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LAWBIZ COACHES CORNER: Take the right perspective on ‘The Business of Law’

Ed Poll is a speaker, author and board-approved coach to the legal profession. He can be contacted at edpoll@lawbiz.com. Also visit his interactive community for lawyers at www.LawBizForum.com.

Every public figure risks being misquoted, and often those misquotes attain a reality all of their own.

For example, the quote long attributed to Calvin Coolidge at the height of the Roaring 20s, “The business of America is business,” is typically cited as an example of that era’s greed. Yet what Coolidge actually said was more insightful, and although he aimed it at newspapers it is quite pertinent to law firms today:

“A press which is actuated by the purpose of genuine usefulness to the public interest can never be too strong financially … Rather, it is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation, is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences. After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of opinion that the great majority of people will always find these are moving impulses of our life.”

Many lawyers insist that law is a “profession” and not a “business,” an attitude that is ingrained in legal training. Law school curricula have little business focus, and the view that legal educators have of law as a profession means that they consider any business training to be trade-oriented and therefore beneath them, an attitude that is perpetuated by CLE courses.

The result is that lawyers fail to understand the operation of the firm as a business with a budget, collections, profit and loss. And they too often have a poor grasp on their clients’ business realities.

Almost two decades ago I registered the phrase, “The Business of Law®,” because it summarized the basics of my law firm consultancy. The words focused on such an important truth, yet so many lawyers seemed to lack an understanding of the concept.

The phrase “The Business of Law®” conveys to lawyers that law and business are not mutually exclusive. Lawyers who bridge the two concepts will better assess their value and create new ways to provide more of it. They become cost-effective contributors to their firms, and value-added resources to their clients.

There is always a need for balance on this issue. Lawyers may tend to shy away from a business perspective because they fear rigid adherence to a policies manual or to financial benchmarks will restrict their practice freedom.

Certainly these should not replace qualitative factors in the firm’s performance. Decisions based only on rules and numbers do not always address the full picture of how satisfactorily a firm is performing for both lawyers and clients.

Consider this dilemma. If a lawyer is sitting on a plane or waiting at the courthouse in order to handle a matter for Client A, can he or she use that time to do work for Client B? If firm rules or financial guidelines require splitting hairs like this, it depreciates client service.

Again, every law firm is a business and every business needs structure. But we should never forget the quote attributed to Lincoln:  “A lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade.” Without quality advice, and the value it provides, rulebooks and numbers printouts are poor measuring sticks.

Ultimately the country’s 600,000-plus solo lawyers are small businesses that need to focus on their own business realities and those of their clients. Running a businesslike and ethical firm makes the practice of law more professional – which Silent Cal, a lawyer himself, would certainly endorse.

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