Will 2012 Be The Year of The Legal Entrepreneur?

We all know that 2012 is going to test all solos, their creativity, their stamina, their ability to ‘keep it down’ when they want to throw up on the roller coaster ride known as solo practice…especially in the years ahead.  Rather than prognosticate about all the changes which are definitely happening, I’d rather have you cogitate on this:

By 2019,  forty percent of all American workers will be self-employed.
- United States Department of Labor forecast, as reported by Bloomberg BusinessWeek

Well, let’s do some basic math. Right now, all things being equal, there is a 40% chance you will be an entrepreneur.  But wait. Lawyers already have a disproportionately higher number of self-employed, currently hovering around  50% depending upon who you’re listening to.  The recent percentage being bandied about for the general working population for self-employed is around 30%.  If by 2019 there will be a 33% increase in self-employed in the general working population and you simply (and unscientifically) impute the same 33% bump up for lawyers, you now have those self-employed in the legal profession at around 68% within the next seven years.

It’s time you ask yourself this singular, life-altering, tough question: Are you an entrepreneur?

We’re going to skip the simple-minded checklists which I find mind-numbingly meaningless. However, this 2008 edition of the National Post has a wonderful piece entitled, ” Understanding the Psychology of the Successful” which explains the traits and characteristics unique to the individual who becomes a successful solo entrepreneur. These traits and characteristics clearly are applicable to the lawyer who starts her own solo practice. ( I also discussed this back in 2008 but the topic is timeless).

A recent finding of interest is that contrary to the popular conception of successful entrepreneurs being solely independent, single-minded and devoted to their unique passions, they are also characterized by high levels of social competence and social intelligence, with an ability to build relationships and to connect with others on a social and interpersonal level.

As well, early research has indicated that successful entrepreneurs seem to think a bit differently from the rest of us, viewing the world and the potential risks in it through a different lens. For example, they often have a unique ability to see opportunities others fail to recognize. Or they may judge ambiguous business conditions in more positive, enthusiastic, and optimistic terms. One of the appealing notions of exploring these and other cognitive strategies employed by successful entrepreneurs is they are likely learnable skills that education, training and practice can improve upon.

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Additionally, evidence indicates startup firms that take advantage of resources such as mentoring, counselling and other small business development assistance have a better survival and growth rate than do their peers.

There is a growing body of work discussing what separates entrepreneurs from employees. There seems to be a unifying theme of creativity and commitment to the end goal, a global vision, and the stamina and endurance to do what it takes to realize the vision. In addition:

Nascent entrepreneurs are often relatively comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty and risk, strongly influence events (what psychologists refer to as self-efficacy), and have high levels of work motivation.

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However, another “type” of intelligence is even more important to the outcome of an entrepreneurial venture. Some blend of critical analytical thinking, creativity, and practical implementation of ideas, which psychologists often refer to as “successful intelligence” can also predict outcomes such as business growth rate.

Entrepreneurs with higher levels of successful intelligence are likely to be better positioned to navigate the environment they are in — an environment often characterized by urgency, uncertainty, insufficient resources and rapid change.

This is some pretty inspiring and heady stuff.  It also explains why solos persist in the face of professional negativity:

Entrepreneurs with higher levels of successful intelligence are likely to be better positioned to navigate the environment they are in — an environment often characterized by urgency, uncertainty, insufficient resources and rapid change.

It really bore repeating.

In my experience, solo practitioners quite often exhibit these characteristics in abundance.  They are disinterested in over analyzing and more committed to getting started.  While they may do an informal calculus regarding possibilities,  it is just that, informal.  It is not meant to be a deterrent.  It is simply an assessment of potential hurdles they must clear. But there is something else I am observing.  It isn’t scientific. Therefore it falls under the title of ‘opinion’.

In my opinion, law school education has been designed in a way which deliberately suppresses creativity and spontaneity, the very qualities needed to succeed as an entrepreneur:

One of the appealing notions of exploring these (creativity and spontaneity) and other cognitive strategies employed by successful entrepreneurs is they are likely learnable skills that education, training and practice can improve upon.

