Professor Katrina Lee and the business of law

For today’s #PracticeTuesday post, we’re very excited to bring you a Q-and-A with #AppellateTwitter mainstay Professor Katrina Lee (@katrinajunelee). Professor Lee is an Associate Clinical Professor of Law at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, where she teaches business of law, legal negotiations, and legal writing. She is also the author of several scholarly articles which you can find here. Before joining the ranks of academia, she was a litigator and law firm equity partner in San Francisco.

This summer, Professor Lee taught Business Negotiations at the University of Oxford as part of the University of Oxford-OSU summer law program. The picture of her on the left was taken in her Oxford flat. And the picture on the right is of her fantastic new business of law book, The Legal Career: Knowing the Business, Thriving in Practice. This innovative new textbook explores a constellation of topics in the business of law that are often a black box even to practicing attorneys, to say nothing of law students. Professor Lee’s book is unique in the academic textbook market, and it overlaps nicely with many of the topics we often discuss on #PracticeTuesday, so we asked her if she’d be willing to answer a few questions for us. Happily, she agreed! My questions to Professor Lee appear below in bold; her responses follow.

RG: What do you hope to achieve by putting your book out in the world?

All law students should learn about the business of law. With a business-of-law foundation, law school graduates will be better equipped to succeed, and to make a positive impact on issues in the profession that they care about. Today’s law students can play a part in infusing the legal profession with a spirit of entrepreneurship, ingenuity, and creativity. So, I put my book out in the world hoping it will help in these overlapping areas:

Thriving lawyers.

To thrive, lawyers need to learn the business of law. Lawyers are humans with feelings, loved ones, mental and physical health needs, financial obligations, and (only) 24 hours each day. I will be thrilled if my book can play even the smallest role in sending out into the world lawyers who are business-aware, collaborative, curious, and empathetic, and who prioritize wellness for themselves and their colleagues.

Lawyer change agents.

A business-of-law foundation will help law students and lawyers be effective change agents in areas of need. Access to justice has yet to be achieved, by a longshot. Low-income people in the U.S. receive inadequate or no legal help at all for 86% of their civil legal needs. The legal profession must urgently address issues of lawyer well-being. The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being’s recent report should be required reading for every law student and lawyer. The legal profession has made some strides in diversity, but much unfinished work remains. 36% of lawyers in the U.S. are women. Just 2.6% of law firm partners are minority women. Only 8.05% of partners in major law firms are minorities.

A business-of-law education will better prepare law students to create, experiment, and innovate in a way that truly advances the legal profession. Law students will be more effective change agents, if they have learned about topics like legal innovation and technology trends; efforts to apply design thinking to law; the consequences of the billable hour; attorney compensation trends and models; the competitive landscape of legal service providers; the Legal Services Act in the U.K.; and lawyer wellness issues.

Job success.

Learning the business is critical if you want to succeed and stay in your chosen profession. A law firm associate should not just bill hours but should put in time learning about the business, including the needs, values, and perceptions of their clients; how partners are compensated; what happens to their time once it is entered; and the contemporary market for delivery of legal services. Ideally, associates should come to their jobs with an entrepreneurial mindset, whether or not they aspire to be law firm partners.

Law school curriculum.

Every law school should teach the business of law. I hope that my book will help law school faculty in developing and teaching business of law courses, or courses that have a business of law component. I am in the process of working with the publisher on a companion website with supplemental materials for professors.

The field of the business of law.

Let’s break down silo walls in how we think about the business of law. I hope my book encourages law students and lawyers to embrace the beautiful breadth and complexity of the business of law. The business of law encompasses much more than understanding originations, collections, and profits per partner; it also involves addressing new models of legal services delivery, lawyer well-being, diversity in the profession, and legal education reform. Studying the business of law entails making connections—for example, connections between lawyer well-being and law firm compensation models, between mindfulness practice and lawyer productivity, and between design thinking and increasing access to justice. I hope that my book helps with making such connections.

RG: As a professor, I’m always interested in learning more about courses that my colleagues are teaching. Can you tell me about your Business of Law seminar class?

I would also love to hear more about your legal writing courses! My business of law class includes these features:

We have discussions with guests. I work with my guests to develop a class experience tailored to what my students have been reading and thinking about for the class. Last year, the Chief Litigation Officer of a large company discussed different types of billing arrangements her company has with law firms. The Chief Innovation Officer of a BigLaw firm talked in detail about the use of artificial intelligence at his firm. The managing partner of a mid-sized law firm confided about the challenges his firm faces in recruiting talent and growing its business. A major part of guest appearances focuses on student questions.

