely critical to have at least a general understanding the basics of accounting, what a P&L is, how to read a balance sheet, calculating ROI, etc.  You can't protect your client against the financial risks if you don't understand what your client does and how they actually make money.  And you'll never be invited into a board room if you don't understand why the cost to acquire is an important metric.

4. Soft skills rule over legal acumen almost every time.  You may be able to quote the UCC verbatim, or draft the most pristine patent application.  But if you can't communicate effectively to every member of your team, then you will fail.  That means you must be able to have a conversation about proper copyright clearance with the intern working in marketing as well as be comfortable discussing the status of that matter with the board.  At the end of the day, neither audience has to be your best friend, but they do need to respect you and feel like you are contributing to the conversation.  That means you have to learn how to read your audience, and provide the level of detail necessary to convey your message without getting preachy.  You also need to maintain your confidence if intensely questioned by the CEO or other executive.  Learn to build your executive presence and invest time in mastering effective communication.  I promise you won't regret it.

5.  They hint at it in law school and you've heard it growing up - it's not what you know but who you know.  When you're looking for the second (or third, or fourth) in house job the truth of that statement will hit you like a ton of bricks.  You can never stop networking.  You may love your job and then the economy tanks and your company does layoffs.  Or the economy is great and your company gets bought.  Or your current GC isn't going anywhere and you want to move up.  There's a million reason why you will be looking for that next job and there's a million ways to get it.  One of the least likely ways is through a posting on a job board.  Never stop networking.  Grow your network by meeting new people.  Improve your network by adding value to those in it.  Give referrals, help others find jobs when they're looking, connect those with similar interests or goals.  Become a valuable person to have in their network.  It takes effort, and time that's not allotted for in your daily job.  But let this one item fall and it could greatly damage your career even if you are the best lawyer in the world.

That's my top 5 'What I wished I learned in Law School'.  What are yours?