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Guest post: Time to face the dangerous delusion of the entrepreneurial lawyer

For years, I’ve been hearing law firms describe their cultures as ‘entrepreneurial’ and hardly the slightest attention. Like ‘collegial’ or ‘collaborative’, it just seemed like so much white noise. Then finally I heard it once too often and had to face cold reality: I had absolutely no idea what these people – a lot of smart, articulate people – were talking about.

Picking up a dictionary, I found this definition:

characterised by the taking of financial risks in the hope of profit; enterprising

Other notions orbiting around the concept of entrepreneurism include engaging in genuine innovation and invention (to the extreme of shattering the status quo), proceeding decisively in the face of profound ambiguity and uncertainty, and shouldering the personal risk of sacrificing years of reliable income provided by others for whatever rewards you can persuade the market to deliver – with a meaningful risk those rewards could be non-existent.

So I ask you this: would you describe your own law firm as ‘entrepreneurial?’. Are there firms you admire or look down upon that you’d describe as entrepreneurial? What mental image or behaviour, what cultural archetype or partner personality type, pops into your mind when entrepreneurial is used to describe a firm?

Now that you have solidified your own image, I’ll tell you what I came up with when I forced myself to engage in this exercise: anarchy.

Entrepreneurial seemed to me a code word for utter undisciplined chaos; each partner pursuing his/her own preferences, based overwhelmingly on opportunism and not a roadmap, rigour, focus, or anything whatsoever having to do with a larger integrated strategy.

We’ll get back to anarchy in a moment (yes, I hear disagreement on this score), but let’s stick with ‘entrepreneurial’ for another moment.

Can one seriously be an entrepreneur when an a six or seven figure annual income is generated by the powerful machinery of the law firm one is a partner in, is – for the most part – assured? When one is not remotely putting one’s future livelihood, even for a year or two, on the line? When any personal capital invested will be returned quite promptly and in full, if you bail out? When a painless exit strategy (we’re all elevator assets, remember) is a few phone calls away? When the number of employees relying on your perspicacity and market savvy for their livelihood is, well, precisely zero?

Or we could approach this from the psychological dimension.

Entrepreneurs are:

• Risk-tropic

• Creative

• Intuitive

• Trusting

• Big thinkers, and

• Extremely resilient.

Lawyers are:

• Risk-averse

• Conventional

• Judgmental

• Sceptical

• Detail-oriented, and

• Over two standard deviations below the population norm on resilience.

As for ‘anarchy’. We know as well from studies of lawyer psychology that we are autonomy-seeking missiles. We don’t want to be guided, much less managed. This can be a strength in the practise of law, where it permits us to be creative and iconoclastic in our approaches to issues, but when it comes to running a law firm it can be a nightmare for leadership.

Understand what I’m saying and what I’m not saying.

Don’t partners need the freedom to pursue business where they can? Isn’t that what the firm is ceaselessly urging them to do? How can you encourage them to obsess over business development and then say no when that’s exactly what they try to do? Isn’t this the essence of ‘entrepreneurial?’

No, it’s the essence of business development.

Right about now you may be thinking that I’m picking a fight over semantics, but words – and the conscious considerations and unconscious attitudes that flow from them – matter.

Just today I had the chance to ask an old friend whose opinions I value what he thought of the concept of entrepreneurial lawyers. His immediate response: ‘They’re not entrepreneurs, but they’re jealous of their sexy high-tech clients who can wear chinos to work.’

A harsh characterisation perhaps but he has a point, which will be my final one.

In the corporate world, everyone knows what firms, and leaders of firms, are truly entrepreneurial and which, as successful and renowned as they may be, are long since past that stage. Henry Ford was an entrepreneur; Alan Mulally is not. So too with Thomas Edison and Jeff Immelt, Thomas Watson, Jr. and Virginia Rometty. Legendary today are Elon Musk, Sergey Brin, Chuck Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, and I could go on.

So what was this all about?

It was all about the power of words, and how certain words can tend to be conversation-stoppers and to slam shut the gate on further thought.

I started by telling you how I did an inattentive low altitude flyover whenever I heard a lawyer invoke the word ‘entrepreneurial’ as a self-descriptor. I was mistaken; I should have paid more attention.

Do not permit it to end the conversation. Insist on their specifying how the firm’s strategic objectives factor into their personal (autonomous) game plans. Hold them accountable for business development, if you will, but insist on truth in labelling.

Or you could always invite them to start a software company.

Bruce MacEwen is president of Adam Smith Esq, the legal research and consulting company. Click here to visit the website.