Lawyers have many helpful attributes, but their aversion
to ambiguity needs to be overcome.
In my last column, I
discussed the disruptive mindset needed to face the oncoming challenges to our
profession. In preparing for that article, I spoke with a number of
entrepreneurs. All of them were founders of exciting Canadian-based legal tech
disruptors that firms and in-house legal departments are beginning to licence
I wanted to get a sense from those
entrepreneurs of what it takes to pivot away from a stable(-ish) career in law
to one without guardrails, a reliable income and needing a completely different
skillset. It is one thing to have the “there has to be a better way to do this”
thought that most of us have when we are doing some tedious repetitive task at
work. It’s quite another to pursue that thought day in and day out to figure
out how to build an entire business model around it, let alone then persuade
enough people to pay for it!
In talking to these entrepreneurs and others
that I follow (like some kind of groupie), I realized that the journey is not
only highly unique for each person but at the same time follows a familiar
pattern of highs and lows, stops and starts, tears and laughter. I’ve picked
just three that stood out for me during these conversations.
An idea with wings!
As Sahil Zaman of
Closing Folders says: “It’s not just about having the ‘A-ha’ moment.” The idea
is most certainly not fully formed in that eureka shriek. It is fleshing that
idea out into something that people will buy that’s the hard part.
But the idea is where the journey begins. The shape that the idea stage takes is
different for many. And, indeed, how long that shaping stage takes and how many
pivots one might make during it is wildly different for those that have taken
This thinking stage, pondering different
ideas, concepts and business models, was more than six months for Noah Waisberg
of Kira Systems — part of that while still at Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP.
Others, such as Aaron Wenner of CiteRight, had a shorter ideation stage and got
to a prototype that he could show lawyer friends earlier than that. But it will
be two years in development by the time Wenner launches his winning product
Giving an idea wings requires both time and
creativity. Entrepreneurs need to “Think Different” about the problems in front
of them and that requires focused time. This isn’t completely alien to lawyers,
but both creativity and finding the time to draft something non-conforming and
innovative seems such a luxury at the early stages of a lawyer’s career.
The second common
thread with all of those I spoke to was the need for both patience and
perseverance. That journey of one step forward and two steps back requires
tenacity in what you’re trying to achieve.
The entrepreneurs I spoke with admitted to a
number of pivots during these early idea stages (even changing the complete
solution idea!) in response to initial feedback and after further thought. That
requires a commitment to the process and a belief that it will all work out in
the end. Pivoting from an original idea is sometimes referred to as “failing
often and failing fast.” This kind of pivot is much more familiar to lawyers.
We all have examples of trying one approach in a deal or case and needing to
try something completely different before it concludes. It’s what we learn from
that experience that differentiates the good from the great.
For Zaman, Wenner and Waisberg, that
persistence to turn an idea into a team and funding and bring it to life is a
full-time unpaid job and one that happens post-law. Adrian Camara of Paper
Interactive realized the first thing he would need for his idea to become a
reality was “18 hours a day and a committed team.” This team often includes
spouses and children.
The mountainous journey that entrepreneurs
take is certainly not one for us all. And perhaps it is why we hold those who
forge that path in such high esteem — or why we should.
is not familiar territory for most lawyers. Messy ambiguity is precisely the
situation that people instruct lawyers to help them solve. We help create
clarity, whether that’s understanding
the regulations that businesses are subject to in any acquisition deal or
understanding the rights that a party is entitled to in a legal dispute.
Entrepreneurs need to embrace this messy
period rather than race to leave it behind. There is energy in ambiguity. And
it’s OK not to have all the answers. Entrepreneurship is about carving your own
path rather than taking the well-trodden path of others.
“Legal entrepreneurs need to make decisions
quickly and on imperfect information,” as Zaman puts it. This, I think, is why
some lawyers find the entrepreneurship journey a risky one on which to embark.
The deep analysis and research that lawyers use when advising clients ensures
that any decision that is made is done with absolutely all of the best
information considered and checked.
All of the legal entrepreneurs I spoke with
are former lawyers. Some left practice soon after articling; others had more
than a few years under their belt before doing so. I believe lawyers have what
it takes to join the ranks of disruptors in legal technology and other spaces.
But to make the leap it is really this third attribute that lawyers need to
learn to feel some comfort with first. Entrepreneurs need to develop acceptance
with not knowing all the answers. Instead, they need to persevere with their
idea until they suddenly have to pivot. And they have to be ready to take that
completely different untrodden path, even if there’s only a nugget of belief in
their belly that it will lead to success.
Yes, entrepreneurship is risky, but
understanding the type of risk involved will surely help make such a decision
Kate Simpson is
national director of knowledge management at Bennett Jones LLP and is
responsible for developing the firm’s KM strategy and initiatives. Opinions
expressed are her own.