It’s frustrating, trying to teach lawyers the fundamentals of doing business. Several of them arrive in my office each month, wanting advice on changing careers. But they haven’t got a clue.
That’s because they still think success is making your parents happy. Lawyers start out as the kids who do everything right. They behave. They obey. They get good grades. Typically they aren’t especially talented at anything – just good at everything. The formal education system is designed to reward that sort of bland “goodness.” It isn’t about getting an A in any one subject – it’s about getting “all A’s.”
That doesn’t make any sense in the real world. You don’t need all-A’s, you need to discover the work that you love to do.
A friend of mine at Harvard failed or nearly failed half his courses every year. His grade-point average was dismal. Why? He was in a laboratory day and night, doing PhD level, cutting-edge bio research. He used to laugh at the academic advisors who lectured him about his grades. Now, after a successful career as a scientific researcher and inventor, he’s become a millionaire venture capitalist.
He knew what he wanted to do, and knew that his GPA wasn’t going to hold him back.
A lawyer would never take that path – in fact, he couldn’t. Legal education is all about exams, exams and more exams, and being the very best on every one, even if only by a tiny percentage. From that one extra point on the LSAT to that one extra point on the bar exam, it’s about everyone doing the same thing, but beating the next guy by a hair.
With that training, you end up utterly unequipped for the world of business, which is why the transition to business is so difficult for a lawyer.
Legal education, and law firm work, is infantilizing. It regresses you into the child who instinctively desires to delight a parent. You try to please an authority figure by doing what they say. You do the work, and make them happy.
That strategy is doom for an entrepreneur. To succeed in business you must separate from the parent, and begin to parent yourself. That means letting go of pleasing others, and becoming the authority figure in your own world. You’re the boss. You follow your own instincts. You make yourself happy.
Here are some rules for stamping out the lawyer in you and embracing the business person:
Develop people skills. A young lawyer asked me to help him get out of law the other day, and I suggested group therapy, so he could work on his interpersonal communication. He nixed that idea, saying it wouldn’t be a good idea for him, since he “tends to shut down in groups.”
If you are trying to do business, you can’t “shut down in groups” – you have to “light up” in groups. Business isn’t about disappearing into your office and working all night. It’s about networking, working contacts and getting people excited about you and what you’re selling. Which brings me to another rule…
Learn to sell. Another lawyer I was working with recently said she was unhappy with the legal profession and wanted to make the jump to business. I suggested she get her foot in the door with a sales position. She made a face. “I could never sell,” she explained, and from her expression she obviously considered the task beneath her. Perhaps she had visions of door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesmen, people cold-calling for life insurance companies, that sort of thing. She wasn’t prepared to stoop so low.
It’s time to start stooping. Everything about business is selling. It doesn’t have to be vacuum cleaners or life insurance. Across the board, someone has to bring the business in. Even in the legal world, a partner who can bring in clients takes home ten times what anyone else earns – and spends his afternoons on the golf course. He doesn’t have to do legal work – any idiot can do that. He’s handled the hard part: selling.
If you’re going to sell effectively, you have to remember: Don’t do what you’re told – do what your gut tells you.
Ten years ago, I was confidently assured by other attorneys that I could never work outside law. It was too late for me. With a legal resume, no one would hire me for a business job.
A year later, they were taking me out to lunch, asking me how I did it.
The first step was to stop listening to other people telling me what I could or could not do.
Here’s the first trick: Don’t be a lawyer – be a business person with a law degree. You have a law degree. That’s all they have to know. Meanwhile, play up everything else you’ve ever done – the original stuff, the stuff maybe everyone else hasn’t done.
And don’t forget: Take risks. It drove me crazy, in the business world, having a lawyer in the room when I was trying to close a deal. I’d work for weeks, schmoozing and negotiating – until we were inches away from payday. All the lawyer had to do was write it up…but he never did just write it up.
Instead, he would attack the other side, like a bull in a china shop, over some nonsense in the boilerplate. Lawyers always feel they have to prove their worth by warning you of risks and clumsily trying to off-load that risk on the other side.
I knew about the risks. The other side did too. You take risks in business. That’s how you make money. Real people don’t rack up “billable hours” – they bring in business and exchange value for value. They create something someone needs.
How’s that for un-lawyerly thinking?
[This piece is part of a series of columns created by The People's Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.]
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