My Shingle

I Am Not An Entrepreneur…My Answer to the Most Important Question for Solo Lawyers

by Carolyn Elefant on February 25, 2011 · 9 comments

in Big Law/Small Law, MyShingle Solo, Trends

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Over at his new gig at Above the Law, my blogging colleague and law firm founder/owner Jay Shepherd poses the penultimate question to prospective shinglers:  Do you want to run a business, or do you want to practice law? For Jay, there’s only one right answer: if you want to start a law firm, you’ve got to want to run a business. Period.

Now, Jay may be on to something. After all, Jay runs a successful, small employment law firm, he just launched a new business, Prefix LLC to teach professionals how to price their knowledge and he’s blogging up at one of the most widely read law blogs while I’m slumming here at MyShingle. Even so, I think that Jay’s wrong about prioritizing entrepreneurial drive over love of the law, and I can prove it in a word:

Google.

Founded in 1999, Google is still thriving and growing while hundreds of other dotcoms launched around the same time failed. The reason? Because unlike most of the 20-somethings of the DotCom era, Google’s founders, Sergei Brin and Larry Page didn’t started Google simply so that they could own a business or make money. Instead, they were driven by one single purpose: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” which remains Google’s core mission to this day. Of course, great search demands a great abundance of resources – and so Google had to find a way to support those goals. So early on, the company, over its founder’s objections, began running the ads that evolved into Google’s AdWords program, the primary source of Google’s enormous profits. [Source: Wikipedia.]

For Larry and Sergei, passion for search came before desire to run a business (indeed, according to Wikipedia, theynearly sold Google early on because it interfered with their studies). Instead, they followed their passion and then, of necessity came up with a business model to make it work. The same concept applies to starting a firm: you start with a love of the law – a passion or a calling to represent clients, solve problems, or do justice. And then, because you want to practice law, you’ll develop the business model to make it work.

Ordinarily, I don’t involve myself in the perennial “is law a business? or is it a profession?” debates. After all, different strokes for different folks. But I’m troubled that Jay’s advice will deter from solo practice many really good lawyers who simply don’t view themselves as business people. Moreover, his advice is particularly dangerous in the current economic client where jobs are scarce, and many graduates with law degrees may not have the option of finding a job no matter how long they look. Thus, they may settle for doing document review or leave the law entirely, instead of taking a shot at starting a firm – which can better position them to find a job if that’s what they eventually decide to do.

In addition to over-emphasizing the importance of being entrepreneurial in starting a firm, Jay over-glamorizes what it’s like to practice law at a job. Jay writes that:

your own law firm is a lousy platform for [practicing law]. Almost any other platform is better: someone else’s firm, a company’s law department, the government, a public-service organization. These are all places where your focus will be on practicing law. Someone else runs the business.

Though it’s true that when you work for others you won’t need to send out bills or manage a trust account,  you won’t have the luxury of just practicing law either. Instead, you’ll have to endure sensitivity trainings and office politics or spend hours reviewing documents and toting someone else’s briefcase and subordinating your better judgment over how to serve the client to a partner who’s more senior to you. That’s not my idea of practicing law.

Finally, just as those lawyers who only want to practice may “be miserable” running their own firm, so too, those who open a law practice because they want to be entrepreneurs will also find disappointment. That’s because law makes for an awfully stodgy and slow-moving business. We lawyers are heavily regulated, and for better or for worse, our ethics rules prevent us from implementing many of the innovations adopted in the business world. And frankly, law practice is downright hard: writing briefs or analyses of complex issues, forever trying to find ways around precedent instead of just tossing it aside. In fact, many of the lawyers I’ve met over my years in the blogosphere who tout the concept of law as a business have, not suprisingly, left the law for more exciting and fast-paced entrepreneurial ventures.

As for me, I don’t consider myself an entrepreneur. I’m a lawyer. But I developed entrepreneurial skills of necessity because I knew that starting my law firm represented my absolute last chance at a career in the law. I left my cushy but dull government job too quickly because it bored me, and I got myself laid off from my law firm job because I thought I knew better than anyone else. And suddenly, I was up against the wall and out of choices except to leave the law entirely — before I’d ever had a jury trial or argued a real appellate case or accomplished something with my hard-earned law degree that mattered. And so, reluctantly, I signed a lease for a virtual law office and printed business cards and stationary and dragged myself to networking events where no one would talk to me and went through all of the steps that I needed to because failure was not an option. That first year was as challenging as anything I’d ever done, but by sheer force of will, I made solo practice work. And if you really, truly want to be a lawyer and you have no other choices, you can too.

But if you want to be a real business owner, don’t hang out a shingle.

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  • http://twitter.com/RachRodgersEsq Rachel Rodgers

    Carolyn,

    I think you need both desire/willingness to run a business and desire/willingness to practice law to hang a shingle. But that doesn’t mean that you have to have both qualities internally. If you love practicing law and don’t want to deal with running a business, you can outsource a good deal of your business-running responsibilities or better yet, obtain a rainmaking partner who will focus on bringing in the business. Alternatively, if you don’t like the lawyering part but you’re great at running the business, bring in freelance lawyers to get a good deal of the work done. I don’t think you have to be an expert at everything in order to run a law practice (or build any other business, for that matter) but you do need to build a team that can support you and fill in the gaps. And the team does not have to be employees. The team can be a series of freelancers or other businesses that you hire for assistance with accounting/bookeeping, web design, marketing, business coaching, etc., etc.

  • http://www.lawpracticestrategy.com Donna Seyle

    The concept of being an “entrepreneurial lawyer” has gained momentum as a result of the massive lay-offs and hiring cutbacks in the profession, which have forced new & unemployed attorneys to consider going solo. Though it isn’t really a new concept (there have always been solo practitioners), the entrepreneurial aspect of it has gained visibility because of the competitiveness of solo segment.

