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Solo & Small Law Firms

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

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.