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The entrepreneurial lawyer

How business skills can set you on the path to a successful legal career.

Picture of chair and laptop

It was an ad for a course on boat building that leaped out at Ottawa immigration lawyer Michael Bell. Not because he was looking for a career change — his Newfoundland roots run deep, but not that deep. What caught Bell’s eye was what, to him, seemed to be an obvious inclusion in any curriculum whether you’re a boat builder or a member of the bar.

“It was for a two-year program teaching the repair and interior finishing of yachts,” he recalls. “Half of the second year is spent on entrepreneurship and how to set up and run your business. In other words, a quarter of the course in wooden boat building and repair is designed to show you how to run this as a business. And I thought, ‘wow, they can figure this out for the crafts and the trades but they can’t figure it out for lawyers?’”

Bell admits he knew nothing about running a business when he graduated from law school in 1989. He thinks it’s a flaw in law schools across Canada.

“How do you deal with budgeting, advertising and promotion? How do you deal with the infrastructure, equipment, furnishings and balancing it all?” he asks. In a profession where half to two-thirds of your job is administrative, Bell says you either have to know how to run the shop, or find people who can help you avoid costly mistakes.

“How do you find a bookkeeper or figure out how to handle billings? If you don’t have the skill set yourself, how can you train your staff to have these skills?”

In September 2014 the Law Society of Upper Canada launched its Law Practice Program in an attempt to address a changing legal landscape and the articling placement shortage.

Ryerson University is delivering the eight-month pilot program in English, while the University of Ottawa offers the French version. The LPP consists of eight modules covering real estate law, civil litigation, wills and estate planning, criminal law, commercial law, administrative law and family law, as well as creating and managing a firm. Students working in a simulated law firm will have to develop a business plan, learn about computerized firm management, time management, billing, communication with clients, strategic decision-making, legal drafting, oral arguments, and networking. That will be followed by a four-month unpaid placement in a legal workplace.

“To have the security of knowing that you can go out on your own and not only open a law office but to open any enterprise with your law degree is an essential skill for lawyers,” says Marie Bountrogianni, interim dean of Ryerson’s Chang School of Continuing Education. “My bias is that it’s an essential skill for most graduates in today’s economy. It’s the new normal.”

The announcement that Heenan Blaikie — one of Canada’s most prestigious law firms employing some 500 lawyers — is closing its doors “sent a wave of fear throughout young lawyers,” says Bountrogianni. Her area of research is underemployment.

“Canada has one of the highest educated societies in the world but unfortunately we are also one of the highest in terms of underemployment of our graduates and new Canadians,” she says. “One of the recommendations from consultations with industry, business, universities and unions is that entrepreneurial skills be part of every educational experience.”

Adeel Mulla is in his third year at the University of Alberta law school, and president of the Law Students Association. He says the Lawyer Practice Program is “one way to get your articling requirements.” But he feels basic business practices could easily be introduced into the existing law school curriculums.

“We all have to take Professional Responsibility, which is all about ethics,” he says.”I think the best place to teach some business practices would be to introduce a unit in that course.”

Mulla says he doesn’t believe a full, separate course is necessary and considering the existing law school workload, doubts it would be possible.  But he says some basic business education would benefit all lawyers, regardless of whether you plan to fly solo or want to make partner.

“It’s almost inevitable that a lot of people are going to end up being sole practitioners,” he says. “But it would also be beneficial to know the business aspects of running your own practice even if you are a big corporate lawyer. If you want to make partner, you have to show some business acumen, you have to know how to treat and retain clients. Usually the people who do well in the big corporate firms and who make partner are the ones who know these things. You could be a brilliant lawyer, but there’s a certain entrepreneurial spirit that you have to have. Not everybody knows that.”

Chris Bentley, executive director of the Law Practice Program at Ryerson, says there is “incredible upheaval” underway that will see changes in how law is practised, how lawyers use their legal education and changes in the structure of the practice itself.

“What we’ve recognized over the past number of years is that the business of law is something that we can address through skills programs, through continuing legal education,” he says. “But it needs to be given to candidates and students much earlier. A significant part of our Law Practice Program is devoted to how do you manage serving a client at the same time you’re trying to run a business. The professionalism, the ethics, the time management skills are integrally related.”

Michael Bell agrees new lawyers will have to be much more entrepreneurial in figuring out how to distinguish themselves in the new legal landscape. 

“It’s a totally different job market for young lawyers,” he says. “We now have paralegals and consultants doing the kind of work beginning lawyers used to get. Paralegals can now go into small claims court. New lawyers will have to know how to set up a business plan. They will need to know how to get their face out there and get known. There are more lawyers out there, more are graduating, the job market is becoming extremely tough and I don’t think they have realistic expectations about entering the job market.”