Students collaborate for Pitch Day. My students are divided up into law firm teams and prepare for a pitch to counsel in a simulated scenario. Their work culminates in a Pitch Day. I have guest counsel join us and act as counsel receiving the pitches. My students address specific areas, like client communication and responsiveness, delivering value, leveraging technology, and the diversity of client teams.

Students write a seminar research paper. I encourage students to explore an issue they are passionate about. Every student gives an in-class presentation/workshop on their draft paper.

RG: Can you describe how your experience as an equity partner at a law firm influences your teaching?

Great question! I graduated from law school in 1997. In the past 20 years, I spent more than 12 in law firm practice as a litigator and the rest in academia, with the exception of one year as a “stay-at-home” parent (an experience I would not trade for anything). In my seventh year of practice, I became an equity partner at a mid-sized law firm with a national practice.

My experiences working at a law firm inevitably influence my teaching and my perspective on the business of law. I have developed class activities inspired by my experiences. For example, I have had groups of students meet as a recruiting or hiring committee in a simulated exercise. I can share that I have seen firsthand how some qualities—like patience, empathy, sound judgment, ability to manage busy-ness and stress, the ability to listen, and, yes, an appreciation and understanding of the business and its evolving nature—can go a long way in the practice of law. I can describe how I benefited from mentors and sponsors, in the business and “substantive” aspects of practice.  I can recall for my students the expectations and hopes that I had for associates I worked with.

I find that my work experience helps me prepare for guest appearances in my class, from the in-house counsel who interacts regularly with law firm partners who would like to have more of her company’s business, to the litigation partner who graduated from law school the same year as me and continues to invest time in mentoring junior attorneys.

Also, I’m not entirely averse to telling a war story or two from my practice days!

RG: Can you tell me about the design of this book, with unique features like roundtables and interviews?

I hope readers will accept my book as an invitation to engage and explore. I designed it to be human-centered and reader-centered. I wanted to provide readers with an informed framework for thinking actively about the future of legal and their role in it. So, my book has some features not typically found in a course book, like “roundtable” suggestions; flashcards that remind readers to “breathe” and to “make time for stillness”; and interviews with legal professionals, including a general counsel, a senior director of knowledge management at a prominent Silicon Valley law firm, and a legal tech company co-founder.

I placed a high priority on challenging readers to reflect and learn from others. For example, the opening chapter invites readers to work in groups to come up with a plan for a law firm office design. That project is meant to inspire conversations about many inter-related topics, including the needs and priorities of lawyers and clients, the role of status and hierarchy in a law firm, and budget realities. Readers are encouraged to research office square footage costs in the local area, and to ponder questions like: Should the spaces of a law firm reflect the various statuses and positions held by law firm employees? Why, or why not? How important are law firm spaces for childcare, prayer, non-business conversation, or yoga?

RG: How can practicing attorneys use your book?

I am delighted that in its first weeks since release, my book’s audience has included practicing attorneys and law students. I look forward to hearing from all readers about how they “used” my book. I have some ideas for how practicing attorneys can use my book. I hope that my book can serve as a vehicle for different generations of attorneys at the same workplace to have a productive conversation about the legal profession and about ways forward. Attorney mentors and their mentees can use my book as a jumping-off point for sharing ideas and having conversations about the evolving legal profession. They can pick a chapter and discuss it over lunch. Law workplaces that have book clubs or reading groups might consider “assigning” my book. My book can perhaps have a role in summer associate training programs. Law firm leaders might reference my book in a process of reflecting on the direction of the firm and bringing associates into that discussion. I am also interested in seeing if any attorneys decide to share and discuss my book with clients.

Finally, some attorneys might simply find it a pleasure to spend a Sunday morning reading about the business of law.

RG: We’ve arrived at the end of our first-ever #PracticeTuesday interview.

Thank you for this opportunity to share with your wonderful #PracticeTuesday audience! To every lawyer and law student reading this interview: I hope that you can stay, and thrive, in the legal profession for as long as you desire! Enjoy your time in the legal profession.

Programming note: join us for today’s #PracticeTuesday on the business of law. What do you wish you had known about the business when you were a new attorney or law student? Should we be teaching this in law schools? When and how? How new attorneys learn about the business of law (besides reading Professor Lee’s wonderful book, of course)?  

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