Alternative Career for Lawyers: Lawyer to Entrepreneur
Thinking about stepping out of practice to join the start-up world? You're not the only one. We've seen lawyer after lawyer, at varying stages of their careers, decide to do just this. Some jump ship to start their own business while others decide to work for a start-up.
This option has worked out well for many lawyers who have decided to bite the bullet and make a change. The beauty of the start-up world is that if you're interested in something, there will be a company doing it. It's easy to align your interests to a job. For dissatisfied lawyers, the start-up community offers a world of new opportunities.
Most lawyers wouldn't see this move as a career progression. However, more and more lawyers are making the move as the profession struggles to accommodate the influx of graduates each year.
The culture of law firms is often closed-off and prone to "group think". People tend to work alone on their piece of larger matters. This environment isn't ideal for everyone. It couldn't be more different to the start-up world, where collaboration, freedom and autonomy are encouraged. This is an attractive option for lawyers who don't buy into the law firm culture, or who want to try something new.
So, what skills and experience do lawyers bring to the table for a start-up?
If you started your career in a commercial firm, you've had the chance to delve into how your clients operate their businesses. This gives you a fantastic grounding in the commercial world. Lawyers see the commercial world from a unique perspective. These skills and experience are transferable to the business world.
Lawyers are also experts at drafting, reviewing and negotiating commercial agreements. It might sound dull, but for early-stage companies, these basic legal skills can come in handy. A lawyer might save the start-up a huge amount in legal spend. Lawyers in corporate and commercial areas seem to make this transition particularly well. That said, lawyers of all persuasions can and do make this move successfully.
Lawyers usually have experience with the commercial transactions that are typical in the early stages of a start-up. This makes them indispensable in navigating these processes. But, for many, the reason they make the change is to move away from legal practice and into a more commercial or entrepreneurial role. So, what skills can they bring outside of pure legal work?
Intellect is a big one. You've got to be pretty smart to get into law school, let alone graduate and score a job in practice. Lawyers usually have high-level communication, advocacy and analytical skills. Right off the bat, the start-up gets some talented and intellectually capable people.
Lawyers are also relationship and project managers. In the start-up world, these are highly valuable. A lawyer's skills in managing matters and client relationships are useful to any start-up. Senior lawyers will have advanced skills in these areas compared to other professionals. The principles are the same in practice as they are in the business world. Those with high-level emotional intelligence and client facing skills will do well. Lawyers are great planners. They're also experts at identifying risk factors to be aware of. These forward planning skills could save a start-up huge amounts of money and time.
Lawyers have a sound commercial acumen and understanding of the legal landscape. As trusted advisors, you are invaluable in flagging considerations others might not have thought of. This makes the balancing act between commercial and legal requirements easier to manage. Having someone in-house to deal with these issues is a huge boon for any start-up.
So, it's clear that you will bring a lot of value to a start-up. I won't touch on the decision-making process to get to this point as we have other blog posts that cover this. But, if you decide to move away from practice, you will no doubt face challenges along the way.
Lawyers are often risk-averse, but the start-up world is all about taking risks. Those who have worked their way through this challenge will have had to develop other skills and adjust their mindset. If you are coming from private practice, you may be fixed in your mindset. You will need to foster the skills of communication and collaboration. You need to be prepared to take two steps back to make progress. And you'd better be willing to step out of your private office with harbour views into an open plan office, where discussion and debate is the day-to-day reality.
Things move a lot faster in the start-up world so prepare to keep up and where you can't, you'd better learn to improvise. You won't have the same support and resources available to you as you would in a major law firm. Even for those with extra technical skills on top of their law qualifications the transition can be tough. It can be hard to step out of the lawyer mindset that we are taught from day one at law school. You need to be prepared to change this limiting mindset.
You will need to adjust your expectations and leave your ego at the door. Yes, you are big firm lawyer and this will give you a certain amount of cache stepping into a non-legal role. But it can also leave you exposed to questions about your commerciality, business skills, technical skills and mindset. You need to forget about the status that your legal career might have given you. Preparing to open up your mind is the only way you will learn the skills required to succeed. Don't let your ego get in the way of doing this. Try to approach things with a learning attitude and seek out those who can help you progress to the next level.
The other area where you need to adjust your expectations is in regards to money. As a lawyer, you were probably paid a generous salary. But for most of you, this transition will mean a pay cut. Plus, if you start your own gig, there is the pressure of being responsible for generating income. For those of you who step in as employees, established tech companies can offer very attractive money, but for start-ups it usually means taking a pay cut. If you have forward-planned, money should be less of an obstacle.
This can play with people's minds. Especially if you're not realistic about how long it will take you to get back on your feet. You need to have contingency plans in place, but never lose sight of the bigger picture. The reason why you decided to make the move. There will be ups and downs in business, and the buck stops with you. The perceived security of a regular pay-check and an employer you can rely on is hard to leave behind. It's a long game, so don't make any decisions based on a poor quarter. In the long-term, your earning potential in business is far greater than in practice.
Never forget the reason you left practice. It probably was so that you could do something that interests you. Something that brings a greater degree of satisfaction to you each day. You have a far greater degree of autonomy and freedom over your work day and the projects you get involved in. You are working each day on things that interest you, with people you like and respect. You are being rewarded and recognised for your effort, often with financial rewards. The bottom line is to not lose sight of the values and experiences that brought you to this decision, and to focus on the potential for success. And if you fail, you can always go back to practice. But I suspect you might learn to see value in failure also.