Jay Foonberg asks: Is the practice of law a business or profession?


Jay Foonberg is writing an update to his book, “How to Start and Build a Law Practice”. He posted the following on Facebook:

From the chapter “The Profession of Law is Not the Business of Law”

“In my opinion, those who call the profession of law a ‘business’ insult and demean the legal profession and you as a lawyer, in addition to simultaneously displaying their own lack of knowledge of the differences between a profession and a business”

Your thoughts?

One attorney said, “I strongly agree! We are here to find justice, or help a person in need.” Another said, “I agree with Jay Foonberg. I also think being a Human Being is not a business. Socrates, General Patton, Einstein, and Mother Theresa weren’t in business. But they advanced the human race.” Another commented, “If you want to sell stuff, go sell houses, or coffee, or cell phones.”

My comment:

“It’s both a profession and a business. If you are self-employed, you (the professional) work for the business (practice).”

That’s what I said, but what I wanted to say was, “are you nuts? Of course it is a business, and it’s naive not to recognize that reality.”

It’s a business because you sell services, pay your expenses, and earn a profit. If you don’t earn a profit, you’re out of business. You’ll still be a professional, but broke and looking for a job.

It’s a business because you have to bring in clients and if you don’t know how to market your services, you’re not going to make it, no matter how good you are as a lawyer or how selfless you might be.

It’s a business because you have to hire and manage employees, stay up to date with technology, and keep your expenses under control. If you don’t, there won’t be enough left over to pay yourself a draw and you’ll have to fire yourself because you can’t afford yourself.

You know what’s insulting and demeaning? Telling new attorneys that it’s not a business. Letting them think that all they have to do is hang out a shingle and be a good professional and the world will beat a path to their door. If they put other people’s interests before their own, their rewards will come.

That’s the wrong message.

When you’re on an airplane, the flight attendant tells you that if there is a drop in cabin pressure, you should put the oxygen mask on yourself first. Then, you can take care of others who might need help. You can’t help anyone if you lose consciousness, you have to take care of yourself, first.

That’s reality. On an airplane or in the business of law.

I went to law school to make money and to help people, but you can’t do one without the other. You can’t practice your profession unless your business is successful.

Many of the other comments agree that it is a business and a profession. And to his credit, Jay is seeking our feedback and “Liked” my comment.

The world was a simpler place when Jay wrote the first edition of his book. Today, we’re on a plane and losing pressure fast. We should all do our part to make the world a better place, but first, we have to pay the bills.

If you want to earn higher profits in your “business,” pick up a copy of The Attorney Marketing Formula.



  1. Amen, Brother!

    I suppose there’s a distinction to be made between “practicing law” and “running a law practice”, but ultimately, especially for solos, it’s the same person performing both roles.

    Rendering legal services is only one part (production) of the business of being a lawyer. The other parts are marketing, sales, accounting, financial management, R&D, customer service, customer retention, etc. Failing to think of it as a business and to plan accordingly is a recipe for poor performance, if you’re lucky.

    The fact is, the marketplace is filled with competent lawyers. Clients need to be shown whom to hire, how to hire them, what to look for in a lawyer, etc. The Internet has made it easier than ever for clients to ‘shop around’, and if you’re not out there promoting your practice, showcasing your expertise, and cultivating referral sources, those shoppers will buy from someone else. Someone who operates like a business.

  2. David,

    Love the last three paragraphs of this post. Thanks for taking the time to address it. Below in quotes is how I responded to Jay’s facebook post. My interpretation was that the quote lacked context, and your point that the world is a different place then when the first edition came out frames it nicely.

    Even since I started practicing in the late 1990’s the practice and business of law (which are inextricably intertwined) has changed substantially.

    Great post!


    “Jay, I first read your book my last year of law school and it revolutionized my thinking and changed the trajectory of my future. It showed me that I could open a professional service business and be both a business person and a great lawyer at the same time.

    Taken out of context, that quote could lapped up by the zealots of our profession who view any acknowledgement that its not only possible, but perfectly natural and acceptable, to be a loyal advocate for our clients, do our very best in every case, while succeeding in business.

    What is demeaning is an insinuation that a lawyer puts his own business interest ahead of the best interests of his client, or above the integrity of the profession. As lawyers, we need to fight that stereotype whenever it rears its head.

    What is also demeaning is the insinuation that lawyers who are in private practice (by definition a business) are somehow incapable or unwilling to live by the hierarchy of loyalties dictated by the rules of professional conduct, and therefore default to greedily serving their own business interests above the interests of their clients.

    There are hundreds of thousands of solo and small firm lawyers who successfully live this bifurcated existence daily. In fact, without the business of law, there is no practice of law, at least not in private practice (trust fund altruists excepted).

    Your quote, taken out of context (I presume) panders to the very vocal few, who, although hypocritically making decent livings (or perhaps because they don’t know how to) in private practice, chastise others for doing so, or voicing their desire to do so.”

  3. Clint Kelley says

    David – Your post and Gordon’s comments are exactly correct. While I am a big fan of Foonberg’s book since its earliest editions, a moment of clarity may be in order. We practice in an extremely competitive time. The reality is that we will be beaten and defeated by other lawyers who treat their practices like businesses. Simply put, it is better to get on the train than to get run over by it.