The Attorney and the Entrepreneur: Divergent Paths to a Common Goal




Guest post from Adele Falco


When working well together, entrepreneurs and lawyers are aligned to a common goal: building a growing, sustainable, and secure organization. In a successful partnership, each of these parties contributes its skills, resources, and talents to this task.

Yet our understanding of what drives either party might be unclear to us or perhaps based on stereotypical assumptions that may or may not apply. What might lawyers not know about the entrepreneurs with whom they work? How might the entrepreneur approach problem-solving differently from an attorney?


Walls vs. Windows


Lawyers are trained and rewarded for compiling details well, leaving no stone unturned, asking all the right questions, researching facts, etc. This comprehensive style of productivity contrasts to that of the entrepreneur. In a dynamic entrepreneurial business, movement is essential, i.e., being able to detect almost intuitively what needs to happen next, even though it may cause a variance in the goals or objectives and moving the organization even without a complete understanding of the underlying details.


This shift can be based on many factors, from a new opportunity to slight changes in the business environment or unimaginably, a global pandemic (hard to believe that would ever happen). While the attorney is piling up the stones that will eventually form the foundation, the entrepreneur is moving to a new site, where the conditions are more favorable. Is this a problem? That too draws out the contrasts in these roles.


While lawyers respond to “problems” with deep analysis and conclusions, entrepreneurs view problems as milestones that shape the plan as it develops. The lawyer is building walls of critical knowledge brick-by-brick. The entrepreneur is responding to changes in the environment that shape how many windows those walls should have. At some point in every major start-up, lawyers were building walls that needed revision once the windows were fully designed. And while some may see this as a waste of time and effort, we can also view it as a building that has been designed with the residents in mind, i.e., a place that responded to variations that made the difference between a building that is standing or one that is outstanding. Keep in mind that every brick of knowledge contributes to the overall success, even if that brick was not used in the final product. By considering and then eliminating options, we get closer to what we actually want.


Time vs. Timing


Successful attorneys are mindful of the rules, know their deadlines, study procedures and protocols and consistently factor time into their work. Time is the measure for success, not only because it drives income but also because schedules and deadlines are a fundamental part of practicing law. Being a responsible attorney is to be mindful of time; knowing when something must be completed and accurately estimating how much time it will take to get it done. Time is an absolute, a never stopping, never varying, measure of work.


On the other hand, entrepreneurs view absolute time as a concept that certainly matters but is applied very differently as a measure of accomplishment. Highly successful start-ups have demonstrated that success can have many varying timelines. Amazon turned its first profit in 2001 (.01 per share!) after starting off as an online bookseller in 1994. Along the way, Amazon evolved multiple times, asking its shareholders to understand that time was not its driving yardstick for what would be its future. While lawyers watch their time in increments, measuring productivity and results in intervals of what to do and when to do it, entrepreneurs are looking at a larger timepiece that measures time not by what has been spent but what lies ahead. This fundamental view of time may seem like a petty difference (but isn’t). Imagine two people in a town square having an engaging and lively conversation that has value to both parties. One is occasionally eyeballing the clocktower, observing the minutes that have passed during their chat, perhaps seeing this time as a reduction from available time for that workday. The other is glancing at the clocktower, thinking of how information from the conversation can be integrated into a larger plan for the day. It is not time spent; it is time invested in the next event, whatever that might be. Pragmatists may say that either way time has passed and indeed it has. The difference lies in how each party converts that time into their own experience.


Precedent vs. Innovation


In the practice of law, a frequent question is whether a precedent has been established for a given situation. Having precedence is key to forming a common understanding between diverse parties. A precedent sets a standard of sorts, providing a foundation for the next stage of thought and understanding. Entrepreneurship is essentially the process of upsetting precedent to create innovation. Innovation is, by its very nature, the act of upsetting the preceding understanding of how something should work. To review the precedent is valuable and helpful context for lawyers and judges. It is the bedrock upon which decisions on how to act evolve over time. By contrast, entrepreneurs succeed by dislodging precedence or, at a minimum, by revising it so that a significant alteration can be made. Again, imagine two people dining out at an expensive and highly esteemed restaurant. One party chooses to order the signature dish, having read reviews extolling its fabulous reputation and knowing it will be prepared by established culinary experts. The second party notices that the restaurant also has a daily special based on seasonally available ingredients. Both have chosen options hoping to experience a gratifying meal prepared by the same established experts. These two people are enjoying their experience in contrasting ways, but both sharing similar expectations.


Columns vs. Rows


One way to look at the different viewpoints of lawyers and entrepreneurs is to compare it to a spreadsheet. A lawyer’s role is that of building rows; adding informational inputs that help complete and round out a set of information so that a picture can be clearly ascertained. An entrepreneur is adding columns, i.e., additional, and perhaps alternate ways of shaping the data so that the picture can be expanded upon and revised. It’s on us to honor the need for both columns and rows in any spreadsheet, allowing innovation to arise from that grid.

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