Transition from big to small firm calls up one's entrepreneurialism

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Published on 6/8/09

In an earlier column, we speculated about a trend that anecdotal evidence says is growing but one for which there is not yet solid statistical proof: lawyers who are starting solo practices after either being laid off from big law firms or otherwise deciding that the big firm life is not worth it for them.

As we noted, the economic prospects for many solo firms are certainly every bit as difficult, in their own way, as are those for big law firms. So a lawyer's decision to leave a bigger firm and strike out on one's own ought to involve more than economics.

Some lawyers who are fed up with the 2,000 or more billable hours that are the rule at many big firms may see solo practice as a means to a better work/life balance. In the short term, there is really no such day-to-day phenomenon as balance; at any given moment, the lawyer is doing just one thing - either working or engaging in personal pursuits.

The broader perspective is how much cumulative time you devote to each and what you value more. Too many lawyers are close to burnout or, at the very least, are unhappy in their day-to-day occupation, as the many reported cases of alcohol and drug abuse suggest. And a recession creates even more stress and unhappiness, worsened by worry over income, client demands and workload.

Few lawyers are adverse to hard work. Successful big-firm lawyers work long hours and are focused about what they do. If they pursue a small-firm setting, it is not that they want a life of leisure. Their move reflects a greater desire to pursue their passion.

Lawyers contemplating such a change in their lives should ask themselves why they went to law school to become a lawyer. Do they still love the law and enjoy helping people? The answers to those questions, far more than issues of economics, will determine a lawyer's success in solo practice.

Running one's own law firm is not easy. The effort to excel, made more intense by the pressure of economics, can cause tremendous problems. Generally, lawyers are successful because of their competitiveness. But if we, as lawyers, push ourselves always to come out on top and in control even of little things, our striving for success can be counterproductive.

Any lawyer leaving a big firm behind for a small one must want to do so and must believe there is no other alternative. A successful transition will require all the traits of an entrepreneur: motivation, acceptance of risk, resiliency and commitment. Basically, you must answer the question: "What do I want to be when I grow up?" Each person's answer is unique and can change over time.

I truly believe that most lawyers, at heart, love their profession. And, as Confucius said, "Pursue a job you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life."

The trick is to get past the distractions and stress so that you can see your career for what you want it to be.

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