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?

Shortcts.in More than Just a Dashboard Solution

November 23, 2009

Every Thursday, Jason Goodrich puts on an event called TechThursday at OfficePort. It’s a multifaceted opportunity that I have attended more than once. I admit to being decidedly bummed when I missed the previous week due to a significant technical glitch that required all hands on deck. Not to mention an academic technical glitch the previous day that required grading papers and exams by hand.

Alas, I digress.

TechThursday. Multifaceted opportunity. It’s a chance to network, of course, and to see a local person/group/company show off a new (and usually interesting) product, but it is also a chance to engage in self-reflection and take stock of your own situation, your own direction. I’ve found myself doing this quite a bit lately. For me, I think it takes a few months for things to kick around in my head and not panic. Not panic so much as question. I question. Often. And that can be both helpful and demoralizing.

Last Thursday, I attended a presentation from 4 guys, the “Dudes” (Jon Buda, Dave Giunta, Mike Laurence, and Matt Puchlerz), who showed off an app created during the SocialDevCamp Hack-a-thon. The app is called Shortcts.in which embodies, to some extent, and idea I have had of a central dashboard from which to navigate to the myriad of Web apps I use every day. But Shortcts is decidedly more focused and as they explained how they came up with the idea, I found myself enthralled.

I should note I played no part in this app what-so-ever. The app just reminded me of the central dashboard idea that keeps popping into my head (and I keep tweeting about).

The purpose of the site is to make it easy to find keyboard shortcuts for applications like FireFox, Photoshop and even BaseCamp. For the moment, it is Mac specific, which is cool. I’ve often gone trolling for something and found thousands of Windows options, and 0 Mac options. So it is refreshing to see a Web app created specifically geared toward the Mac.

Hearing them talk about the process was eye-opening, and I was somewhat surprised I could so easily identify. They pointed to the strict 24-hour deadline, more than once, as the real decision engine. Meaning they made decisions based on what they felt comfortable delivering at end the of the 24-hour hack-a-thon, and what they could push off for later. The result earned them the Design award at SocialDevCampChicago, and they have since continued working and refining the app.

Two things struck me about the presentation that made me erase…err…think about the myriad of questions of I have been asking myself lately.

The first thing was building an app for fun. An audience member asked about their monetary strategy, and they currently don’t have one. Why? Because the app wasn’t built with the intention of making money: it was built to solve a problem (improving on finding short cuts) and for fun. One of the members can never remember shortcuts, and all the sites that came up in results were pretty much useless. And the four of them had wanted to do something fun for awhile, the opportunity presented itself and they seized it.

Money is constant issue, which I certainly don’t have to say but did anyway. It has been a constant source of pressure for me since being laid off last April, and it’s hard to push it out or bury it for any length of time. But seeing the app in action, and hearing them talk, made me realize that I have been asking the wrong questions. And I have been asking the wrong questions because those are the only questions people ask. Part of this stems from my own internal struggle, too.

The second thing that struck me was the “false starts.” They’d tried a few projects together that didn’t pan out for one reason or another. It took a few tries, and one time-sensitive event to bring an idea to fruition. And bringing an idea to fruition is much harder than simply having an idea. I’ve discovered that the idea is the easy part, despite what people say. Shortcts.in wasn’t so much an idea, per say, as a solution. Remember, one of them could never remember some shortcuts, and found websites with shortcut lists rather useless. So why not create a better way to find shortcuts for themselves?

One thing I’ve found in my thought process is that I immediately seize on my lack of technical expertise. Technical expertise, I should say, in terms of programming. I know enough to be dangerous, but not enough to be deadly. And to make an application like Shortcts.in you need to be deadly. My lack of programming skills has been a source of frustration for me. It seems to inhibit my ability to do what I want, which is kind of ridiculous, if you think about. I have a broad skill set already. Do I really need to add programming to the mix and risk pigeon-holing myself? No. I’ve acquired such a broad skill set because I’m a curious individual, constantly searching for new things. That’s one of the reasons I read so much.

Anyway, it was enlightening to see a 4 guys each bring something different to the table. I found myself slightly envious, but also encouraged as I ponder my new venture. Being self-employed/entrepreneur, it’s easy to feel isolate, to think that you’re toiling by yourself and no one else understands. That’s only partly true. Friendships and partnerships aren’t formed overnight. It might take a few “false starts” to find the right combination or people, or the right project, and that is OK.

There is some truth that a person can only take so much rejection and negativity, but it is stories like Shortcts.in that can snap you out of that, even just for a moment.

I, for one, am a fan of Shortcts.in and look forward to the next TechThursday event at OfficePort.

Coworking & OfficePort, and Why I Chose It Over Moving Out

November 10, 2009

Last night, WTTW’s Chicago Tonight had a segment on what is being called “coworking,” and part of the segment was about OfficePort.

