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Solo & Small Law Firms

Can You Handle the Truth About Starting A Firm?

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Nearly every lawyer is familiar with that iconic moment in A Few Good Men where Jack Nicholson’s character Colonel Jessup, backed into a corner under cross-examination by a young military defense lawyer Lieutenant Kaffee played by Tom Cruise, defiantly retorts back: “YOU WANT THE TRUTH? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH?”  Of course, this being an Aaron Sorkin drama, Kaffee can handle the truth just fine, and predictably, Jessup’s admissions vindicate Kafee’s clients and lead to Jessup being court-martialed.

Unfortunately, in real life, there are too few witnesses like Jessup willing to gratuitously offer up the truth while on the stand. At the same time, there too many lawyers all too eager to crush the dreams of colleagues hoping to start a law firm by spewing forth the truth with the same contempt that Jessup displayed towards Kaffee.

Back in the day when I was a young 20-something lawyer starting my own firm, I bought into the conventional wisdom that real truth has to really hurt. And so, I endured coffee-meetups and networking events with older lawyers and so-called friends who couldn’t wait to tell me that I’d never make any money running my own shop, or that realistically, no energy company was going to hire a solo with five years of experience to go up against a big law firm or that maybe I should take my recent layoff as a blessing in disguise and just start a family. Truth is, it didn’t have to be that way.

Like me, even now-renowned author Elizabeth Gilbert shares in Oprah Magazine that she put up with her share of brutal honesty from at least one friend who derided her as “selfish and lazy” and that she’d “never be able to make a living as a writer.”  Gilbert asks:

Why did I keep going back for more abuse. Because I figured her honesty was keeping me honest – when in fact, it was just keeping me injured…

As Gilbert gained success, she realized that while as a writer, she’d always have to take criticism, she “slowly realized that she didn’t have to take it from everybody.” These days, Gilbert applies the litmus test below to help decide with whom she’d share the early stages of her work:

  • Do I trust this person’s taste and judgment?
  • Does this person understand what I’m trying to create here?
  • Does this person genuinely want me to succeed?
  • Is this person capable of delivering the truth in a sensitive and compassionate matter?

Gilbert’s test works equally well for lawyers seeking out advice about starting a law firm. Of particular importance for lawyers is the third bullet – does this person want you to succeed? In my experience, most of colleagues ranged from neutral – not caring one way or another – to fearful – to actually hoping that I’d fall flat on my face.

It took me a long, long time before I found, in the oddest of places –  other lawyers who could really back what I was doing: a frequent opposing counsel, a biglaw attorney I worked with in my trade association and strangest of all, one of the lawyers at the firm that had laid me off to begin with. For that reason, I’ve always tried to pay it forward at MyShingle by inspiring and encouraging other lawyers who dream of starting a firm – fully disclosing the hardships and even failures, but also by answering questions, celebrating innovation and simply having your back.

So if you’re seeking advice on starting a law firm, use Gilbert’s questions as a guide for choosing mentors and trusted advisors.  Truth is, most lawyer can handle the truth about starting a law firm, so long as it’s constructive and encouraging.

  • Carolyn, you are absolutely right. This is the single biggest obstacle to overcome for any lawyer who wants to start a firm or solo practice. When I launched my firm right out of law school, very few people encouraged me. Most said I would fail or that I didn’t have enough experience. Many of these people I love deeply and respect. I listened carefully to them, but decided that it was my life, not theirs, and I knew what I was doing so I took the risk. And boy did it pay off!