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Why Saying “You Didn’t Build That” Stings Start Up and Solo Lawyers

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I’m willing to give President Obama the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t intend to trivialize the accomplishments of small business with his controversial you didn’t build that  speech.  Still, for solo and start up lawyers, the President’s words sting.

While there are plenty of solo lawyers who embraced the concept of hanging a shingle, many others (myself included) have done so, and are doing so because there are few other options.  Many solos never had the helpful law school professor to make a connection for them in the work world to help them find a job or a law firm willing to take a chance on employment.  But rather than cut and run from the law or default on student loans (that Romney, no prize himself, probably regards as of a “government handout”), we solos stood our ground, carving out a practice for ourselves where none previously existed.  Along the way, we give as good as — maybe better than we get — by serving clients even beyond what good lawyering requires  and contributing to the economy by  outsourcing  to contract lawyers and virtual assistants.

That’s not to say that we solos haven’t had support along the way.  Many of us have had supportive spouses or partners or parents  who made starting up easier by paying the mortgage or health insurance or babysitting the kids and cooking dinner so we could work late at the office or spend time networking.  Yet unlike Obama, whose speech implied  that others deserve the credit for the accomplishments of small business, most of those (like my husband and now daughters) who support us solos behind the scenes would never boast about their role, but would likely say that we work much harder than they do.

While many at big law firms still prosper (though far fewer than before and those who do work for it, no doubt), most of us solo lawyers will never take home  $700,000+ in profits annually  or own fourteen cars and a stable full of horses.  All we solos have is the satisfaction of knowing that everything we accomplished, we did almost entirely on our own through doggedness and sheer force of will. The President’s comments deprive us of even that accomplishment.

  • Emily

    I understood his comment to mean, at least in part, that we all rely on infrastructure that was created or heavily supported by governmental investments: roads, utilities, the very Internet I’m using at this moment, etc.

    I just finished reading Solo By Choice. Thank you so much for putting together such an incredible resource!

  • Reece

    Yeah, I’m a little shocked by your willful misreading of the President’s statement.  Your site and books are regularly recommended to people, including myself, who are considering starting a solo practice, but it is now a bit hard to trust anything you say given your inability to understand the rather basic point that Obama was making.  

  • myshingle

    I’m not misreading it (and for the record, I generally like Obama even though I am an Independent). I know that the President was saying that people don’t get anywhere by themselves, and that there is always someone to lend a helping hand whether it’s a teacher, the government (in the form of subsidies) or the availability of free services like the Internet. That’s a valid point and it certainly does not make President Obama anti-business or a Socialist, as his critics suggest.

    But – even taking the President’s point as he meant it, I don’t agree with the emphasis because I do think that it takes away from individual accomplishments, even if it wasn’t intended that way. Many times, I receive emails from readers who criticize me for having it easy in starting a firm because I was married and had someone to cover my expenses, or because I had worked and had experience in a specialized area. And yes, all of that is true. However, just because I had support doesn’t mean that I didn’t have to work like a dog to get where I am, or force myself to get up every morning and gin up business when I’d have rather stayed home moping. Plus, while I may have had a spouse, I also had student loans to pay. While I may have had a specialty, I also had no clue how to file or draft a common complaint and had no connections to lawyers likely to refer cases. The point is that everyone (except perhaps the very saddest situations among us) brings something to the table, whether it’s good looks or brains or a supportive family and as a result, all of that cancels out and isn’t really worth dwelling on as the President did because it takes away from the sheer force of will still required to succeed even with all the help in the world.

  • Sam

    So…. what is the correct reading of the President’s statement?

  • Gene

    “or the availability of free services like the Internet” – how is this a free service?

  • Cebe

    I was pretty horrified by what the President said, especially as I’m out there now struggling to make my solo practice profitable, and not getting one bit of help from the government.  I don’t really want government help, to be honest, except to even out tax burdens between solos and other business structures. 

    Reece, I have listened to what the President said repeatedly, and I am certain he is saying that we didn’t build our businesses without the government’s help.  It’s not true, in my opinion.  But, it does show what I think is a philosophical divide between conservative and liberal.  It was a rare moment of pure truth from a politician, and I was very unhappy to hear our president say it because I do believe it is a rather extreme liberal position. 

    Frankly, it’s the businesses that have built our government.  Not the other way around.

