The skills needed to be a successful lawyer in 2019 and beyond are changing.
Law professors and practitioners agree: law practices today—as well as in the future—require broad and interdisciplinary skills that combine legal knowledge with an understanding of technology and data, problem-solving, collaboration, and personal effectiveness. In addition to the practice of law, clients expect new lawyers to also be competent in understanding the business of a client. Many schools, including Colorado Law, have responded to the shifting market demand for business and technology-savvy attorneys with specialized courses and clinics, partnerships with the business community, and opportunities for hands-on training.
When students leave Colorado Law, they not only have a legal skill set, they also are familiar with what makes and breaks a company, said Associate Professor Brad Bernthal ('01), who is at the forefront of Colorado Law’s entrepreneurial efforts. This is important in setting our graduates up for success, no matter their chosen area of practice, he said.
The "Colorado Law Way" of training attorneys combines a rigorous education, one that goes deep in the legal discipline, along with cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset, Bernthal said.
The foundation of the school’s success is rooted in high-caliber business law classroom work as well as clinical opportunities. Colorado Law further differentiates itself with an outward-facing emphasis. Students engage with the business community where they regularly interact with entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and professional service providers. Further, Colorado Law’s affiliation with the University of Colorado, which Reuters named the 29th most innovative university in the world, puts the school in the right place at the right time for entrepreneurially minded lawyers.
Colorado Law’s curriculum provides its students a competitive advantage amid a changing legal landscape, where many of today’s employers focus on recruiting attorneys with a strong business orientation.
The building blocks for business law include courses such as Contracts, Corporations, and Securities Regulation. These foundational substantive areas remain table stakes for effective business attorneys. Professor Andrew Schwartz, who joined the Colorado Law faculty in 2008, offers the example of Akorn v. Fresenius, a corporate law case out of Delaware.
"Akorn was a landmark corporate case where the court allowed a corporate acquirer to walk away from a $5 billion merger agreement. But that merger agreement was itself just a type of contract, and so the court premised its ruling on foundational principles that we study every year at Colorado Law in the first-year Contracts course,” Schwartz said. (The court cited a UCLA Law Review article by Schwartz in its opinion.)
In addition, practical skills courses such as Transactional Drafting, Deals, Legal Negotiation, Venture Capital and Private Equity, Software Transactions, and Data Analytics require students to transfer skills to the real world. Such courses provide relevant, practical, and valuable information that students will use regardless of their chosen career path.
Venture Capital and Private Equity, taught by Bernthal and local venture capitalist Jason Mendelson since 2008, is a popular course for entrepreneurially minded students, as well as others without a business background who are interested in exploring the world of startups and investment. The course teaches the legal and financial principles relevant to representation of privately held companies, their founders and managers, and their investors.
"We cover startup finance," Bernthal said. “But Jason [Mendelson] is such a gifted communicator with deep expertise that the course could also be titled Startups 101 or How Startup Communities Work. For many students, the VC class provides access to a new world of opportunities surrounding emerging companies."
The VC course attracts a cross-campus mix of 60-70 graduate students each year, with roughly 50 percent of class participants from the law school, 40 percent from the MBA program, and 10 percent from engineering.
"Students respond in such an energetic way that the class has a jazz-like improvisation in the back-and-forth between students and professors," said Bernthal. "Each session has something unexpected and creative."
The course is so valued that students established an endowed scholarship fund in Bernthal’s name and created a separate campus entrepreneurship gift in Mendelson’s honor.
"The VC class was my first look at how businesses are funded and what startups are looking for to scale their businesses," said Jon Milgrom ('15), founder and partner at Milgrom & Daskam. "We negotiated terms for the purchase and sale of equity in a company. This is something I do nearly every day in my current practice. The class was super practical in terms of exposing you to deal structures, entity structures, and industry terms and terminology."
Several alumni of the class have gone on to work in investing or start their own firms or companies: Chris White ('14), founder and CEO of clothing company Shinesty; Cami Yuasa ('14), vice president of bank management at Goldman Sachs; Josh Fitch ('17) and Nick Troxel ('17), founders of Troxel Fitch, LLC; Ben Abell ('11), co-founder of sunglasses company goodr; Shannon Liston ('15), senior corporate counsel at Techstars; and Sierra Moller (’16), corporate counsel at Techstars, to name just a few.
