My Shingle

A Valentine’s Post: Business Porn and Putting the Magic Back in Starting a Law Firm

by Carolyn Elefant on February 14, 2013 · 9 comments

in Encouragement, MyShingle Solo

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photoBecause of this blog and a national practice, I travel out of town several times a year for speaking engagements, conferences and hearings.  Rather than feign work on a long cramped bus or plane ride, I generally stay up until 3 am the night before I depart, scrambling to push assignments out the door.  That way, I can relax a little on the road and take a break from the day to day grind.

Often after a productive trip, I’ll indulge in what I’ve come to refer to as business porn – glossy magazines selling the fantasy of the start-up, featuring superstar [role] models like Seth Godin  or tech-start up CEOs.  Read enough of these publications, and after a while, all of the stories on companies and founders run together: tales of missed opportunities, serendipity and caffeine-fueled all-nighters. But despite the cliches, somehow, each of these entrepreneurs and visionaries convey a sense of excitement and wonder and promise that’s captivating. I envy them not for their enormous wealth (though who wouldn’t want some of that?) but rather, because they love what they do so thoroughly that every day is joy-filled; as exhilarating as dancing a jig, Malcolm Gladwell would say.

It’s that spirit that’s often missing from starting a law firm.  So many solo practice blogs focus on the minutia;  billable hours v. flat fee , home versus virtual versus rented space and technology choices and ethically, what not to doMea culpa, Myshingle is guilty of that too (at least, some of the time) because frankly, that’s what many readers want.  But for me, the how-to always comes second to the why and what -or of starting a practice. The laundry list of tasks are merely footnotes to our larger narrative, yet they often overwhelm us so much that they sap the joy out of what we do. I’d rather build my castles in the air first ; it makes the job of building the foundations under them all the more palatable. 

Celebrating the fun of starting a law firm isn’t only – well – fun, it’s important to the continuity of our profession.  There are lost generations of jobless lawyers, from grads to granddads moping around, depressed about the future. For many, the allure of entrepreneurship or non-legal callings are far more appealing than starting a law firm.  In some instances, these lawyers (who after all, are newbies with no experience or lifelong grinders who’ve forever been under someone else’s thumb) just don’t realize that law can be fun and fulfilling; they’d rather do anything but hang out a shingle.  Though the profession won’t suffer when those who never wanted to practice depart, I fear that other grads who really do want to practice law are drawn to other work because it sounds more exciting.  I’m here to shout from the rooftops, that it’s not; that work that’s exciting and fun may be standing here, right under your nose.

Because that there’s nothing quite like the feeling you get from a grateful client or a judge’s praise or snatching a victory in the case that seemed DOA.  There’s nothing quite like that adrenaline that courses through your blood when you’ve got a brief due at 9 am that needs to be filed, and the satisfaction you feel afterwards when you make the deadline.  There’s nothing that compares to satisfaction of knowing that you built something – a law practice – of value to others that didn’t exist but for you and your efforts.

Though some view the legal profession as crumbling, from my perspective, we stand on the edge of enormous possibility. We live in an age where technology and social-media enable and empower us; when dynasty- firms are crashing and burning and new ways of practicing law and expanding access to justice are emerging every day. There there’s no defined path ahead, just a broad canvas of possibility and dozens of stories of innovation and hope and accidental practices waiting to be written with grit and determination as we live the question of where our profession is headed. Uncertain, yes, but still, there’s never been a more magical time to start a law firm or build a law enterprise.

Seth Godin and all the other business visionaries will always thrill me and I’ll always eagerly look forward to our brief flings whenever I’m on the road. But solo practice, hanging a shingle, law firm startup – however you want to brand it or build it – that’s what has my heart.  Maybe this year, it will capture yours too. Happy Valentine’s Day!

  • steve ganis

    Happy Valentine’s Day, Carolyn & thx for your blog….like!  your reference to business porn.  Hanging a shingle in an area that’s prospering is my thought of the day.  Look at the D.C. area—what is it, 5 of the wealthiest counties in America surround D.C., the admin agencies are there, agencies like NIH and NSF foster innovation for local growth companies, the growing Fed Gov’t, the lobbyists…..D.C. is growing like no one could ever have imagined….Rgds!

  • Aaron Fletcher

    Tomorrow is my last day at my “day job.” Monday, I begin my solo practice.

    What a timely post!

  • http://twitter.com/Mark_Britton Mark_Britton

    Great post Carolyn.  I agree from top to bottom.

  • Ralph

    I started a two person firm after graduation and a short Legal Aid stint in 1972; there’s 5 of us now.  Of my class of 150 at Stanford, only myself and maybe a half dozen others “hung out shingles” and started new firms– at any point in time post graduation.  It’s not for everyone; and I don’t think it will ever have the glamor of starting the next big high tech firm, as you point out.  You hit some of the rewards above: the fact that it is “yours,” for better or worse, is a big plus.

  • Carolyn Elefant

    Good luck on your adventure!

  • Tom

    Yes, yes and yes! At first glance, this seems like a horrible time to practicing law, much less even contemplate going solo. But, what keeps me plugging along each day is knowing that, despite the economic forces at play, I am creating something out of nothing. And, today, we are entering a period of rapid change where the sky is the limit for those who can deliver excellent service with value. So I don’t feel unfortunate to be in the profession I am in, but rather that I am in the right place at the right time. These are exciting times indeed.

  • R.P.

    To all those would be “entrepreneurs”: if you’re thinking about going solo, please don’t, unless (a) you already have clients and business lined up, or (b) you don’t need to make any money.   And be aware that starting a law practice is about the furthest thing imaginable from being a true entrepreneur or starting a real business.  Starting a real business involves taking a big risk at the beginning, in order to build an organization that will employ people and, more important, awards you regular $$ just for having put the operation to work — in other words, you earn money in your sleep.  If you are starting a law practice, even if you ultimately have a couple partners or a couple employees, you are essentially “owning” your own job.  And you will never become wealthy doing a job, even if you “own” the job.   You will never earn money in your sleep as an attorney.  You are essentially taking a small risk (you don’t have to put up much money to become a solo) in order to make only a moderate salary at most.  And forgot all the notions about doing “good” for society, “expanding access to justice”, etc., because it is all nonsense.  You need to put food on the table.  (When I was younger I actually believed all the talk about the importance of helping the needy; I was a legal aid attorney for two years and no one respected me.  Notice how all the bar officers, professors, and other ‘powers to be’ in our profession constantly talk about pro bono? – it’s because they never do it themselves, they’re too busy making money.) You want to build wealth because it will (a) take care of your family (b) permit you time off to do what you really want (because the notion of someone really ‘loving’ their work is another myth) and (c) create jobs for others.   You won’t do it by becoming a solo, unless you are in category (a) – you have already built a practice.   So, if you have a halfway-decent job in a firm, stay there but try to build up your own practice on the side – your firm will likely give you a nice percentage of it; and if they don’t, well then leave once you have built up the practice (or you come up with a plan for a real business.)  But don’t ‘quit your day job’ otherwise. 

  • Carolyn Elefant

    RP – you raise some good points. I don’t think my post suggests otherwise. Of course, for some lawyers, building a practice while employed isn’t an option; start up is the only way to go.

  • http://www.ayottelawfirm.com/ Christie

    This made me laugh. I *love* these magazines and read them whenever I need a pick-me-up. Some of the marketing ideas are quite good.

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