Here is an excerpt from an interview of a top New York Law firm partner from the Article “What They Don’t Teach Law Students: Lawyering’, The New York Times, November 19, 2011:
“How do you get a merger done?” asks Scott B. Connolly, an attorney. There is silence from three well-dressed people in their early 20s, sitting at a conference table in a downtown building here last month.
“What steps would you need to take to accomplish a merger?” Mr. Connolly prods. After a pause, a participant gives it a shot: “You buy all the stock of one company. Is that what you need?”
“That’s a stock acquisition,” Mr. Connolly says. “The question is, when you close a merger, how does that deal get done?”
The answer —draft a certificate of merger and file it with the secretary of state — is part of a crash course in legal training. But the three people taking notes are not students.
They are associates at a law firm called Drinker Biddle & Reath, hired to handle corporate transactions. And they have each spent three years and as much as $150,000 for a legal degree.”
This situation is commonplace across the world and has been faced by students even from top American law schools. “What they taught us at this law firm is how to be a lawyer,” says Dennis P. O’Reilly, who went through the program last year, and attended the George Washington University School of Law. “What they taught us at law school is how to graduate from law school.” In 2010 a survey by American Lawyer found that 47 percent of law firms had a client say, in effect, “We don’t want to see the names of first- or second-year associates on our bills.” Other clients are demanding that law firms charge flat fees.
Justice Markandey Katju had recently remarked, “Mere theoretical classes would not bring the result, unless it is supported by practical training classes.” Law firms across the world have resigned themselves to the severe lack of industry-ready talent. This vacuum is being filled by spending crores of rupees by law firms who spend at least two years training these fresh law students. AMSS along with Khaitan, JSA has recently announced the UK style training model that lasts for two years. This also signifies a great opportunity, because while competition for employment has increased at the entry level, law firms will latch on to anything that significantly distinguishes you from other applicants.
In this apathetic situation where law schools including the top NLUs refuse to impart practical skills, what is your only means to stand out? The standard response to this is: work harder, more internship, moot courts, write papers etc. But do these really train you for the skills needed to excel in a law firm?
Ask your friends who have interned at many law firms and written academic papers, if they knew how to draft a share purchase agreement? It’s not just having a template, a whole lot of creative and strategic inputs go into that work. Even simpler skills like how to register an LLP eludes most people. Can your friend design an efficient transaction to save taxes? If your client asks you to get a copyright registration for a new software he wrote – what will be your advice? Do you understand the strategy that goes into IPR protection? How do you really register a trademark or copyright?
A recent survey conducted by a law student from one of India’s top law Universities revealed that out of the 150 legal practitioners 80% did not believe their education had anything to do with their recruitment. In fact a student from a top NLU responded, “The clinical education provided in most law universities is sham. There is great scope to improve the same. Also, basic knowledge of accountancy and commerce must be imparted to the law students.”
Top law firms recruit from NLS, NUJS, or NALSAR because if they can’t get quality recruits with practical skills they have to go for the safer alternative of hiring the so-called brighter students and spend another two years re-training them. The best way to complete with a big brand name to demonstrate that you went the extra mile, so that the law firm doesn’t have to invest a lot of money in you in re-training. And if you are from big brand name, you already are competing with the top CGPA holders for that elusive pay package at a top tier law firm. The toppers are waiting for a training contract in the UK, and they are competing with an international crowd. What are you doing currently to stand out and distinguish your profile?
Doing more moots and writing more articles probably won’t make you so different – everyone is doing those things anyway. What really counts is the skills you have. The need of the hour is to understand the business as much as you understand the law. This sentiment is echoed by Cathy Bell-Walker, finance partner and global board member at Allen & Overy , who advises law students to, “Be on the lookout for opportunities and not necessarily opportunities that someone makes for you. While you’re a student, look for business opportunities. Be entrepreneurial.”
At the end of the day, people hire you for your skills, not for the moots you won or the publications you mentioned on your CV. The focus should be on building useful skills. If you are not already working in this direction, you are probably getting left behind.