The Mindset of a Successful Entrepreneurial Lawyer

Posted by | January 14, 2015 | Entrepreneurial Lawyer Series | No Comments

Interview Series: The Entrepreneurial Law Firm

At Kahuna Accounting we spend a lot of our time working with attorneys in solo practices or in small law firms. While we serve them by taking care of accounting, our real focus is on helping entrepreneurs be more equipped to run their business.

As a lawyer, there is a lot to learn about how to run a practice.

So today we have our latest installment in a blog series covering everything in law practice management.

We are interviewing experts who will share from experience some of the changes in the industry, and the most powerful things lawyers can do to ensure their success.

Susan Cartier Liebel

Today’s interview is featuring Susan Cartier Liebel from Solo Practice University.

Susan started Solo Practice University in 2009 with the goal of serving solo attorneys in helping them learn all the pieces of having a successful practice.

Micky Deming:

Did Solo Practice University originate because of what you were seeing and experiencing in the challenges facing solo attorneys? What exactly led you to start Solo Practice University?

Susan Cartier Liebel:

What attorneys face when they open a practice and why I started Solo Practice University are two similar yet different topics.

I started Solo Practice University because law school simply doesn’t teach lawyers or law students how to go out on their own. They basically say, “We’re going to charge you X amount of dollars for your education, but we’re going to halve the value by only teaching you how to be an employee. We’re going to take the other half of the value or your law license, the part which allows you to be an entrepreneur in the legal space, and simply forget about it.”

This is a huge issue for me, because I went to law school specifically to be able to become a solo or small firm practitioner.

I believe this is the epitome of being a lawyer –to be able to go out on your own if you choose to.

But at the time law schools weren’t teaching it. They weren’t teaching the skills. They weren’t teaching the business. They weren’t teaching the psychological aspects of being a lawyer practicing on your own because they didn’t value being a solo. There is nothing in it for law schools to have an army of law graduates who are solo practitioners.

This was the genesis for Solo Practice University.

My thought was, “How do we create an environment that will honor the law license, will honor a young lawyer’s aspirations to be an entrepreneur in the legal space, and effectively provide a 360 degree education on how to actually start a solo practice?”

And I wanted to do it on a secure, inspirational, comfortable online platform where one can learn, have mentorship, and grow all at the same time. I wanted it to be a place they could call home as they built their practice.

Micky Deming:

That’s a great answer, I wouldn’t have made that distinction of separating the two, but that makes a lot of sense, especially when you described the legal education as being cut in half.

So to go to the next piece, what is it – the need that you’ve felt most needed to be filled – and what are those challenges for the attorney that jumps out on their own?

Susan Cartier Liebel:

Most lawyers who go to law school don’t necessarily have a background in business or marketing. They don’t necessarily have a background in demographics or economics.

So they are given this license which their jurisdiction says will now allow them to practice law on whatever terms they choose; employment, self-employment. But there is no job and there is no education on how to be a business person. They’re caught between a rock and a hard place and totally in debt.

Then they are thrust out into the world and told, “Be free. Go create. Be an entrepreneur. You have this degree. You have this debt. Now figure it out. Create something. You’re a lawyer!”

Changes in the Legal Profession

Micky Deming:

Yeah, and to kind of continue that thought, it’s interesting when you start reading about the future of law for solos in this space. You see a 50/50 split where half the articles are extremely optimistic about the opportunities available for solo practitioners and the other half are doom and gloom.

I guess that’s the nature of entrepreneurship, especially in a fast changing environment. But what do you make of it in terms of law firms? Should prospective solo lawyers be optimistic or worried?

Susan Cartier Liebel:

In many ways, that’s a loaded question because you have to look at who’s writing the article and what their angle is. If it’s coming from someone who has enjoyed the benefits throughout their professional life of the traditional law firm model, knows what it used to be like, and they don’t want to adapt to the change or are struggling through the change – they’re coming from it as, “I remember the good ‘ole days and I would never advise someone to be a lawyer today.”

That’s just human nature. You can be older and more experienced, but that doesn’t mean their perspective is correct for today’s lawyer. It just means that’s their perspective.

Now, when you’re younger, and you don’t know any different, you say, “Well, you know what, I am a lawyer now, and I’ve got all these ideas about how I can make a change.”
You’re not coming from the perspective of what used to be. This is the life you’re living now. This is what you know. So you say, “How can I make a living and how can I make the profession better?”

