July 16, 2019

The 2013 Colorado Lawyer Satisfaction and Salary Survey — Part 4: Lawyers as Entrepreneurs? Easier Said than Done

rhodes(Click here for Law Week Colorado’s summary of the Survey.)

The law is a profession, but practicing it is a business. And for lawyers nowadays, the New Normal for law practice and career management is not just business, it’s entrepreneurship.

So said Phil Weiser, Dean of the University of Colorado Law School, in his Law Week Colorado article about the Survey’s results, which ran under the banner “In New Normal, Entrepreneurship a Must.” In the post-Great Recession legal environment, he wrote, lawyers need to be entrepreneurial and service-oriented in a whole new way.

The other panelists at the Supreme Court roll out of the Survey agreed, but also acknowledged that, for many lawyers, getting themselves into the New Normal will be easier said than done. Radical paradigm shifts such as this one are messy, and require bold willingness to embrace change and high levels of resilience to get through it. That’s characteristic of entrepreneurs, but lawyers? Not so much. “Resistance to change is endemic to lawyers,” noted Patricia Powell, Dean of Students of DU Sturm College of Law. And Caren Ulrich Stacy, adjunct professor at DU Law and co-founder of Lawyer Development Strategies, observed that lawyers tend to be long on analytical skills and short on resilience.

That’s no surprise if you consider that lawyers get paid to be that way, as lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Jonathan Fields pointed out in a recent blog post entitled Why Lawyers Make Terrible Entrepreneurs:

While thousands of lawyers make the leap [into entrepreneurship] every year, it’s been my observation that very few succeed.

Not because they’re not smart, hard-working, insanely capable problem-solvers and good people with great intentions. But because the way you are taught to think, see the world and operate as a lawyer shuts down nearly every entrepreneurial instinct.

As a lawyer, a big part of your job is to forecast every conceivable thing that can go wrong for your client, then protect against it. To remove ambiguity and uncertainty. With whatever time you’ve got left, you focus on putting the legal structure in place to maximize the upside.

But that’s nearly always second to protecting against the downside. In part, because it’s often more easily quantified. In part, because that’s what clients hire you to do. And, also because if you miss a major risk and things go south, you’re going to share in the blame for the hit.

This “fire-walling failure” mindset is a key to your job as a lawyer. But it’s total disaster for the role of entrepreneur.

These lawyer-like tendencies have thrown the door wide open for a new breed of entrepreneurial “legal service companies” like Axiom Law and Novus Law, which are growing like gangbusters as they engage in activities which most of us would agree sure look like practicing law even though the companies deny that’s what they’re doing. Their client service models aren’t unencumbered by typical lawyer and law firm thinking. Instead, they’re embracing entrepreneurship and service-orientation in ways that have clients flocking to them. Clearly, they’re quite happy to be living in the New Normal.

How about the rest of us? Are we going to embrace the New Normal? And if so, how?

To be continued.

Kevin Rhodes is a lawyer in private practice who’s on a mission to help people love their work and their lives. He leads workshops for a variety of audiences, including the CBA’s Solo and Small Firm Section and the Job Search and Career Transitions Support Group. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

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