Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Lawyers as Entrepreneurs

I’ve spent the last decade plus in the world of start-ups, which has given me a front row view of many different types of entrepreneurs.  I’d love to say that I can pick out which ones will be successful by now, but I’ve bet on the wrong horse a couple of times because there is no one profile of a successful entrepreneur.  However I have discovered that there are a few traits that successful entrepreneurs have, and you’ll be surprised to hear that successful in house lawyers share many of these traits.

 Risk Taking.  Unlike our law firm brethren, in house counsel are required to have a higher risk tolerance than what lawyers generally are comfortable with.  Likewise a successful entrepreneur is most successful when taking risks that others are not comfortable with.  The difference between success and failure for both is ensuring that those risks are very calculated.  Sure you can get rich by speculating on new crypto currency, and you can lose your shirt just as quickly. To court success you need to reach beyond what the status quo offers but only in areas where the return on the risk makes sense.  Investing your life savings in a better mouse trap can have a high return, investing your life savings in beer flavored bubble gum might not be the best risk to take.    For lawyers, this means being comfortable with letting the governing law be New York instead of Delaware but not letting a bet the company litigation be handled by the lawyers at Better Call Saul.   

 Leadership.  No one builds an empire by themselves.  To launch the next great tech product, at a minimum you need someone with the skills to write the code, build the website, perform market research and marketing plans, handle the finances, create the license or service agreements, sell the product, etc.  You might be able to start small, but to grow into a successful company you’ll have to eventually grow your team.  And to make sure they’re all rowing in the same direction, you need get people on board with your vision.  If you can’t generate complete buy in by your early hires, it won’t matter how great of an idea you have the company won’t be successful.  Similarly for the in house lawyer, you might be able to start out small reviewing simple contracts.  But to make an impact on the company, you’ll need to get other leaders to buy in to your advice in all areas.  You’ll have to lead them to their goals and help them get out of their own way.  Like successful entrepreneurs, successful lawyers lead their teams through the big and small challenges so that the company can reach its ultimate goal. 

General Business Sense.  Some people are born with perfect pitch or an innate ability to understand math.  Others have a high emotional quotient and are able to easily empathize with others. To be a successful entrepreneur, you have to have a mixture of common sense and business sense.  While you don’t have to have a degree in accounting, understanding a P&L shouldn’t be difficult.  Understanding the difference between market forces and marketing efforts, and having some comfort with regulatory requirements are also required traits. Successful in house lawyers need this general business sense as well.  In order to know when to stand firm on that clause or when to advise against registering that trademark that will only be used for the next month.  You also need to have enough financial wherewithal to know when it makes sense to add headcount to your team, fight for the budget for that software, or hand something off to a non-lawyer. 

One of the smartest things a successful entrepreneur does is hire the necessary talent before going without gets painful.  This includes bringing in a good in house lawyer.  And sometimes it means being a good in house lawyer.  Which is why I’m happy to announce that along with my fellow in house lawyer, Christine Jones, and some incredible tech talent in Neil Proctor, I am officially joining the ranks of new entrepreneurs with the launch of AloeTM law department management solutions at Bigfork Technologies. (