Should Law Students be Entrepreneurs?
There are several reasons why law students should consider entrepreneurship. I am not going to bore (or depress) you with employment statistics, headlines, or stories about law students robbing banks to pay off loans. We get it. Law school is tough, and finding a job after is even more difficult. And yet, despite the chronic cloud of unemployment hanging over the heads of law students, entrepreneurship is rarely discussed in law schools.
Maybe this is deliberate. After all, attorneys are trained, in part, to assess and (hopefully) help their clients avoid risk. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, knowingly expose themselves to risk, often foregoing a “safe path” for the potential rewards of taking the road less traveled. But then again, few things could be more risky than spending three years of your life holed up in a library and taking on mountains of debt to do so, especially in this market. Maybe law students and entrepreneurs have more in common than most people think?
Over the past few months, I have had the chance to work with a small team of student-entrepreneurs developing a mobile app for Indiana University’s “Building Entrepreneurs in Software and Technology” (BEST) Fund Competition. Since then, we have started a “software as a service” project that we hope to enter in another upcoming startup competition. These opportunities highlighted a few similarities between entrepreneurship and law school. For example, before actually starting my entrepreneurial journey, the notion of starting my own business was exciting. I pictured Justin Timberlake yelling at me from across a nightclub table: A million dollars isn’t cool, you know what’s cool? A billion dollars. In reality, entrepreneurship, at least in my experience, involves more lows than highs, lots of late nights, and plenty of “back to the drawing board” moments. It is certainly not arguments over a million or a billion dollars – yet. Entrepreneurship is not glamorous, but it is still exciting.
If you are a law student, my experience might sound familiar. I’m sure a lot of aspiring attorneys envisioned the lawyer life to be something like a scene out of Perry Mason Suits. Alas, the real life of a law student requires reading; writing, Bluebooking, and more reading (don’t forget the concurring and dissenting opinions). Conveniently, these are the skills you need to be an attorney. Again, not very glamorous, but law school can still be exciting.
Aside from the shared difference between my daydreams and reality, there is one certain similarity between law school and entrepreneurship: both involve high-levels of risk. Law school is no longer the “safe path” it once was. So why should law students consider entrepreneurship and potentially take even more risk?
First, law students are in a better position than most people to start their own business. The more education a person has, the more risk-tolerant that individual is. In other words, if a law student or lawyer attempts a business venture and fails (which is statistically likely), she is more likely to have a back-up plan: I can always be a lawyer! This is oversimplification ignores employment realities, the need to pay back loans, and the pressures to take a more traditional path. However, having your JD affords opportunities that other people may not have (i.e. starting a business).
Second, law students have unique skills that are conducive to entrepreneurship. Law students obviously excel in reading, writing, and research, but they also are trained to think critically and analyze problems. Even more so, law students are (generally) very determined. I once had a veteran attorney tell me that law school isn’t about brain power, it’s about butt power. In other words, how long are you willing to sit on your butt and figure out whatever it is that you are supposed to figure out? Entrepreneurs share this trait. Businesses start as an idea, but that is the easy part. To actually take an idea and make it into a business, an entrepreneur must put in weeks, months, if not years, of time and effort (and money) to make their dream a reality. This process requires an unwavering sense of self-confidence and determination. In other words, how long are you willing to put in the work to make your idea come to life?
There are also some concrete skills that law students learn that set them apart from other professionals or students. For example, I recently drafted a non-disclosure agreement (“NDA”) for a developer that my team was interested in working with. Ideally, this is something an attorney would do, but since we couldn’t afford one, I, as a law student, became sort of general counsel to our venture. Of course, I have little experience drafting contracts, but I was still able to piece an NDA together that was sufficiently tailored to our needs. I could not have done this, at least as well as I did, without my law school education. There are other legal issues that have come up in my entrepreneurial journey: filing for an LLC, trademarking, etc. Although law school does not always teach the practical ins-and-outs of these things, my education provided a basis from which to start.
Finally, entrepreneurship may offer “a more rewarding and meaningful career in the law.” See Renee Newman Knake, Why Law Students Should Be Thinking About Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Legal Services, Bloomberg Law (Nov. 2012), available at http://about.bloomberglaw.com/2012/11/28/innovation/. Again, I don’t want to bring up the dreary statistics about legal employment, but I would like to mention this:millions of people cannot afford or access legal services. Id. This unfortunate reality can be interpreted in many ways, but for the entrepreneurs of the world, this fact is synonymous with opportunity. Law students have the unique opportunity to learn how our legal system really works. This rare understanding is empowering. By combining legal knowledge with an entrepreneurial spirit, a new frontier may be on the horizon for legal services. This frontier not only offers diverse (and potentially lucrative) career opportunities, but it also will give law student-entrepreneurs the chance to drive change and help those in need. What could be more meaningful than that?
The reasons I have provided are certainly not exhaustive, but just a few things that I have learned along the way to becoming both an attorney and an entrepreneur. So should law students be entrepreneurs? I don’t see why not. Law students have plenty of incentives to consider entrepreneurship. Of course, entrepreneurship is not easy, but neither is law school. All it takes is an idea and some butt power. After all, if your drive-thru cupcake shop fails, you can always be a lawyer.
Have other suggestions of ways law students can benefit from entrepreneurship? Leave them for our readers in the comments.