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Seminar lets Penn Law students simulate law-firm decision making

June 26, 2017

This past spring, Penn Law students participated in a new semester-long project designed to introduce them to some of the business skills law firm partners must master to generate revenue for their organizations.

The Law School’s seminar “Law Firm Management in the New Normal” explored the economic landscape in which large U.S.-based law firms operate, the business models those firms develop in response, the development of the attorneys who practice with those firms, and some of the technological and client-driven changes that are driving the post-2008 evolution of the legal market.

Working with David Kahn from the University of Pennsylvania’s Office of General Counsel (OGC), the instructors for the program, Jennifer Leonard L’04 and Danielle Schweiloch L’99, along with their colleague Mariel Staszewski L’07, designed a hypothetical request for proposal (RFP) a large urban university like Penn might issue for response from competing law firms.

“In the past, we assigned a traditional research and writing assignment to students, but we really wanted to create an experiential project that contextualized for students many of the topics we discussed in class during the course of the semester,” said Leonard.

In the early weeks of the course, the instructors divided students in the class into three “mini law firms.” As an initial assignment, these firms created a business plan for their firm. This plan incorporated some of the elements the course had addressed to that point, including revenue generation, staffing, diversity and inclusion initiatives, practice area selection, and investments in technology.

Once formed, each firm received a “partner coach,” a law firm partner from a real area law firm to serve as a mentor to the group. Saul Ewing’s Beth Fenton L’98, Griesing Law’s Founding Partner Fran Griesing L’81, and Pepper Hamilton’s Greg Hauck served as this semester’s partner mentors.

To be respectful of the coaches’ time and to focus students’ efforts on developing a strong RFP, each group was permitted to meet with its partner coach for only one hour. The students could use that hour in whatever way they wished — to ask initial questions about how to respond to a RFP, to review the written RFP response, or to practice their pitch to the client. The mentors enjoyed working with the students and were pleased to see students applying the class’s principles to a simulated business experience.

“I wish we’d had this course when I was at Penn Law!” declared mentor and alumna Fenton.

The semester’s work culminated in a live formal pitch presentation to a panel of three “client judges.” The judges included David Kahn from OGC, Romúlo Diaz, Vice President and General Counsel for Exelon, and Bob Cusumano L’80, former General Counsel to Ace Insurance Company.

Each mini firm had 30 minutes to pitch its services to the judges. The judges peppered the firms with many questions, asking the firms what kinds of discounts they would offer to educational clients, about the firms’ diversity and inclusion practices, about the firms’ ability to provide community engagement and local municipal expertise, and about any official certifications the firms had received that would distinguish them from their competitors.

At the end of the three pitches, the judges provided feedback to each firm on its pitch and declared one firm, Hahn, Lin and Cunha LLP, the winner of the competition. The judges were pleased with the amount of thought students demonstrated in their pitches and the skills they learned in the process.

“The students did an exceptional job in their written and oral presentations,” said Kahn. “The legal business development skills they demonstrated will be valuable to their future law firms.”

Diaz agreed, saying “I was impressed by the quality of business proposals and presentations by the student teams. I commend the law school for helping to equip the students with practical tools and experiences for successful careers in the law.” 

The project demonstrated to students that the legal skills they are developing as students and will continue to develop early in their career are one part of the set of skills lawyers need to be effective. In addition, lawyers in the private sector must also understand the finances that underlie their organizations’ business models and the presentation, communication, and relationship skills that will allow them to nurture strong business relations with clients.

Student David Arziani LLM’17 found the project to be a “unique opportunity to meet practicing lawyers and apply knowledge [to] practice.”

The course instructors enjoyed watching the simulation come to life and observing the interaction between the students, their mentors, and their judges. They look forward to using the experience of this pilot year to enhance next year’s program.

“It was terrific to see the students synthesize what they learned all semester — about the operation of law firms, the relationships between legal providers and their clients, and the role of law firms within the current legal landscape — into their final pitch presentations,” said Schweiloch.