What Lawyers Can Learn From Entrepreneurs

By | July 12, 2010

It’s Not Enough To Be A Great Lawyer In Order To Thrive

Whether you are a solo practitioner or a first year associate at a 1000 attorney law firm, or an in-house counsel at a corporation, you can make your practice more satisfying and yourself more effective by thinking of your law practice as an entrepreneurial venture and applying the same techniques that entrepreneurs use to create and develop successful businesses.

In his book the E-Myth, Michael Gerber set out to answer the questions: why do most small businesses fail? And how can they be managed better? Gerber explains that the “E-Myth” of the title means the mistaken belief that all an entrepreneur need to succeed is to understand the technical aspects—the nuts and bolts—of their business, whether that business is painting houses, creating database software or running a pie shop. As Gerber puts it, the E-Myth is the belief that “if you understand the technical work of a business, you understand a business that does technical work.”

Does that sound familiar? How many attorneys do you know who know how to draft a brief, or a licensing agreement, but have no idea how to manage their legal careers?

So, what’s the problem with that? Isn’t that what an attorney is supposed to do? Can’t you delegate the other issues to “firm management” or a good secretary? Or won’t the other issues just “take care of themselves” if you focus on being a great lawyer.

Many entrepreneurs start their businesses with the same attitude, and, many fail for that reason. Many attorneys fail for the same reason. And even if they “succeed” in the sense of making lots of money, they nonetheless fail by devoting years to unfulfilling careers.

As Gerber puts it, many entrepreneurs, even if they are successful in financial terms, nonetheless fail because they are slaves to their business? Does that sound familiar?

Work on your practice rather than for your practice by embracing the roles of technician, entrepreneur and manager

So what’s the solution? The short version is that you need to work ON your practice, rather than FOR your practice. Here’s what that means. Gerber explains that a successful business, or in this case a successful legal practice, requires a balance of these three roles: (1) The Technician, (2) The Entrepreneur, and (3) The Manager. The Technician you already know. For a lawyer, the technician is who actually does the legal work. The one who takes the depositions, negotiates the lease agreement, or determines the best tax strategy for the client with an overseas subsidiary.

But, says Gerber, in order to thrive, you need to understand the other two roles as well. In addition to the technician role, you must also embrace your inner entrepreneur.

The Entrepreneur Asks Big Questions

The “Entrepreneur” is the visionary that thinks bold thoughts and comes up with big dreams. Embracing this role means asking questions like: what do I want to do with my legal practice? Whether you work for a firm with 1000 attorneys, or in-house, or in your own solo practice, you CANNOT thrive if delegate this to someone else. It is your vision for your future. What do you want to do with your career? Where do you want it to go? An astonishing number of attorneys never ask this question, and we’ll talk in more detail about it in a later article. But for now, embracing this is simple: go somewhere quiet, away from distractions, and spend 45 minutes writing down answers to the question: what do I want to do with my legal career?

The Manager Systematizes The Plan

Thinking big thought is not enough without a plan to put them into action. That’s where the manager comes in. The Manager is the pragmatic planner, the systematizer. Embracing this role means stepping back and asking, for all aspects of what you do, what are the steps involved, and how can we do this more effectively and efficiently? Attorneys, in particular, are often quite reluctant to follow this process. They seem to feel that it denigrates their professionalism to be treated like assembly line workers. But note: you HAVE systems now. You have a routine for what you do every day when you come into the office. You have a routine for how you answer the phone. You have a routine for how you do legal research or draft a licensing agreement. The question is not whether you are going to follow routines, but whether you are going to make a conscious effort to create routines that work for you. The question is, do you want to create your own routines that work for you, or just keep using the ones that you fell into.

If you want to create better routines and procedures, the best way, says Gerber, is also counter-intuitive. For each of your tasks, write down your procedures as if you were explaining them to someone else. We will talk in more detail in a later article about the best way to go about this. But for now, just block out time to identify the tasks you do most frequently, and write down the steps for each task.

By putting the procedures in writing, you force yourself to organize the different steps. Likely you will find that procedures that you thought were pretty simple are actually complicated. You may also find once you’ve looked at them that there are steps you can eliminate, and also steps that you should add.

You may also have feelings of guilt. I know how I should do this in the ideal world, but I am in the real world, where the phone is constantly ringing and where there always more problems clamoring for my attention. I don’t want to have to rush, but sometimes that’s just how things go in the real world.

But I think you will find at least two things happen. First, you are going to see ways that you can be more effective and more efficient, even with procedures that you’ve been doing for years. Second, once you have made your procedures explicit, you can track them, and improve them.

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