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Going Over to the Business Side of the Fence

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<<The man was very happy but often mumbled to himself from time to time as he thought. I do not think he had ever been married, and he had a lot of presence, but it was not the sort of presence a law firm or corporation would want to show off to the outside world. He also was not the savviest dresser; for example, his socks did not match. Moreover, he did not seem to have the best hygiene. He probably shaved and/or trimmed his beard no more than a couple of times per year.

What made the man interesting to me was that whenever he said something or made an observation, he seemed dead-on. He would watch people in our group and make observations that were incredibly accurate.



"I practiced for one year at Irell," he told me. "Then I went to work at a major studio. They very quickly figured out I was not that good at practicing law but had a real knack for very good opinions about what the other side was going to do in a negotiation. Essentially, all I did throughout my career was spend the majority of my time writing memos about what I thought the other side was going to do in a studio negotiation—just my opinions and no law. In fact, I got very rich doing this."

He went on to tell me that he had been in magazines like Vanity Fair and that he had frequently attended parties and befriended numerous stars. He would mumble about how so and so was crazy, so and so was generous, and so forth. He was almost, in many respects, like a comic jester of sorts—a very interesting person to have around.

Throughout my career, I have met thousands of lawyers and counseled thousands of attorneys about their careers. There is a rare breed of attorney out there that does not practice law and simply practices business in an advisory capacity inside corporations. In many respects, I believe this is one of the rarest sorts of attorneys out there. It is as if these attorneys are taking the skills of the best litigators (oratory skills, the ability to read people, the ability to understand the motivations underlying what people are thinking, and the ability to package and market ideas) and corporate attorneys (the ability to understand business issues, the ability to see small details and their significance, and the ability to negotiate effectively) and combining them with an understanding of forces that operate in the market and how they shape events.

The purpose of this article is to examine the characteristics that make someone a good attorney-businessman. The better you are at something (e.g., business or the practice of law), the more likely you are to move toward doing it. For the attorney desiring to go in-house, I think this is an exceptionally important examination of a very important topic. If you have no business on the business side of things, you are in for trouble and will likely not do well. If you have a good head for business, you should be in-house.

Below, I will describe the major characteristics of the attorney who belongs on the business side of the equation.

1. The attorney who belongs on the business side of the equation is more interested in the business elements of what is going on than he or she is in the legal implications.

If you take a hunting dog out in a field and show it a tennis ball, the dog will likely start shaking out of excitement. The dog will know that if you throw the ball, it will have the opportunity to chase it and return it to you. The dog is like this because it is in its blood. The dog is bred to chase, and psychologically, emotionally, and in every other way, it wants to chase the ball. Some hunting dogs, such as Britney Spaniels, will chase balls over and over again until they die. Their love of the chase is so strong that it is quite literally in their bones.

When an attorney who is more interested in the business side of things is presented with any legal issue—be it a case or a transaction—he or she is likely going to be most interested psychologically, emotionally, and in every other way in what is going on from a business point of view. If it is a drug-dealing criminal case, the attorney will most likely be concerned with questions about how much the dealer paid for the drugs, the profit he or she sold the drugs at, and the chain of possession in terms of where the drugs came from. This type of attorney might even think in terms of cost-benefit analysis and reach conclusions about the efficacy of dealing drugs as a business venture.

You see, some people are born to do certain things, and others are not. It is all about what you love. I like to do yoga, and at the studio I go to, there are a bunch of people who get up at 4:00 a.m. every day to go there to do a special type of yoga. For the time being, this is not something that appeals to me in the slightest, but for others it is.

If you really, really want to be on the business side of things and you belong on the business side of things, then you should already be there. You most likely are spending the majority of your time thinking about the business side of what you are doing. You probably have also been attracted to the business side of things for a long, long time anyway and do not need anyone to tell you this is what you want. Just hearing about the business side of things should conjure up many ideas in your mind about what you can accomplish with the problem at hand.

Conversely, I can always spot "true lawyers" because whenever they hear about an issue, their minds start running to all the legal implications of whatever is involved; that is where their minds go instinctively. You cannot fake this kind of passion, and it goes without saying that there are certain people who really belong on the legal side of whatever they are doing. The law is fascinating to them, and their minds simply work like that. This is a good thing. It demonstrates why an attorney should be practicing law to begin with. If your mind does not work this way, you should not be practicing law—especially if you are passionate about the business side of things.

2. The fact that you are good at law does not mean you are good at business; you need to understand both fields before acting.

From the time I was 18 years old until the time I was 26 years old, I spent my summers, and virtually all of my free time, working as an asphalt contractor. This position involved going out and selling asphalt services to homeowners, then to businesses, and, eventually, to cities. I was very good at this, in many respects. It was only by accident that I did not end up doing this for a living. I was so convinced that I was going to do this that I was applying to master's degree programs in construction and asphalt management my last year of college and only ended up taking the LSAT at the last second—in March of that year.

Working as an asphalt contractor is tough, and it requires a lot of street smarts and hustle. This was the best experience I ever had, and it taught me a lot.

Having a business background, being a legal recruiter, and also being an attorney have given me the ability to see attorneys from these various perspectives. One thing that I have clearly noticed is that the ability to be good at practicing law does not translate into the ability to be good at business, and vice versa. I have seen countless attorneys from top law schools and firms go into business with arrogant attitudes, assuming that the ability to be a good businessperson is similar to the ability to practice law. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. With only some exceptions, I have met few attorneys with good business skills.