    I agree with Carolyn that Jay has somewhat sensationalized the negativity of running a solo practice and with her, hope it does not deter those who find themselves in the “go solo or go homeless” scenario. I also think that Rachel Rodgers is absolutely right on target in her comment. You don’t need to do everything yourself, there’s plenty of outsourcing opportunities at reasonable cost to do what you cannot, or don’t want to, do yourself. None of us are good at everything. Figure out what you’re good at, what you like to do (often they are the same) and then find the support you need to handle the rest.

  • NFA

    I echo some of the sentiments already commented upon, and would like to add an additional perspective. For some (perhaps many), the desire or passion to practice law wanes over time or in some cases, becomes immediately apparently either prior to shortly after graduation from law school. As we all know, going to law school has significant costs and many bear the burden of significant financial obligations going forward. If you’re in the “go solo or be homeless” camp, you may actually desire to undertake entrepreneurial pursuits but lack the financial resources and connections (especially if you’re one of the straight-through graduates) to successfully start a non-legal venture. The only venture that you’re certainly qualified to undertake and have a fair chance of seeing revenue quickly is legal practice.

    In that vein, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to leverage your legal education as a means, rather than an end. Opening up a practice can lead to connections, opportunities, ideas, and of course financial resources which may eventually facilitate becoming a non-practicing business owner. I don’t think the two aims have to be mutually exclusive as you seem to suggest.

    I’d be interested in finding out what percentage of time is spent on actual legal practice versus speaking, writing, related or even non-related business pursuits for the more notable or successful solos in this community such as you, Jay, etc. If less than 75% or so of time is spent actually practicing, I’d question whether that person’s #1 motivating passion is the practice of law, and regardless, I think it’s fair to say that the choice isn’t binary, but rather you can be successful at both as you’re clearly demonstrating.

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  • http://blog.mckeeoffice.com/ Sharmil McKee

    Carolyn, I love your response to Jay’s post. I think you hit the nail on the head. There are a million ways to earn a living. Some people enjoy and are passionate about starting businesses. These people are called serial entrepreneurs and Jay may fall into this category. I don’t think you need to “love” being a business person to have a successful solo practice. I do however believe a lawyer must enjoy practicing law to have a successful solo practice. I encourage every lawyer to at least consider hanging his/her shingle.

    Sharmil McKee
    Business Attorney
    blog.mckeeoffice.com

  • Guest

    Although I agree with the premise of this piece, one fact doesn’t fit. Larry and Sergei hired Eric Schmidt to run the “business” of Google so they could focus on product development. They didn’t like being CEO so they found someone else to do it.

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  • http://www.successfullysolo.com/blog Barbara Nelson

    Hmm. Isn’t all this a bit of everything old is new again? Law as a calling versus a profession? Need to choose between running a business vs. practicing law? Real lawyers or real business owners? After all, Michael Gerber started the “E” conversation in “The E-Myth” in 1988. (“E” stands for “Entrepreneur”)

    I agree that solos need to either be entrepreneurial or grow their practice to a size where they can outsource some of those roles that are required of business owners. I disagree that lawyers in firms are much different. In my experience, in fact- partners & associates in law firms need to have the same dose of entrepreneurial oomph, because, even if you’re not writing your own pay check, you’re judged by your bottom line. Most of the partners who work with me pay my fees themselves. There aren’t many benevolent, paternalistic firms these days. (are there any?)

    There’s not that much difference in coaching firm lawyers vs. solos other than firms have marketing departments, built-in leverage opportunies and major political overhead. Health benefits are a big plus. (if you’re interested, most of the marketing departments don’t seem to do much for individual partners and associates) My firm clients still worry about marketing and new clients, making sure they find and bill enough hours and how to balance work and personal priorities. While they might not fail as fast as a solo, they’ll fail just as certainly if they don’t build a profitable practice. So even if you go to a firm, there’s no guarantee a lawyer’s going to make it without entrepreneurial savvy. There are few roles that would be ‘purely’ about the technical practice of law. Ivory tower, perhaps.

    When I left the corporate world 8 years ago to become a business advisor & coach, the great outcry in the coaching industry was that the only coaches making a really good income were making it by selling services to other coaches. To some extent, I see that happening in the solo lawyers’ world as well. Lawyers building technology, becoming social media experts, video production experts, etc. Membership sites, certifications, and so on. The lawyers who are stepping out to be paid for helping other lawyers with the business end of practicing have just found a different way to create an income and a lifestyle. One of the things I love about lawyers is that you do have a variety of interests. There have been lawyers stepping out to make money serving lawyers for a long time, perhaps there are more now, or perhaps the online world makes them more visible and accessible. At any rate, it serves them (& me, I suppose, to some extent) well to continue the either/or way of viewing the world.

    There are still a healthy number of solo and nearly-solo firms that are delivering a good income and even a good lifestyle to lawyers. It’s not a matter of lawyer first, business person second, or vice versa. Nothing is that black and white. It’s about what you like to do and what you have to do to get what you want. If you don’t like the business end, you can acquire those skills by learning them yourself or by outsourcing them.

    I’m betting my own income and lifestyle that there will continue to be entrepreneurial lawyers who want my help to make their practices deliver a better lifestyle to them faster than they can figure it out themselves. And yup, they’re good business people too, knowing they need to address business issues one way or another in order to create a lifestyle that works. What is the point of the either/or distinction?

    Did it really take me so long to make that point? Sorry! Near and dear to my heart, as I’m rewriting my website landing page and I’m still using “for entrepreneurial lawyers”. Everything old is new again. One well-documented marketing approach to creating “buzz” is to make a controversial proclamation. It works.

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