For those who don’t know, or haven’t heard the term before, “coworking” refers to an office-like setting where people, mostly freelancers and entrepreneurs, share office space, ideas and things found in general “Corporate America” office settings. However, office politics doesn’t play much of a role, and the only person looking over your shoulder, checking your work is you. In a “coworking” space like OfficePort, the people looking over your shoulder are actually looking at you, bouncing off ideas, listening patiently, offering suggestions or guidance or just shooting the breeze. I’ve come to think of it as the more enjoyable parts of “Corporate America” office settings, the parts that developed friendships, mentors and the like.

If you’ve followed this blog, or you’ve followed me on Twitter, my plight over the last year is no secret. I’m more used to suffering quietly, but once September 2008 hit and layoffs went through the roof, I thought it might be helpful to start sharing my experiences, having been laid off in April 2008 and experienced a steady stream of rejections (or absolute silence) since. Even starting a consulting company has proven fraught with challenges no book or person can offer solutions on how to overcome.

Life moves pretty fast, yes, but sometimes it moves in the wrong direction.

But anyway. Back to this whole “coworking” thing.

Since moving back into my parents house last October (lease was up + no job + grad school = no money), I turned my mother’s dinning room into an “office.” I basically took over the dinning room table, moving only when company was expected. I had papers and law books spread out when I was completely my Master of Science degree, and those have now been replaced with attendance rosters from teaching, articles, mail of various types, useless insurance papers and pads of paper full of notes from conference calls, business ideas and what not. My mother, bless her heart, has been willing to forgo the mess knowing I’m “starting up” and thus rather short on funds.

One project has paid off handsomely, decidedly better than expected, and there is just enough wiggle room to find an office, if the price is right, or an apartment and move out. Bare in mind money is tight. I had to pay off student loans, which though excellent to have off the books, also set me back a bit. I have enough to either move out, or rent office space, but not both.

The temptation to move into an apartment was unbelievable. Being 28 and living at home with your folks, especially way up by Wisconsin, sucks. I enjoyed my four years in the city, in the Lakeview neighborhood, and longed for the day to move back. Perhaps not to the same neighborhood, but back to the city. My two and a half hour commute would be cut considerably.

Yes. You read that correctly. 2.5 hours. Doesn’t matter if I take Metra or drive to Linden (Wilmette) and take the Purple Line. Metra might shave off half an hour, but it is still 20 minutes to the train station, when the weather is nice.

So moving out was enticing. When I lost my job and had to move home last year, though, I made myself a promise. I would not move out until I was absolutely certain I would not move back again. Sounds like a rather hefty goal, and it is, but I think it is achievable. Not in the time frame I originally envisioned, but still attainable.

Earlier this month, I was presented with two options: Sublet an apartment from a friend of mine who got a job that required relocation, or rent office space from OfficePort.

It was not an easy decision, but renting office space from OfficePort is the more strategic, long term move. Why? Because building my business is a necessary step to achieving my goal of permanently moving out of my parents house. Building a business, consulting or otherwise, requires finding and cultivating relationships. Strategic relationships, meaning I need to be around people who possess skills I don’t necessarily possess. As it turns out, there are a number of skills I don’t possess, but that is actually a good thing. Why? Because it means there are many new things for me to learn!

OfficePort, it turns out, is full of people who are bursting with ideas, and share them freely. Sound familiar? I bet it does. Being a big believe in open source, making things freely available, the office setting at OfficePort felt completely natural. I found this out by attending a number of events hosted at OfficePort, like Twitter Networking Lunches on Wednesdays, and TechThursdays. The vibe is just awesome, which was made even more so after SocialDevCamp that produced AwesomeLists.

And that energy is feeding an idea I’ve had rolling around in my brain for the past few months, which I’ll write about at a later date.

On the Chicago Tonight segment, my portmate, Sally Odowd was interviewed, and talked about working from home and the challenges that entails. It hadn’t occurred to me that watching TV, or doing anything other than working while at home, was a distraction. Perhaps because I don’t watch much TV, I watch stuff online. Working at home though, can be quite boring. There’s no one here during the day but me, and though Twitter, Facebook and Skype provide more interaction than me talking to myself, it doesn’t quite do the same as talking to people in the flesh.

Technology has yet to convey the same type of energy you get from just being around people. And at OfficePort, the energy is good, positive energy. From Sally to Justin to Maura to Jason to the others whose Twitter handles I still need to commit to memory…the people make the office.

So if you’re like me, having been laid off and decided striking out on your own is, if nothing else, a way to pass the time, check out OfficePort. Or check out other “coworking” locations to see which one feels right. Talk to other people there, attend events, do whatever you need to do find the right spot. I can tell you from experience, it makes a big difference.

And if a 2.5 hour commute down to the office (yes, that is 5 hrs round trip) doesn’t stop me, what is stopping you?