  • Dflickiss

    As a conservative, I understood what our President was trying to say, i.e. that ‘no man is an island.’  I am not happy that my side has run with the idea for the purpose making hay but I think Cebe is right in that the choice of words indicate a general philosophical difference that underlies the partisan divide in our nation.  We conservatives see “We the People” as the principle and the government as merely an agent; liberals (I am speculating) see government as a manifestation of We the People or as the principle and the private sector that receives governmental subsidies as the agent.  It may be a chicken & egg problem but it is a question that we as a nation need to seriously discuss.  

    Btw, as to which cam first, Chicken or Egg, it depends; the evolutionists says egg; the creationist the chicken   😉

  • Realist business owner

    Listen to the speech….again.  Listen to the two sentences which immediately precede what the President said.  The first one recognizes that our system of governement –i.e. our republican democracy allows businesses to grow (unlike the Soviet system, etc) . Do you really dispute this?   The next sentence acknowledges that every business is dependent upon the country’s infrastructure–roads and bridges, the power grid, etc., which were built and are maintained by government, and were not built by businesses which use them constantly.  Do you really dispute this? Here’s an example of the denial some people are in —the business of the guy who speaks out against Obama on a TV ad insisting that he got no help from the government in building his business, received a govt. loan of over one million dollars.   Hello–that’s like the Tea Partier yelling at his congressional rep for the govt. to keep its hands off his Medicare. 
    Recognizing that success and growth are  a collective effort and that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before in no way diminishes our efforts and accomplishments.  To think otherwise is to live in a bubble of narcisissim, ingratitude  and denial of history.  Do you really want your kids to forget about the sacrifices and accomplishments you have made for them and to believe that they raised themselves without any help from you?

  • myshingle

    Truthfully yes. Their accomplishments will hopefully be entirely their own. It us the very least I can do as a parent

  • Reece

     The thing is that the President wasn’t even making a point about whether people have had help along the way.  What the President said very clearly is that the ability to build small businesses is dependent on collective government action that did things like 1) build roads and bridges to provide you an effective infrastructure, 2) create the internet, 3) provide you free public education.  He’s emphatically not making the even more basic point that we all get support–emotional, economic, or other–from our friends and family.  He’s also emphatically not suggesting that everyone gets some direct support from the government in the form of contracts, loans, or whatever, although as a factual matter, that is precisely why the Small Business Administration exists.  Look, here’s the full paragraph:

    “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave
    you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.
    Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have
    that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The
    Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created
    the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the
    Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of
    our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”

    Do you honestly believe that when Obama says “you didn’t build THAT” that the “THAT” he is referring to is your business?  Come on . . .

    Your argument that your hard work/talent/whatever that you bring to the table somehow cancels out the benefits you’ve received from living in a well organized society is a bunch of nonsense.  Stephen Colbert made the point in 2005 when he said that the government that governs least governs best, and by that standard we set up an excellent government in Iraq.  There is a reason it sucks to live in Somalia.  If you want to convince me you did it all on your own, move to the Democratic Republic of Congo and let me know how that works out.

  • Reece

     So, if your kids accomplishments are going to be their own, you’re saying that you don’t do any of the following:

    a) help with their homework?
    b) read to them at night?
    c) make them a lunch for school?  Or pay for one?
    d) provide them a place to sleep?

    Or are you renting your house to your children and making them pay you for any assistance you provide?

    I really can’t believe I’ve gotten into this argument.  I have never visited the site before today, and I was looking for advice on how to start my own firm.  I won’t be back.  What a bunch of nonsense.   Really, really disappointing.

  • Dflickiss

    Reece,  I do not know if you will get this but as a regular reader of this blog, I can tell you that the advice is good and to just ignore the comments when they go off on a tangent.  

  • Guest

    “Your argument that your hard
    work/talent/whatever that you bring to the table somehow cancels out the
    benefits you’ve received from living in a well organized society is a bunch of


      Really?  The benefits
    conferred upon me by the munificence of the state are more important to my
    success or failure than my own labor?  And who, pray tell, pays for that infrastructure
    that the state provides?  Is it the 50% of the US population that does not pay taxes?  Those on
    welfare or collecting disability?  Or
    could it possibly be those of us who pay taxes every quarter from money we earned by saving, doing without, and
    from our small profits.  Did the state make my payroll?  Did the state
    pay my bills when I went without income to pay my employees?  Did the state
    put food in my pantry when my monthly profits were consumed by taxes?   

