Physicians Are Trained Formally and Carefully in Practical Skills; Lawyers Are Not — Part I of II: The Way It Is Now


The Point

Physicians and business lawyers: The work of both professions is consequential for those they serve. On the capabilities of the first group depend life and death of their patients — literal, personal health outcomes. On the capabilities of the second group depend — if not life and death and personal health — people’s livelihoods in the form of the company’s health and well being, and the jobs, share price, and pension holdings related to the company.

High stakes in both professions. Medicine is standardized and precise in physicians’ practical training and skills development — and accountable to formal third-party validation for quality. But lawyers’ formal, third-party validated preparation is confined to theoretical knowledge acquired by reading and classroom instruction in law school; confirmed by a bar examination that tests academic memorization.

Attorneys’ practical training and skills development are left almost entirely to unsystematic, on-the-job improvisation — whose adequacy is neither reviewed nor confirmed by any objective or authoritative third party.

This Matters to Your Business

In early January, Jonah Perlin, Professor of Legal Practice at Georgetown Law School, asked a question on twitter about preparing young lawyers in project management:

Kenneth A. Grady former BigLaw partner and Fortune 500 general counsel (see here for my profile of him in an earlier post) replied:

We don’t need to train lawyers to be project managers. We do need them to learn how to be lawyers. Imagine a doctor graduating from medical school who only knew theory.”

Speaking from my own experience, the University of Pennsylvania Law School was great at teaching us legal theory — books and classroom stuff. Though I was fortunate to land a job after law school with one of the most prestigious BigLaw firms in New York, that firm had no formal training program — let alone one whose effectiveness was validated by an objective or authoritative third party.

(One exception was in my experience as a prosecutor for Robert M. Morgenthau, the former Manhattan District Attorney. Morgenthau systematically trained his new prosecutors in a formal program, taught by former Assistant District Attorneys and Assistant U.S. Attorneys who had worked for him and later become judges and accomplished trial lawyers.)

Because …

This failure to train lawyers systematically in actual, work-a-day practice is why law firms’ insertion of inexperienced, recent law grads onto bloated work teams is so bad for the corporate client.

And it’s why I recommend that a business pay handsomely the accomplished, stellar attorneys whose help it truly needs. For high-stakes legal tasks there’s no such thing as a “bargain”.

But a business should avoid, or at least minimize, payment for the marginal, recent law grads the law firm sends along in order to goose up invoices at rates of $300 to $500 (or more) per hour.

No offense to inexperienced recent law grads whose hours are billed to clients before those law grads have mastered the practical aspects of their craft. The responsibility lies with law firm employers who bill hours to clients for such inexperience, and with general counsels who pay for those hours despite knowing better.

Part II offers current examples of what formal and careful practical skills training looks like in three high-stakes professions: Physicians, airline pilots, and lawyers in England.

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