The Toughest Challenge for Lawyers: Learning to Be an Entrepreneur

Most lawyers would agree that there are three qualities needed to run a successful practice: excellent legal skills, great client service and the ability to find and retain clients. In other words: ability, hard work and an entrepreneurial mind-set. It is the latter that can be the most challenging for younger lawyers as they receive little or no training in business development.

Most law schools and bar admission programs provide no business training as this is seen as outside the scope of educating students about the law. Nor is it typically part of the articling experience at law firms. Once called, young lawyers are expected to find clients often with minimal assistance from the firm or more senior lawyers. While some law firms offer business development training, translating these concepts into action can be an almost impossible task for a lawyer who is naturally quiet or introverted or who sees himself as being too junior to attract a client.

As one senior associate at a national firm said to me recently “When I went to law school, it never occurred to me that learning the law and working hard would not be enough to become a partner. After 8 years, I’m a good lawyer and I work very hard. However, without my own clients, I have no chance of becoming a partner here.”

I hear this concern over and over again from young lawyers – all talented and hard working – but unless they have also developed as entrepreneurs and figured out how to attract and retain clients – their future is compromised in private practice. After all – law firms are businesses and each lawyer in it must contribute to finding and keeping clients. This is especially true in larger urban centers where it is more competitive. It can be much easier in smaller communities where there is a growing shortage of lawyers and an increasing number of clients.

The challenge of business development is the primary reason many talented lawyers want to move to in-house positions. They want to be an employee not an owner.

This need to find clients is of course, no surprise to the majority of young lawyers who work outside the medium or larger firm environment where they are not fed work as a junior. Nor is law any different than other professions such as accounting, engineering or dentistry where unless you join an established practice, you will need to cultivate your own clients in order to pay the rent.

The challenge for so many younger lawyers is that the type of person attracted to study law often lacks the characteristics needed to be a successful in business. Lawyers are typically very academically oriented. They can read copious amounts of material, analyze it and do well on exams. Unlike the stereotype found on TV shows where all lawyers are extroverted litigators, many lawyers are introverts. Joining community groups, working a room at a social event, speaking at a pubic gathering, making cold calls and marketing – can be a daunting task. So how can young professionals over-come this hurdle and develop a client base?

First and most importantly, young lawyers need to understand the business side of practicing law. They need to understand the economics of over-head, the cost of accounts receivables, payroll expenses and a host of other business decisions. As one senior partner at a large firm said to me, “We don’t make money off our associates until about September of each year. Many of our associates do not understand how expensive it is to run a practice and how their target billings are calculated.”

Firms should be as transparent as possible about what it costs to run the firm. Associates need to see how their hourly rates, prompt billing, control over non-billable time – all impact the financial viability of the firm. In other words, the earlier they start to think like owners and less like employees, the sooner they will start to act like entrepreneurs.

Secondly, associates need to start thinking about building their own practice as soon as they are called. Many larger firms tell their associates not to worry about business development for the first 3 years as associates need to work on honing their legal skills first. While newly called associates in larger firms are unlikely to attract clients significant enough to afford large firm rates, they need to get in the habit of networking so they develop their business skills early. All associates, in any size of firm, can benefit from an annual written business plan provided it is developed with the assistance of a more experienced lawyer.

One of my favourite coaching tips, is one I heard from an associate who told me about his “Marketing Tuesday’s”. Once a week, on Tuesday’s, he reaches out to at least one client. He may make a phone call to a client he hasn’t heard from in a while, send off an email or an article he has saved or set up a lunch meeting. At the end of the year, he will have reached out 48 times (he gives himself a break during his 4 weeks of vacation) to clients instead of the ad hoc method of fitting it in when he finds the time. Any day of the week works, it’s just the weekly routine that is important. This type of business development is also easier for those who are less extroverted and find public speaking or community events difficult to attend.

Most young lawyers starting out often do not even know where to begin the process of finding clients. The obvious place for them to learn is from more senior lawyers who can take them along to client meetings; advise how the partner’s practice developed and act as a mentor to help the younger lawyer get started. My experience however, is that this rarely happens.

Most senior lawyers are too busy to do more than answer file questions. They see mentoring as taking away precious billable time from their own practice. Established practitioners often guard their hard won clients closely and do not want the client to develop an independent relationship with the junior in case future work starts flowing to the junior.

As a result, junior lawyers often must look elsewhere for training in business development. Some firms put on excellent training programs but this must still be translated into action. If a lawyer is introverted or very quiet, all the training in the world may not move them out of their comfort zone to pick up the phone or attend a networking event. For these lawyers one–on-one coaching can be very helpful. Or, they can buddy up with another associate to attend events. They can find a mentor – perhaps outside their firm – who is willing to offer ideas and support. An associate can offer to take the mentor to lunch in return for the mentor’s support.

Younger lawyers can form peer support groups either inside or outside the firm where they can meet regularly to support each other and exchange ideas. These groups need not be all lawyers. Business circles made up of a real estate agent, an accountant, a business owner, a consultant, a lawyer – who all meet regularly and support each other with client referrals can be a powerful networking group. The key is not struggling with this on your own if your personality or your workload gets in the way of reaching out to potential clients.

There are particular challenges for women lawyers who must find clients in what is still a largely male business world. In a future column, I will write about what women can do to develop business.

Being a skilled lawyer, working hard and giving excellent client service may not be enough to create a sustainable practice if you practice within a competitive business community. The key for many young lawyers is to work with others who can give advice or support. We aren’t all born with an entrepreneurial gene but we can develop it, if we seek out help along the way.


  1. Sapna Mahboobani

    Excellent post. Also, I’d like to point out that the “entrepreneurial” skill is becoming even more important for new calls to the bar. Over the past few years, I’ve seen quite a few young lawyers go out and start their own practices (some because they wanted to, but most, out of necessity). They have been dropped into the business development world without the safety net of the 3 years grace that big firm associates get (if only in theory) – not to mention all the operational and knowledge aspects they have to keep up with.

  2. Excellent post.

    I’ve said the same thing myself! I find it interesting that business schools teach law, or at least parts of law like IP, but law schools teach nothing about how to run a business. Or at least that’s how it is here in the States. I’m convinced change won’t come until law firms and alumni threaten to withhold contributions/donations.

  3. Mariah Wallener

    One of the things I’ve observed that comes with a lack of large firm support is not just finding and retaining clients, but also key resources such as expert witnesses. Many large firms retain their own panel of experts, who are made available to lawyers employed by that firm. On the other hand, those lawyers branching out on their own must start from scratch, researching and evaluating each expert and slowly building a roster of reliable professionals.

  4. Francis Barragan

    Very interesting, thank you.

    To echo a comment above, I too find it peculiar that nowhere, it seems, in the law “learning process”, do students/lawyers seem to be guided into learning about entrepreneurship. Or maybe I just have not seen it, but it would be interesting in any case.

  5. Dear Linda, I want to congratulate you for the interesting articles that you write. I am a latinamerican young lawyer and feel very identify with your comments and thoughts as a woman who is also a lawyer. Some issues that you share are the same in Latinamerica and I used to think that there were just our problem; well it is good to realize that it is not completely true.

    I always follow you! Regards.