Colorado Law’s business law curriculum also focuses on building students’ "transactional IQ." Transactional IQ is defined as the measure of an individual’s ability to serve as trusted business legal advisor. Colorado Law takes an innovative approach to integrating traditional doctrinal and experiential learning. In Transactional Drafting, a course designed and spearheaded by Legal Writing Professor Amy Bauer in 2010, students learn the principles of contemporary commercial drafting, gaining skills that are applicable to transactional practice and are also useful to future litigators.
"Transactional Drafting shows students how the skills they are learning transfer to the real world and provides relevant, practical, and valuable information that they will use regardless of their chosen career path," said Bauer, who created an Advanced Transactional Drafting course and regularly teaches Colorado Bar Association CLE courses on drafting. She frequently speaks with legal writing faculty at other law schools to encourage them to develop and offer their own drafting courses, as she did.
"Transactional Drafting shows students how the skills they are learning transfer to the real world and provides relevant, practical, and valuable information that they will use regardless of their chosen career path."
Legal Writing Professor Amy Bauer
"In Transactional Drafting, we actually wrote the contracts we analyzed only theoretically in a Contracts course,” said Ali Lipman ('14), an associate at Johnson & Repucci, LLP in Boulder. "In each Legal Negotiation class, we simulated real-world negotiations, which helped us better understand how to effectuate a meaningful agreement. Both of these courses were hands-on and thus immensely helpful in preparing me for client work. Ultimately, these courses made me more confident in my law practice."
Beyond the classroom, experiential opportunities abound for Colorado Law students to hone their business skills. These experiences are enriched by Colorado Law’s location in Boulder, one of the top U.S. cities for startup businesses, and the #GiveFirst mentality that permeates the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Boulder.
#GiveFirst describes a norm of behavior in the Front Range, championed over the past decade by venture capital firm and entrepreneurial network Techstars. It refers to individuals helping others, without any expectation of direct payment in return. #GiveFirst is not pure philanthropy. Rather, it is participation in a system where an individual trusts that benefits provided to others will, over time, indirectly come back to the individual.
Thanks to the generosity of dozens of venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and attorneys willing to lend an ear, hour, or email, Colorado Law students enjoy invaluable connections in the Boulder-Denver area that often lead to internship, externship, and job opportunities.
"Along with mountains and sun, #GiveFirst is one of the attractions that motivates entrepreneurs to migrate to the Front Range," Bernthal said at a recent entrepreneurship conference hosted by Colorado Law’s Silicon Flatirons Center. "It is a mode of behavior about how exchanges work between people working in the startup scene. In my estimation, it facilitates what Brian Eno calls 'scenius,' which he defines as the communal form of genius."
Jon Milgrom ('15) cites his participation in the Deming Center Venture Fund, which supports emerging companies in Boulder and surrounding communities, as one of his most formative law school experiences. Law students can join the student team, which serves as a venture fund for making seed investments in local companies. Working under the guidance of an experienced advisory board, including David DiGiacomo ('14) and Mike Dornik ('14), and local business leaders, students learn the ins and outs of venture capital and angel investing. Since the program was founded in 2009, nearly 40 Colorado Law students have served as team members and have gone on to work at companies like Zayo, Level III, Cooley LLP, Latham Watkins LLP, McKinsey & Company, Deloitte, Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network, Boomtown, DISH, Greenlite Labs, Greenmont Capital, and Oracle.
"You get pitches from all these different businesses and you have to break down their business plans. Working with an interdisciplinary team that includes students from business, architecture, journalism, and engineering, you collaborate to break down the business plans and ideas and provide entrepreneurship advice, listen to their pitches, and source deals. You’re doing basically what a venture fund does, except we’re making seed investments," Milgrom said.
Through its course offerings, programming, and community partnerships, Colorado Law is giving its students the tools they need to be better allies for the businesses they may one day represent.
"As an attorney, if you can relate to your clients—almost all of which are businesses—you can represent their interests much more effectively," Milgrom said. “This comes up on a daily basis. Understanding business helps you to know what they’re up against and advise them in a more meaningful way."
"As an attorney, if you can relate to your clients—almost all of which are businesses—you can represent their interests much more effectively."
Jon Milgrom ('15)
Founder and partner, Milgrom & Daskam
Sally Hatcher (’97), a serial entrepreneur who co-founded two companies after law school and now advises graduate students interested in pursuing companies, agrees: "Lawyers with business experience understand better than most lawyers what it’s like to be in the trenches and understand the decisions you have to make as an entrepreneur,” she said. “If you understand what your clients are going through, you are going to be a better lawyer because you are going to understand their needs better."