More and more lawyers are seeking out alternate career routes. The traditional trajectory after law school is to join a firm, switch firms around your third year, make partner at your current firm, leave to go solo or start your own firm with a few colleagues. However, lawyers have been deviating from the traditional path and many of them are looking at startups.
There are three ways for attorneys to become involved in a startup. You can launch your own business, become in-house counsel at a startup, or join an existing venture.
The startup community is inviting, yet intimidating at first. I remember when I attended my first startup event, I was unfamiliar with the lingo, had never heard of any of the companies featured on the panel and couldn’t tell you the difference between HTML and PHP.
In a sense, startup events are very similar to the exercise classes at your local gym. The first time you go, you timidly set up your mat in the back of the room. As you observe all the others in the room, you are in awe of how strong and flexible they are. You think to yourself, “How on earth are they doing that?” You feel embarrassed because you can’t keep up. After sticking with it for six or eight weeks, you build up the courage to place your mat at the front of the room. You say hi to the regulars in the front row and even crack jokes with the instructor. You finally feel like you belong and it is an amazing feeling.
The same goes for startups. The more you get out there, the more you will feel at ease.
Where to Start?
Many lawyers are finding their way into the startup scene by starting their own companies after quitting their day jobs at law firms. One example is Alma Asay, who founded Allegory Law after working at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher for six years. Allegory Law offers collaboration and case management software for litigation teams. Although the road to entrepreneurship has not been easy, Asay’s story is one of success.
“You have to be OK with your decision to break away from the traditional trajectory,” Asay said in a recent interview. “You no longer have a clear path set out for you when you start your own company and that is what makes it so exhilarating.”
Take risks and be the first to admit you don’t know how to do something is the advice she gives to those thinking about starting their own companies.
“Going to events and immersing yourself in the startup world are very important,” she added. “You just never know who you are going to meet and how they are going to help you.”
Another example is Valcu, an incorporation service and corporate management software. Valcu was started by Mark Oblad, who spent six years at Gunderson Dettmer. At that point, he decided to use his technical and financial background, eventually coding most of the software used by Valcu. In discussing his transition from lawyer to founder, he said, “It is a lifestyle change that you have to be ready for, both financially and mentally.”
Learning From the Risk Takers
There are many tips that would-be entrepreneurs can take from the experiences of these company founders. To start, you must be willing to take on risk. Leaving a high-paying and stable job as a lawyer to start your own company is not for the faint of heart. Indeed, going from making six figures to nothing is not a prospect many people can stomach.
The next pointer is, if you don’t leave your job today, you will never leave. There are plenty of attorneys who talk about leaving to write a screenplay, open a restaurant or start their own companies. However, most never actually leave their jobs and their dreams remain just that, dreams. The ones who do leave act on their desires then and there without continuing to talk about what they could do with their lives if they weren’t practicing law.
You need to be willing to learn the ins and outs of being a business owner. The learning curve to becoming a business owner and your own boss is very steep. There are so many administrative tasks, such as insurance and payroll, you will have to learn. Until you are able to afford to hire staff, you will have to handle everything yourself, which can be quite overwhelming.
Company founders must be OK with failing and failing and failing. Entrepreneurs rarely get it right on the first try. Many start several companies before coming up with one that is viable and gains traction. Half of being an entrepreneur is endurance, creating until you get it just right.
Finally, you must learn how to hire the right team despite not being able to pay them what they are worth. In the beginning it is very challenging to attract the talent you want to hire. Good people are hard to find and are also expensive. The most successful entrepreneurs are visionaries. At the start you cannot compete with the six-figure salaries paid by Fortune 500 companies, so in order to attract the right talent, your vision and passion must be infectious.