Originally published on Under 30 CEO.
After graduating from law school, I decided not to follow my classmates to big law firms, clerkships or public interest organizations. Instead, I decided to try my hand at entrepreneurship to find innovative ways to bring legal services to underserved markets.
When I sat down in my favorite coffee shop in February 2011 to write a business plan, I realized that I had no clue where to begin. My lawyerly brain advised research! And so I did. But other than that, I quickly discovered that some of the skills that had most helped me succeed in law school were encumbrances in my new role.
For example, my first “business plan”: a 30-page tome with 150 footnotes.
I was proud. Mentors, however, gently explained that I had produced an academic article, not a business plan.
The months that followed felt Sisyphean—my years of schooling had trained me for a profession I did not enter. As a lawyer, an incorrectly italicized comma indicated sloppy work, which was judged accordingly. This new profession could rarely be bothered with commas in the first place. I have had to moderate my legal training. My mantra to myself now is: “It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
Still, in the two years since, I have ultimately come to believe that my training as a lawyer is an asset as an entrepreneur. In law school, you learn to see and analyze every possible outcome of a situation with a detached eye, and prepare accordingly.
Three ubiquitous buzzwords in startup land are: lean, pivot and disrupt. I don’t disagree—investing too heavily in an untested product and clinging to a sinking ship can only lead to failure. Too often, though, I think the desire to be lean and responsive to the market causes entrepreneurs to take an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach to product development.
The legal approach to problem-solving and preparation can teach lean, disruptive, pivoting entrepreneur to be more effective. From my experience, here are some tips:
Lawyers learn to get rid of all superfluous language.
Every single sentence should make a point, and every point should be the result of a conscious and conscientious decision. So, while 30-page business plan might be too much, law has taught me to able to defend every single sentence I write — especially now that I write fewer of them.
Prepare for every meeting and every pitch to investors like you’re in oral arguments.
Nothing will make your arguments stronger than letting someone pepper you with questions, and thinking through the counterargument to every point you make.
Be annoying, politely.
As startup entrepreneur, I (shockingly) discovered that my business is more important to me than to anyone else, and I shouldn’t hesitate to follow up and follow up again—but not pester. It’s a delicate line. As a lawyer, I frequently had to contact people who were none-too-pleased to hear from me, but a little bit of finesse and charm could go a long way. The same applies to seeking help from people in business.
The right answer is always yes.
Yes, I can figure it out. Yes, we can do it. Then figure it out or do it.
Play the long game.
My legal education prepared me for the relentless, and sometimes thankless, work of starting my own business. Many of the cases I worked on in law school were initiated before I was even in college. Similarly, starting a business—despite what many entrepreneurs think—does not happen over night for most people. It’s years of work.
Oh, and last but certainly not least, lawyers are important.
I know that many entrepreneurs don’t want to spend money on attorneys, but I don’t know if I can say it enough: Not hiring a lawyer to help you organize your company, protect your intellectual property and memorialize relationships with clients, vendors and employees can cost you the whole store down the road. Lawyers really can help. Reach out if something is worrying you.
My path from law school to entrepreneurship has been bumpy at times. As I’ve watched many of my classmates move up the professional ladder of the law, I’ve wondered whether I made a mistake by taking a risk. But—like many entrepreneurs I know, when it comes down to it, I couldn’t imagine my life without the thrill of building of my business from thin air.