Mixing Lawyers and Entrepreneurship

January 21, 2010

Tonight I attended #TechThursday, an OfficePort staple. If you’ve never been to one, come to the next one. You remember Shortcts.in, no? From this post?

Anyway. Tonight featured a guy named Raman Chadha (Twitter, website), who runs the Coleman Entrepreneurship Center at DePaul (Twitter, website). He asked for questions on his site, and, naturally, people posted some today. We may be entrepreneurs, but for some things, we still wait until the very last minute, a point that did not go unacknowledged.

The first part of his presentation started out like just about every other presentation from a business person or an entrepreneur: hatered for Corporate America. We all have come to the realization, on our own or by force, that we simply cannot work for other people. I know this. You know this. Yet the point always has to be made, like it isn’t a discussion of entrepreneurship without saying how much we despise Corporate America, regardless of reason.

Truth be told, I tuned out.

He mentioned something that caught my attention, though, as it continues to dog the legal industry: wealth of information and experience in fragmented fashion. In other words, there aren’t connections, or bridges between groups because everyone works in a “silo.” They are given a specific task, or series of tasks for a department and that’s that. Each “silo” has its own expectations, tasks to complete, rules, etc. He pointed to educational institutions, of all these great universities in Chicago but no bridges between the “silos.” No bridges even within university departments.

A thought occurred to me: pity DePaul Law School for not taking advantage of what’s in its own back yard. Pity any law school for not taking advantage of something like the Coleman Center to help teach what law school can’t (or won’t, depending on your point of view).

And what is it that law school doesn’t teach? How to be an entrepreneur. In legal speak: how to successfully hang out your own shingle and run your own law firm.

Instead, other people form companies to teach lawyers how to market their skills, how to become “rainmakers.” Please don’t mistake this as an insult, or bashing of those companies. I think it’s good that people are willing to step up and fill a gap law schools, and thus their graduates, ignore. Not because they must, but because the market hasn’t called for change. The market hasn’t said hey, I need to be able to market myself, I need to be able to bring in clients, I need to be able to sell services.

The market hasn’t said hey, I need to do all these things within the ethical confines of the law.

The market hasn’t said.

Yes, it has. Bar associations are starting to pay attention, as are other legal consulting companies. There are a number of laid off lawyers out there looking for work, or looking to hang out their own shingle. They might be terrified of the thought because they only know the law, not how to be an entrepreneur. That can be scary, especially when it’s just you. Something like the Coleman Center is in a position to step in and be supportive. And it is in a position to help bridge the gap between the success and energy that comes from attending conferences on the “business side” of law, and the inevitable return to “the grind.”

Alas, changes in law move slower than molasses. That’s just the nature of the profession, they say. And perhaps we are all a bit slow to react. 2008-2009 was a bit of a whirlwind, we’re all just catching our breath.

Chang is coming though. The upcoming MH Connected webinar “Navigating the Ethical Pitfalls of Social Media,” on which I am a panelist, is just one example.

And what better time to take a breath, step back and look around. While we’re all re-evaluating, what exactly are we preparing future lawyers to do? More of the same? Or is it time to shift, even just a little, and give future lawyers (and the rest of us) a skill set beyond just the law?

A course or two, maybe a series of electives, for those who want to start their own firms. Those who have struck out on their own (by choice or necessity), have remarked that though well versed in the law, they know little or nothing about the business side of law, the “entrepreneur” side. If you follow me on Twitter, or read this blog, this is a topic I’ve discussed before. Until tonight, I just figured it was law schools that needed to start developing these courses, or bring in alumni for a seminar on “Going Solo.”

Something like the Coleman Center, though, can provide a broader understanding. It can do that by providing a different viewpoint from that of the solo lawyer or small law firm, help solos and small firms see the bigger picture. Legal professionals have a habit of focusing on their particular area of expertise, and forget to step back and take in the sights. An entrepreneur must step back, re-evaluate, correct and eventually replicate.

I’m really interested now, in what would happen if you brought in law students, current solo lawyers and/or newly laid off lawyers looking to start their own firms. I wonder if anyone else has thought of this.

So what would happen if you mixed young lawyers with an entrepreneurship…training ground like the Coleman Center?