And this phenomenon has repeated itself for generations before us. The younger generation always looks at life differently, and says “How can I make it better?”

So, this generation has the best chance to innovate because they have to in order to succeed. They have the best chance to take the tools they are given and do things the way that makes the most sense to them. And this isn’t necessarily the way someone who has been practicing for twenty years might do it. And that’s not a bad thing.

They are living with their own clients/consumers. Their peers are their clients/consumers and they know what their peers respond to, what they struggle with. Their peers want to look up information on an app on their iPhone and use a product like Shake to get started with a contract. Then as they get further into it, they’ll say, “That was a great start, but now I actually need a lawyer to make sure I understand this.”

So, who are they going to go to now when they decide they need a lawyer?

The lawyer that understands that Shake is a product that can bring business to them and learns about it, or the lawyer who says “Oh I can’t stand products like Shake or LegalZoom”, and they run away from it and even denegrate the potential client who uses it?

So, (with the future of law) it depends who’s writing the article. It depends on what their experience is. But in general, you have to work with the reality of what is going on around you and you have to stay positive that you can work with it.

If you don’t stay positive and adapt, you will fall behind and ultimately will want to leave the profession.

But if your overarching motivation is practicing law, then you’re going to press through it. You’re going press hard, stay educated and aware, and work with what’s going on and what’s changing all around you.

The Right Mindset is Everything in the Legal Profession

Micky Deming:

So it seems like you’d focus less on the tools and best practices and more on the mindset and psychology of adapting and shifting…

Susan Cartier Liebel:

Yes. Mindset is everything because running a law practice is not rocket science. You’re dealing with people. You’re dealing with emotions. You’re dealing with prejudices and you’re dealing with a profession fighting the inevitable.

There is so much to think about from the psychological perspective. But as far as actually getting started? In one day, you could have someone physically set up your law firm. That’s not the issue.

Micky:

Right, you can figure the management pieces out or outsource them. The question of, “What do I want?” or “Where am I trying to go?” is much harder to answer.

Susan Cartier Liebel:

Yeah! How do you want to live your life? What is your life going to look like 5, 10, 15 years from now?

That’s what matters.

Then the tools become important.

The tools become important if you know you want to work remotely three days a week. Or if you know the kind of client you have is traveling around the world and you need to stay connected.

That’s when the tools really come into play because you’ve picked the tools based on how you want to build your practice and your life. Otherwise, the tools just become a burden being thrust upon you because everyone’s telling you, “use these tools.” But if the tools don’t make sense for your life or how you want to build your business, then of course it’s going to feel chaotic and overwhelming.

Be Your Own Profit Center

Micky Deming:

That’s a great point. Okay, so final question just to kind of wrap it up, because this has been great already…

Susan Cartier Liebel:

I know, we could go on and on.

Micky Deming: Oh I know, absolutely. Is there a mindset that you need to have from the outset if you’re considering starting your own law firm?

Susan Cartier Liebel:

Are you talking about the decision process, whether or not to be a solo?

Micky Deming:

Right, and if there are certain people that you’d say, “This just isn’t for you, based on certain qualities?”

Susan Cartier Liebel:

That’s a really tough question.

There are people who have been thrust into this situation and thought they never would be opening a solo practice.

And then when they do it they say “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I waited so long to do it!”

Then you have people who went solo because that’s what they thought they wanted to do and they did okay with it. But then they recognized certain aspects of their life weren’t working with them being solo practitioners.

I don’t think that solo is a permanent destination. I also don’t think you can say, “this is what I’m going to be, and I’m going to be this for the rest of my life.”

I do know that everybody – whether they work in a large law firm, medium sized law firm, the government or anywhere else – needs to be their own profit center.

What does this mean? You should be learning all the skills that make you a 360 degree professional. You know how to market yourself. You know how to do credibility building activities.

Obviously you know how to represent your clients, but you also know the business aspects. These skills will serve you no matter what you’re doing, because you never know where you’re going to end up. You never know when you have to enact Plan B.

If you’re an employee somewhere, you might end up being unemployed. If you’re solo, you might be doing such an amazing job that a law firm makes you this incredible offer because you are your own profit center, can bring in clients and not need to be trained.

The best protection a lawyer has today, in any role they are functioning in, is to understand how to be their own profit center.

If you can master the 360 degree experience of being a professional service provider and understand how to manage and delegate within a business – then you can go wherever you want and be the professional you want to be. It’s the best of all worlds.