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Learning to Be an Entrepreneur: One Step at a Time.

If you ask many lawyers why they went to law school, the answer is often “Because I got in.” In other words, armed with a shiny bachelor’s degree in English Lit, Physics or Anthropology, they need another professional designation to make them employable. I was one of those grads many decades ago with a passion for medieval history. I knew, that sadly, I was likely the only person interested in the life of Charles The Bold.

Bachelor degrees, especially in the Arts, equip us well to be successful law students. My history degree taught me excellent research and writing skills including the ability to examine documents and texts to determine the bias of the writer and question the assumptions historians made about past events. It was an easy leap to analyzing cases and legislation.

However, neither my history nor my law degree taught me the most important skill needed in private practice – how to be an entrepreneur. I envied those with business degrees who had studied marketing, could read financial statements with fluency and had the confidence to know how to run their practice like a business. However, even business degrees do not automatically confer the confidence and risk-taking attitude needed to build a business.

I am constantly amazed at the number of young lawyers who think they are joining a profession where all they need is talent and the determination to work hard. They do not seem to understand that law is different than many other professions such as the publicly employed doctors, nurses or teachers; and despite government and in-house legal jobs, law does not offer the wider array of corporate jobs available to accountants and engineers.

Most lawyers just want to practice law. This was what they were trained to do and where they excel. Many young lawyers naively assume that a successful law firm has sufficient work to employ associates throughout their career. They believe that it is only those skilled rainmakers who will be called upon to generate the work needed to keep everyone else busy.

The majority of lawyers in private practice must feed themselves. As law becomes more competitive for clients in a global economy, the competition within a law firm between lawyers can become fierce. Partners guard their carefully developed client base jealously and do not want a talented associate to become too close to the client. Partners compete within the firm for the best staff and associate resources. They must also be careful about how much non-billable time is spent mentoring associates or participating in firm committees.

It is this competitive rather than collaborative environment that also puzzles many younger lawyers. They may be frustrated at the limited client contact or wonder why a partner is keeping so much of the work to himself.

Since law schools are not business schools, lawyers must learn these skills on their own if they want to stay in private practice. Here are ten tips on how to learn to be an entrepreneur one step at a time.

  • Learn how to draft a business plan in your first year of practice and commit to putting time aside every week to complete something on the plan. Call an old client. Send a client an article. Make a lunch date. It doesn’t have to be time consuming it just needs regular follow-through.
  • If you are in a practice group, ask if client development can be discussed at every meeting.
  • Put together your own business development group with other associates to meet regularly and share ideas and support each other whether or not your firm does any business development training.
  • Hire a marketing coach to gain one-on-one assistance in building confidence, learning new skills and drafting a business plan.
  • Join industry associations where your preferred clients hang out. Offer to speak at their conferences or write for their industry newsletters.
  • Seek out more senior lawyers and ask to be mentored in business development.
  • Take a course in public speaking or join Toastmasters to improve your presentation skills or build confidence.
  • Take leadership development courses so that you see yourself as a leader and not a follower. Leadership training is probably the best part of business training as it changes how we think about ourselves.
  • Develop a catchy short “elevator” speech about what kind of law your practice. One of my favourites, I heard from a woman lawyer who found that people’s eyes glazed over when she described herself as a strata-counsel lawyer. Instead she says that she practices the “4 P’s” on behalf of strata-counsels: “Pets, Parking, Pot and Prostitution!” Now that will start a conversation where people will remember you.
  • Write out your vision about the number and type of clients you want to have now without putting any limits on whether you think it is possible. Keep this written vision and add to it over the months and years. Seeing things in writing helps us gain clarity and makes it more real. Pay attention to what shows up and be prepared for it not to look exactly as you imagined. It may be the right opportunity just dressed differently.

The trick about learning to be an entrepreneur is to take it one step at a time learning and gaining confidence incrementally. For many lawyers, business development is the most daunting part of practice. You don’t need to do it alone. You do need a plan and some support to get you there. When you start to act like an entrepreneur even in small ways, you will become one. The only job security in any law firm whether big or small is your own book of business. Start to build that book now.

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