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Widener, state bar team up for class on starting a law firm

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Christian Johnson, dean at Widener University at Commonwealth law School. He teaches a class on how to start a law firm.
Christian Johnson, dean at Widener University at Commonwealth law School. He teaches a class on how to start a law firm. - (Photo / )

When Christian Johnson left his job as professor at the University of Utah Law School to become dean at Widener University Commonwealth Law School in 2015, he recognized right away the value of bringing over his class on how to start a law firm.

Four years later, the law school in Susquehanna Township, Dauphin County is adding a new dimension to the course by partnering with the Pennsylvania Bar Association. Lawyers will take turns sharing their real-world experiences and the challenges they encountered when setting up their own practices.

“A lot of it is common sense, but there are things that many have never done before. They’ve never set up an account program to keep track of their expenses, for instance — something that is critical in the first six months of practice in order to succeed,” said Johnson, adding that there are other considerations as well, like knowing the ins and outs of marketing and time management. “This class addresses all of the aspects of not only running a solo practice, but it also gives the next generation of legal professionals knowledge of what goes into being in the business of law.”

Johnson would bring outside practitioners into his class. But he and Widener had not previously partnered with the state association.

Now, Sara Austin, chair of the association’s solo and small firm section and an adjunct professor at the law school, is working with Johnson to further develop the course and expose students to additional resources at their disposal.

“The students learn how they can become involved with the PBA while they are still in school so that they are then familiar with the resources the association pro-vides post-graduation,” said Johnson.

Small and solo law firms face a number of challenges, according to a 2017 report by Thomson Reuters on the state of small U.S. law firms, defined as firms with less than 30 employees.

Nearly three-quarters of the attorneys surveyed said acquiring new clients is a challenge. Attorneys also said they spent too much time on administrative tasks, with 70 percent describing it as a challenge.

The survey drew responses from more than 300 attorneys, with 40 percent describing themselves as solo practitioners.

While they were aware of the challenges, a majority of attorneys acknowledged that many were not being addressed, whether it was acquiring new business (71 percent); spending too much time on administrative tasks (81 percent); or clients demanding more for less or otherwise exerting pressure on rates (80 percent).

A growing class

The class at Widener meets for two hours a week for 14 weeks, with outside reading and assignments. The initial course started with about a dozen students in 2016 and has increased to 26 this year.

Approximately 20 lawyers are involved, many of them alumni like Scott Cooper from Harrisburg-based Schmidt Kramer. Cooper addresses the class on “rain-making,” where he talks about developing a solid client base and a referral network.

“His firm is big on referrals and advertising and getting leads through the internet. We address configuring your information to pop up first in search engines,” said Johnson.

Additional topics include items like negotiating partnership issues, preventing and avoiding malpractice, evaluating office leases, and understanding overhead costs.

“By bringing in legal professionals from a wide breadth of disciplines to speak and interact with our class, we are helping them to prepare to practice when they are done,” said Johnson.

Austin considers the partnership a win-win situation for both the bar and the community at large.

“These are our future colleagues and we want to help them. If we can make the road a little easier, that’s fabulous, but we know that what we’re teaching them now will help them years later in whatever they decide to do,” Austin said.

Eden Mandrell, Widener’s director of career development, is a professor in the class.

“I meet with the students and discuss their career goals with them,” said Mandrell, who shares her own experiences with them. Before coming to Widener, Mandrell was a partner at a New-York-based legal search firm.

“When I was in law school, nothing like this existed,” she said. “You don’t learn about the business of law. This class allows them to understand that they can go out there and do things on their own if that’s their choice. If you look through our syllabus, you’ll see real-life practical skills that lawyers traditionally don’t learn in school.”

Bob Moran is a Widener alum who benefited from the class started by Johnson. He was one of the first to sign up.

Now, Moran practices law in a small family firm in Scranton, The Moran Law Group LLC, with his father and two brothers.

“I felt as if our practice wasn’t fully realized until I got out of law school and was able to take what I learned from that course and apply it to our practice,” said Moran, adding that with his newly acquired knowledge, he was able to bring a fresh, new approach to the firm in areas like business development.

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