You’re An Attorney, But Are You An Entrepreneur?

The very first business I ever owned was a babysitting service. Yeah, I know, everyone is a babysitter when they are 16. But I figured out that I could charge more for my services if I went a little further than the other sitters. So I cooked dinner for the kids, helped with homework and even made sure to pick up the house after I put the kids to bed. Pretty soon I had quite a little roster of local moms who fought over me. I bought my first car with babysitting money.

And that was it. I was hooked. I liked working for myself. I liked marketing my services, getting referrals, building a business. Since then, I have owned a few businesses.

In high school and college I tutored middle school kids in math and English. In college and for a few years after that I ran a catering business out of my mom’s kitchen. I sold real estate for a very brief period after college, looking for an opportunity to build a business (before realizing that I hated selling houses). And during the twelve years or so that I worked as a systems engineer, I freelanced as a database administrator on the side.

Except for law school and the three years I spent working for BigLaw, I always had a side business.  But I never lost the bug. Heck – part of the reason I wanted to go to law school was so that I could work for myself full-time. Going solo was always in the back of my mind, even when everyone told me to go after that BigLaw job. Even after I listened.

My point – and yes, I really do have one – is that I’m an entrepreneur first. And if you think being a solo attorney is what you want out of your legal career, you need to find out if you are an entrepreneur too.

Inc. Magazine’s Eric Schurenberg defines entrepreneurship as, “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.” Which is a fancy way of saying that an entrepreneur is someone who perceives and pursues opportunities without regard to a lack of resources (e.g. money). In other words, entrepreneurs are willing to bootstrap their businesses, willing to dive in despite the lack of a steady paycheck. It’s not about being risk-tolerant. It’s all about carpe diem.

For every born lawyer entrepreneur, there are a dozen lawyers with no real desire, talent or tolerance for starting and running a business. These run the gamut from the happy associate, content to work hard for someone else and let that person handle all the day-to-day operations of the business of law; to the go-getting rain-making partner who buys into someone else’s law firm.

The entrepreneur is a rarer breed. We like to think we have a unique approach or a better way of doing it (whatever “it” is). Where others just see risk, we see opportunity.

For example, when I first opened my own firm, I saw an opportunity to focus serving on small businesses and, I believed, to provide my services differently than other business lawyers. My BigLaw colleagues uniformly thought I was nuts. How could I give up that nice fat paycheck, retirement plan and insurance to do the same job for less money?

OK – when I put it that way, I admit that it sounds a little crazy.

However, to me, it wasn’t “the same job.” It also wasn’t just about ego, about being the boss. It was about that opportunity I could see right in front of me like low-hanging fruit. And I wanted it. I wanted it more than any salary, more than the high-rise office, more than anything. 

It’s that drive, that desire, that passion for the opportunity to practice law on your own terms that defines a lawyer entrepreneur.

That, I believe, is the difference between a happy and successful new solo and a struggling and miserable solo.

When I counsel new small business owners, we often start with some business planning. I work with my clients to get them to define their business by describing what distinguishes them from anything else in their marketplace. The ones who are passionate about that distinction see only opportunity to be better than the competition. They are entrepreneurs. The ones who have trouble describing what makes them different may be successful business owners, but they will never love what they are doing the way the entrepreneur does.

My hope for all of us solos is that we become entrepreneurs. Find your passion. Have a vision for your firm that makes you unique, and seize your opportunities.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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3 comments on “You’re An Attorney, But Are You An Entrepreneur?

  • Great post! It took me a while to acknowledge that what I’d become was an entrepreneur, but now I truly can’t imagine working for someone else again.

    Fingers crossed that this new path works out somehow! Because I don’t think I’m a terribly good employee…

    • I know my entrepreneur’s wings finally spread when I realized I never felt truly comfortable working for someone else and confident enough I was willing to live or die by my own actions. It’s a roller coaster ride for sure..but it is also exhilirating.

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