Creativity is not rewarded as it should be nor is it enhanced through the current legal education model. So, the question becomes this – do students who go to law school lack creativity and entrepreneurial spirit or does the current legal education model suppress it to the point where graduates actually fear their entrepreneurial and creative sides? After all these years, I’m beginning to believe the high rate of depression in this profession is due to suppression of creativity and those who opt to go solo do so in order not to have their creativity suppressed. They no longer want to feel trapped within the profession’s arbitrary and unhealthy constraints.  A little anecdotal proof? These same solos are the ones who embrace innovation more enthusiastically and, are in fact, quite often the architects of these innovations.

Quite often others will equate ‘creativity’ with the commoditization of the law because it challenges some of the traditional methods of delivery of legal services.  I beg to differ. What should matter is not how legal services are delivered but how clients’ legal problems are resolved.  And smart lawyers will never lose sight of this. The end game is the resolution of a client’s legal problems, not holding onto to rigid methods of delivery. But change has always been scariest to those who fear it most.

We are going to see a lot of unexpected changes in the profession born out of an overwhelming need for the majority of professionals to survive. I may be in the minority in this opinion, but I do believe (and have always believed) that we are entering a time when lawyers have no choice but to call upon their long-dormant entrepreneurial side in order to build a life and they will become surprisingly creative. Ultimately,  I believe it will also change the profession forever and the change might very well be for the better.

So, where do you fit into all of this?

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7 comments on “Will 2012 Be The Year of The Legal Entrepreneur?

  • Wow. What a fantastic article. I’m in full agreement with you. In the age of legalzoom and rocketlawyer and the over-reported staggering economy, the legal profession can no longer afford to cling desperately to old traditions and method of delivering legal services out of fear. Our clients will expect us to evolve with the times. Given theboom in self-employment and our own inherent desire for freedom and satisfaction in our careers and lives in general it’s time to develop our entrepreneurial skills and become well-rounded. Bravo!

    • Jo-Na,

      You embody that spirit! I do believe 2012 is when we are going to see a lot of breakout activity with solos (and other lawyers no matter where situated) and academia and the profession will no longer be able to stem the tide.

  • YES! It is unfortunate, but legal education does not foster independence, but puts its efforts into getting a job with a large firm. This is fostered, no doubt, by the fact that a school’s post-graduate employment numbers are tracked.

    I know that feeling and I’m in the process of shifting gears now. I’m also making sure I’m fostering my creativity with other business (shameless plug for graduates of Ohio University and their gift giving friends – go to oucoloringbook.com).

    Anyway, thanks for the article.

  • Hmmm. Another good post. I believe along with Debra Vey Voda-Hamilton post on Dec 29th (…Rezooming) times are a change’in. I always felt like I did not fit into the traditional legal model. Reading into your post it could frankly be that my creative side is being suppress. There is no excuse not to live the life you want and practice law how you would like, NOW. Technology provides a great outlet for the creative types.

  • “After all these years, I’m beginning to believe the high rate of depression in this profession is due to suppression of creativity.”

    I think that observation is spot on! Among my entrepreneurial peers, I notice that they are happy even though they face financial hardships and a whole lot of hard work because there is pure joy in the creative process of starting a practice or business.

  • I am heartened by this post; at the very least, a trend towards entrepreneurial lawyers will increase satisfaction with the career choice. I know it has for me! A self-employed lawyer must also put a premium on developing strong client relationships; a positive for both sides.

  • Very much agree with your points and find the highlights from the National Post article very interesting. I felt going through law school and as a biglaw associate that my peers were generally extremely risk-averse. I too wondered if this was a product of law school or an indication of self-selection of those who choose law as a professional and especially those in big law. Not sure exactly where I fall in that regard, but it is clear that law school does not inspire or encourage much creativity.

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