    I promised myself I would stay out of this
    argument but your comment was so ridiculous I could not let it go unaddressed .  Your whole
    argument reminds me of the soviet rational for not allowing emigration: the
    state paid for your education thus your work product belongs to the state.    


  • WillHornsby

    The government licenses you to practice law. The government prevents those who are not licensed to do what you do. That doesn’t mean that you didn’t work hard to become a lawyer, but does mean that the success of your practice and the revenue that results from your work is in part because of a regulated system imposed and enforced by the government. Feel free to live in a bubble where you  pretend that your success is solely the result of your effort, but the truth is you owe it to a system of government. 

  • myshingle


    I compete with non lawyer providers and in fact, FERC one of the agencies where I practice does not require a license. However, Of course I know that I benefit from my degree – as could anyone else who wants to take the time and risk to go to law school.

  • WillHornsby

    Carol, you miss the point. It’s not just your degree, it’s the entire system of admission, discipline and unauthorized practice statutes that form the community that foster your ability to practice law. This is what the President was talking about. Your practice is dependent on the “system” – a system of government. All the hard work in the world does not make a lawyer successful unless this system exists. 

  • Reece

    And Godwin’s Law, or at least a corollary, is alive and well.  My point is that the system of government that we live in provides public goods and services that allow small business owners to build their business and become successful.  Our political and economic system is a prerequisite to personal success on a large scale.  The Soviet Union emphatically did not provide the same set of institutions, public goods and services, and opportunities that our system provides.  Honestly, I don’t know where you got this idea that I was saying your work product belongs to the state.  Go back and read what I wrote if you didn’t get it the first time.

    What you can’t do is say that an individual’s initiative and hardwork cancels out the benefits they received from society.  Rather, society, when well organized as ours is, provides the institutional basis for individual success.  Hard work doesn’t “cancel out” the benefits you receive from society, but only builds on those benefits.  

    Now, let’s address some other falsehoods you’re pimping:

    “The benefits conferred upon me by the munificence of the state”

    No one is claiming that benefits are provided by the “munificence of the state.”  The state doesn’t provide schools and roads and mass transit out of the goodness of it’s heart.  The state, being composed of representatives of the people, provides these goods and services because a) we want them, and b) they provide benefits to all of us.  

    “Those on welfare or collecting disability?” 

    You mean the 3% of the American population that receives TANF or SSDI?  What the hell are you talking about?

    “And who, pray tell, pays for that infrastructure that the state provides?  Is it the 50% of the US population that does not pay taxes?”

    This is roundly false.   I know it is popular to make this claim in conservative circles, but it is only referring to the portion of the population that doesn’t pay federal income taxes.  Even people who don’t pay federal income taxes regularly pay sales taxes, real property taxes, and personal property taxes.  Since the school systems in the country are largely funded by property taxes, you can’t claim that magic little you, producer of jobs and goods, is the only one supporting the state.  It’s just silly, self-serving BS.  Same deal with roads.  

    “Did the state put food in my pantry when my monthly profits were consumed by taxes? ”

    This suggests to me that you may be a bad attorney.  There is no possible way you are paying more in income taxes than the total profits you made in a particular quarter.  It’s almost like you don’t understand how the tax system works.  Very strange.

  • Michael J. Pospis

    The observation that success is facilitated by, and occurs only in the context of, government-funded infrastructure is obvious and meaningless.   Different degrees of success are attained by the millions of Americans who have access to, and the opportunity to benefit from, that infrastructure.  There must be something more – i.e., hard work, talent, or “whatever”.  No one is saying that a solo’s efforts “cancel out” anything.   

  • Guest

     I find your overly-repetitive use of the word “emphatically,” to be annoying, distracting, and curious.

  • I guess those of you who think you made it entirely on your own did not attend public funded schools, or have a student loan. Whatever.

  • I am a frequent reader of this blog (mainly from my reader) but I had to click to see if anyone else thought you (and the Romney campaign) totally took that line out of context.  Will still read but maybe skip your political commentary/analysis because your post is willfully ignoring the context of the statement.  

  • myshingle

    Thanks for staying around. I actually like Obama

    Sent from my iPad

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