Accounting for Lawyers:

Law schools typically used to require a basic one semester class - often pass-fail - on accounting for lawyers. I took it, then concluded I needed something more advanced outside of the law school curriculum. But at a minimum, the accounting for lawyers class, while not requiring much in the way of actual accounting, introduced lawyers to the vocabulary and concepts of accounting. Somewhere along the way, twenty five or thirty years ago, the requirement was downgraded so that it became merely another upper level elective.

As time has gone on, I am increasingly convinced that was an unwise demotion - and not simply because I teach business law. You can't read the front page of the Times or the Post these days without having a good chance of encountering the words "balance sheet." Very often the term is being used in an extended policy sense - referring, for example, to the balance sheet of the Fed or even the US government. Unless my law students have had some undergraduate class in the subject, typically they would not have the faintest idea what that meant or why - even in a largely metaphorical sense (e.g., when the Economist magazine talks about the world's balance sheet) - it is a relevant or important or meaningful way to express certain ideas. Leave aside the numbers, they simply have no idea what the vocabulary or underlying concepts are.

Ironically, when I was in law school, one of the reasons the class was demoted was not that the non-business oriented faculty dissed it. On the contrary, the corporate finance professors did not think it was important - pooh-poohing it as merely pointless recitation of historical events represented on the financials. They (we, let's be honest) had fallen in love with the idea that accounting was a wall-flower at the finance dance compared to the new beauty, discounted/anticipated future cash flows and valuations based around market proxies themselves premised around efficient market theory. We weren't wrong about future cash flows, but we now have a better understanding that accounting provides the framework against which one can work out one's notions of the future and appropriate discounts.

For that matter, I suspect that the fact that lawyers did not even know the vocabulary contributed to such things as Enron, in which there was a marked tendency of the lawyers to say that it was an accounting problem and they had no basis for knowing or inquiring about it. And then for the accountants to say it was a legal problem. (Of course, this has always been a standard little dance by law firms and accounting firms debating over who would opine about what in securities transactions, but it took a whole turn for the worse once the two no longer shared much idea of what the other did.) It would be easier to expect regulatory due diligence by the lawyers, even to ask for a layman's version of complex accounting structures, if the lawyers had some idea of what the basic terms of accounting are.

Many of my students have no interest in corporate law as such, but many of them hope to become civil or white collar criminal litigators, or regulatory lawyers inside or outside government. It is simply wrong to think that they do not need to understand the basic vocabulary and concepts of accounting to be able to be effective lawyers in those fields. And my experience of younger practicing lawyers is that they are so busy with billed hours and the training programs of law firms so reduced that they don't learn these concepts on the job anymore. (There is actually a greater rather than lesser burden on law schools to prepare students for practice these days, because the days are gone when a school - particularly the best ones - could assume that practice would do it for them.)

Uninitiated law students often believe that accounting is merely about counting things and sticking them in predetermined categories. In fact accounting is a rich intellectual endeavor in which the determination of what categories matter and why, and how one should interpret this item of income or whatever as going in this or that category - whether it presents an accurate representation of an enterprise - is as much interpretation and nuance and all that as law. It is as much about a deep representation of the world as law is. (I started out in tax law, and rapidly grew to have deep respect for tax accounting's intellectual enteprise.) Much of my practical work is with nonprofit organizations, and seeing how difficult the fundamental categories of nonprofit accounting are, both to adapt for-profit accounting categories to nonprofits and how to conceive of the categories in the first place, has given me a very deep appreciation of how much the intellectual interpretive activities of law and accounting share.

But does it require a required law school class? Law schools often these days have much grade inflation or, more precisely, grade compression against a maximum top grad. Any bad grade (resulting, for example, from taking an important, interesting class for which you have no prior background) can clobber your job opportunities. In my experience, and not just my school, I'd say any form of C is death, and my students look on a B- as pretty much death - I routinely field complaints telling me that a B+ will bring down their GPA. One of the considerable downsides of that form of grade inflation is to disincentivate a student from taking any class for which they cannot predict a minimum of B+ or A-, and it gives students a large incentive to focus on classes for which they already have a leg up from undergrad.

Whereas it is precisely the students without any background who most need exposure to it. There is nothing special about accounting for lawyers in that, but if you think it is as important as I've suggested here (and even understanding that every professor will enter special pleadings for his or her speciality as deserving to be required), yes, I think it was a mistake to let it slip from the 'required' category.