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February 11, 2007

The Soul of the Solo - What Makes A Lawyer Entrepreneurial?

I have often wondered why it felt easier for me than others to go solo.  In this world of billions of human beings there are those who are smarter than me, better educated than me, more industrious than me, more well-travelled, more gifted on a myriad of levels.  But it is not genius or great grades or better opportunities that primarily drives one to be an entrepreneur, the solo practitioner.  It's not fearlessness in the face of insurmountable odds.  It's not risk-taking for the sake of taking risk.  It is something else.

And while some know immediately they will never work for another, for others it is more a voyage of discovery through perceived lost opportunities or no opportunities down the more traditional path.

But I never saw it put into words until a recently discovered article by Saras D. Sarasvathy (June 21, 2001) titled "What Makes Entrepreneurs Entrepreneurial?" prepared for submission to the Harvard Business Review.  At time of authorship she was employed at the University of Washington School of Business in Seattle, Washington.

This article captured my imagination because she talks through imagery like I do, paints a picture of how the entrepreneur operates and why one person is an entrepreneur versus another.  And when you read the article you will see with absolute clarity why those who succeed in business succeed.

"In 1997, I set out on a rather perilous but exhilarating journey to investigate this question. (What makes entrepreneurs entrepreneurial?)  Traveling across 17 states in the US over several months, I met with 30 founders of companies ranging in size from $200 M to $6.5 B and spanning a variety of industries from steel and railroad to teddy bears and semiconductors and bio-tech.  The idea behind the study was not merely to interview these founders, but to get behind their stories and understand how they reason about specific problems in transforming an idea into an enduring firm......Rigorous analyses of these transcribed tapes led to rather surprising but eminently teachable principles."

Her premise begins with entrepreneurs are by nature effectual reasoners (versus causal reasoners) and effectual reasoning is inherently creative.

"The simple task of cooking dinner may be used to contrast the two types of reasoning (causal and effectual).  A chef who is given a specific menu and has only to pick out his or her favorite recipes for the items on the menu, shop for the ingredients and cook the meal in their own well-equipped kitchen is an example of causal reasoning.  An example of effectual reasoning would involve the chef who is not given a menu in advance, and is escorted to a strange kitchen where he or she has to explore the cupboards for unspecified ingredients and cook a meal with them.  While both causal and effectual reasoning call for domain-specific skills and training, effectual reasoning demands something more -- imagination, spontaneity, risk-taking, and salesmanship.

"All entrepreneurs begin with three categories of means: (1) Who they are - their traits, tastes and abilities; (2) What they know - their education, training, expertise, and experience; and, (3) Whom they know - their social and professional networks.  Using these means.the entrepreneurs begin to imagine and implement possible effects that can be created with them.  Most often, they start very small with the means that are closest at hand, and move almost directly into action without elaborate planning.....(they) know that surprises are not deviations from the path.  Instead they are the norm, the flora and fauna of the landscape, from which one learns to forge a path through the jungle.

Entrepreneurs are entrepreneurial, as differentiated from managerial or strategic, because they think effectually; they believe in a yet-to-be-made future shaped by human action; and they realize that to the extent that this human action can control the future, they need not expend energies trying to predict it.  In fact, to the extent that the future is shaped by human action, it is not much use trying to predict it - it is much more useful to understand and work with the people who are engaged in the decisions and actions that bring it into existence."

I encourage you to print it out, sit in your favorite chair, read it thoroughly, and absorb......as I believe those who nurture a spark of independence will find the fuel to turn up their entrepreneurial flame. It will also put to rest for some this debate of one law school over the other for the sake of ranking (as there are just too many variables in one's decision as to where they can or need to go).  The true entrepreurial lawyer doesn't give a rat's @#$ about school ranking in the context of the big picture.  They just want to get into any kitchen and cook!!!

And an example of someone who couldn't wait until he even grew up to get in the kitchen and cook, is Cameron Johnson who exemplifies the "definition" of a true entrepreneur.  He was 12 when the entrepreneurial flame flashed bright and he made his first million before the age of 21.  Read an excerpt of his story. 

Lawyers are no different.  Why?  Because they are human beings with ambitions and desires and a need to effectuate change in their lives and others long before they learned this specific skill set that came with being called an "attorney." There are no barriers but those we impose upon ourselves.  And every solo practitioner is a testament to that entrepreneurial spirit.  It is not the rebellion of someone who can't make it in Biglaw or the only option of someone who went to a school Biglaw doesn't favor.  It is that intangible feeling in the gut that says, "I can do this!"   

Don't listen to those who will attempt to snuff out that flame or an industry that tells you 'do it this way.'  Shut out the noise, honor your gut and as long as you are not breaking any clearly defined rules of 'what not to do,'  find a mentor(s) you trust and who believes in you and your ambitions.....and just go for it



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I really enjoyed this post and the excerpts of the article quoted. I'm printing it out now as I type! Thanks for the insight and the tip.

Carolyn Elefant

This post is really very rich, with lots of veins for comment, especially the notion of the solo as entrepreneur. But what I'll comment on here is what I found most interesting about the attached article was the history of U-Haul because what the company's founder did to create his company was positively anathema to conventional wisdom about starting a firm. Among other things, U-haul's founder had no business plan, he kept throwing good money after bad and he gave away his service for free. Quite the contrast to the current wisdom about starting a law firm such as writing a business plan, dumping loser clients and never undercharging! I think the story teaches that there are many different ways to success if you're determined enough (or desperate enough) and for that reason, it's very inspiring.

Peter Olson

The post made me think of Extraordinary Minds by Howard Gardner. It noted four categories: the examples were Mozart, Freud, Ghandi, and Virginia Wolf. My point, some people simply have a certain mindset. That's the trick, finding your best brain lobe.

The Independent Urologist

Great post

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