Six Essential Traits of the Successful Legal Entrepreneur
Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.
Sometimes lawyers get so focused on honing their legal skills that they don’t recognize themselves as entrepreneurs. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an entrepreneur as “one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.”
Very few law schools have classes that actually teach a lawyer how to run a law practice. How can you know whether you will be any good at it? What if you aren’t graduating in the top 10% of your class? Does that mean you have limited potential for successfully running your own law firm?
Inc. magazine online shared advice from Steve Blank about entrepreneurism in a commencement speech to engineering students. It’s good advice for lawyers, too. He said:
“[G]reat grades and successful entrepreneurs have at best a zero correlation….You don’t get grades for resiliency, curiosity, agility, resourcefulness, pattern recognition and tenacity. You just get successful.”
In this post I want to talk about why those qualities are essential for a successful legal practice.
Resiliency. Practicing law requires overcoming failure almost daily. In our job, there are people out there who actually get paid to get in our way, to find our mistakes and to make us look bad. We never get everything we want in negotiation. In the courtroom we win some arguments and we lose some. Some of the clients we want to serve choose instead to hire the very people who so often try to thwart us. We use lots of technology, and some aspect of it malfunctions or befuddles us almost every day. If we weren’t resilient, we couldn’t make it through the week!
Lawyers have to develop even more resiliency, however, to survive the inevitable lean months, the occasional irrationally unhappy client, the departure of indispensable employees, the deadlines and long hours, and the burnout.
Curiosity. Many lawyers have to consciously develop and maintain this trait. Our attraction to the certainty, the black and white finality, of the law tends to stifle our curiosity. The law tells us what is right and what is wrong, and particularly if it is on our side, we cling to it rigidly. Life and the actual practice of law rarely fit neatly into the black or white spaces, however. Even when the law clearly applies to the situation at hand, we have to deal with someone who claims otherwise, and sometimes that someone is our client.
Curiosity helps us understand our clients’ needs and goals better. It allows us to find a new and acceptable path to get them what they really want when the strategy they developed for achieving it is illegal or objectionable to another party. Curiosity helps us uncover the clue that unravels our opponent’s case. Curiosity makes room for compassion, which softens the resistance that blocks the resolution of conflict. Curiosity leads us to innovation that reveals an unconventional winning strategy or opens up a whole new market for our law practice.
Agility. We need agility to develop a new theory when it turns out that our client’s version of the facts wasn’t exactly accurate. It takes agility to quickly trim expenses or find a new market when the economy takes a nosedive or new legislation renders some aspect of our practice untenable. Our mental agility lets us literally “think on our feet” as we respond to opposing counsel’s argument before the judge. It helps us switch gears from drafting a complex instrument to answering a client’s question on an unrelated topic when the phone rings. Our agility allows us to adopt new technology or embrace new trends that create competitive advantages against us.
Resourcefulness. We generally start off with smaller budgets than firms that can pool the resources of multiple lawyers. We find free or less expensive avenues to conduct legal research and manage administrative tasks. We figure out how to resolve minor technological glitches ourselves because we don’t have full-time IT staff. We unearth and hire employees who can juggle a lot of balls, or we liberally engage outsourcing and virtual assistants. We broaden our range of knowledge and we develop mutually supportive relationships with attorneys in other practice areas because we can’t just walk down the hall to ask our partner a question. We learn how to make the coffee, unblock a paper jam, electronically file a document, balance the budget and manage personnel. When you have personal responsibility for the success of the firm, you just find ways to make things happen.
Pattern Recognition. Most of us recognize patterns unconsciously. It’s what helps us suddenly discern what the other side is trying to hide from us. It guides us in choosing the argument that is more likely to persuade a particular judge. When we engage in pattern recognition consciously, we can identify the pivot point of a recurring problem, such as why we keep coming to the end of the day without starting on the most important project we needed to work on.
More importantly, we can use pattern recognition to predict the future. By way of example, in 2009 many lawyers experienced a painful decline in their practices. Which firms recognized that they could rise above their competition by using social media to reach potential clients? Who started developing new practice expertise in advising clients on how to handle the legal issues emerging from social media? Solo practitioners led the charge. The pattern was readily visible, and even had some clarions announcing it, but only a small percentage of lawyers recognized what was coming.
Tenacity. All surviving entrepreneurs have tenacity. That’s just what it takes when problems, roadblocks, breakdowns and disappointments are inevitable, and you’re the one who has to steer the enterprise past them. They have to keep asking questions and searching for different routes to their goals. Sometimes tenacity and faith in our vision may be all that gets us through. Those who lack tenacity wind up leaving the practice of law or resign themselves to working in an environment where they trade autonomy and control over their destiny for increased security. That’s not wrong. It’s just not entrepreneurial.
I close this post with some wisdom for all entrepreneurs from the illustrious entrepreneur and scientist, Thomas Edison. He counseled, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.