Attorneys, however, often believe that they have good business skills. More often than not, they end up giving clients other advice in addition to legal advice, eventually coming to believe that they know what they are doing in the business arena based on this association. When a company or person is being counseled by an attorney, the attorney and his or her advice is often only a small part of the equation, however. There are numerous factors that the company and others will rely upon in reaching a decision and, most often, the attorney's advice will be a smaller part of the equation.

Remember that the fact that you are good at one thing does not mean that you are likely to be good at another. Attorneys are typically quite risk averse, always looking for ways to preserve what is already there. Business people may or may not have some of the same objectives; however, they are also most often concerned with expansion, catering to other people's interests, and getting more business.

Before you jump in on the business side of the equation, you need to make sure that you understand what you are doing. One type of mistake I have often witnessed occurs when the attorney has a lot of small clients who are primarily entrepreneurs with little education. Such entrepreneurs are often very impressed by the credentials of the attorney and will turn to him or her for all sorts of advice. Their lack of education will make them more prone to using the advice of attorneys than they might otherwise be, and the attorneys giving advice to these entrepreneurs will often very quickly become disillusioned that they are smarter than their clients and would have much greater success running their clients' businesses.

I used to spend a lot of time flying small, single propeller airplanes. In Los Angeles, where I live, there are a lot of people who own jets. Jets are very, very expensive, and a decent one costs at least $6 million, if it is small; then you need to pay thousands of dollars per hour to fly it, store it when you are not flying it, maintain it, overhaul it once every year, pay for insurance, and pay for the pilot's salary and lodging wherever you travel. (Most of the guys flying around in these things have their own private pilots.)

Small airports are small communities. There are usually a couple of guys who operate a fuel truck or man the pump at the airport. In flight schools, the instructors and others know who owns which plane, for example. When I consider the many private jet owners I have encountered over the years, I do not think a single one of them was an attorney. Rather, they were guys who owned car wash chains, ran phone book printing operations, manufactured rolls of aluminum for sale to China, manufactured cardboard boxes for television sets, and did other similar things.

Most of these guys had very little education, and when they did, they generally had gone to schools that would not impress most attorneys. Most of these guys also had big law firms like Latham and Watkins and Skadden Arps working for them. Most of these guys probably had not worked in law firms like these, and most of the attorneys in these law firms could never have done the things these entrepreneurs were doing; it is simply a fact. Even if an attorney is good at one thing, he or she is not necessarily going to be good at another. Being an extraordinary businessperson is very different from being an extraordinary attorney.

3. If you thrive on expansionist (as opposed to reductionist) thinking, you are likely to be a good businessperson.

A good attorney will reduce things to their essentials and parse the facts out for display. Conversely, a good businessperson will lay out the facts, as well, but will also think about how to grab onto the most facts and make them into something significant, asking himself or herself, "What can be done to make this bigger and better?"

If you are the latter, you likely know it. If you are unsure, that should tell you something right there.

4. If people imagine you in business and not as an attorney, this should tell you something.

People who should be practicing law are often quite recognizable to others. People who are supposed to be attorneys will hear other people say they "look" and "seem" like attorneys. People who belong in business will hear people close to them saying the opposite. If you belong in business, you will have heard people say so.

5. If you went to law school to make money, you may belong in business.

There are a hell of a lot of easier ways to make money than by being an attorney. Would you believe that there are tons of people out there with no knowledge of medicine making $500,000+ annually selling pharmaceuticals to doctors? There are also tons of auto dealerships at which the average sales associate makes more than $125,000 per year, and you cannot stay employed at these dealerships unless you do, too.

People who are most interested in making money often do not belong in the practice of law. If you are good at practicing law and truly enjoy it, you may make a lot of money doing it—but the interest in simply making money is generally most appealing to people on the business side of the fence.

Conclusions

Do you belong on the business side of things? You need to reach within yourself and ask questions relevant to deciding whether this is really for you. If being on the business side of things is for you, the chances are very good that you already have an innate interest in business and are drawn to it on a cerebral—and even a spiritual—level.

Being on the business side of things does not necessarily mean more opportunity. For a good attorney, there is more opportunity practicing law if that is what he or she is most interested in; however, for an attorney who is interested in the business side of things and finds them more interesting than practicing law on a day-to-day basis, an in-house job is often the very best ticket.

If you are brilliant enough and have enough wits, you can find these sorts of jobs, and they are somewhat plentiful. People seem to love these sorts of attorneys in the Los Angeles area, for example. I once knew a guy who worked for a studio mogul and spent most of his time negotiating with architects, art dealers, and others for the mogul. He made an exceptional living. I have also seen countless attorneys leave lucrative partnerships in law firms to go in-house and work inside companies in advisory roles. The ones who truly have business skills very quickly leave the practice of law.

If you want to be treated like a lawyer, respected like a lawyer, and turned to for advice like a lawyer, the best-kept secret out there is that you should go in-house and work inside a corporation—and then get yourself on the business side of things. The role of an attorney in-house is often not a fun one. Unlike other sorts of attorneys (such as those working inside law firms), in-house attorneys usually are not cherished assets to their organizations. In-house attorneys do not generate revenue for their companies; instead, they spend the majority of their time telling the management and others within the organization why they cannot do the things they want to. When you are on the business side of things, you can push to do certain things that will actually expand the business you are working in.

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About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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About Harrison Barnes

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