Attorney Success: Overcome Fear with Entrepreneurial Approaches

Once I can see these subconscious thoughts, feelings, and obstacles, once I am aware of them, I can face them, process them, deal with them. When I do, I become better prepared for the next venture I want to undertake.
— Jack Canfield, The Success Principles

To suggest that lawyers will be more successful if they implement more entrepreneurial tactics implies the premise that the two are significantly different.  If so, how?

Considering the topic of fear, both entrepreneurs and lawyers encounter fear and risk when conducting their work.  Entrepreneurs may have a bit more wiggle room for trial and error as they develop a business, but attorneys also have the opportunity to build business development skills, even when they are not yet partners or business owners.  Some of those practices are standard to entrepreneurs.

Law firms and lawyers have long been known to move glacially on decisions, yet for today’s faster-paced world, it is important to a) act sooner, and b) have an alternative/contingency plan.  Leverage the following entrepreneurial best practices to equip yourself to act quicker with confidence, and to design your primary approaches for given situations – as well as your “Plan B.”  Having an alternative will help alleviate fear.

Entrepreneurial Best Practice:  Measure

Strong entrepreneurs measure several aspects of their work and ideas.  An attorney knows that he will be measured by the billable hour, but what does he measure of his own progress?  Measure yourself with the approaches outlined below to better identify strengths and weaknesses and prepare for more diligent business development.  Measurement will also motivate you away from fear-induced paralysis.  Measure to overcome fear of competition.

Entrepreneurial Best Practice:  Follow-up

Attorneys tend not to always perform follow-up tasks after an event or activity.  Lack of follow-up is a common human trait, overcome by practice.  Successful law firms often tie approval for expenditures to a required plan that includes projected follow-up steps.  Entrepreneurs know that follow-up is a means to the reward of business, activity, and compensation.  Thus, an individual attorney who outlines follow-up steps as part of the initial plan (for networking, event follow-up, project post-mortem) will be more apt to complete those steps and gain understanding of the client/prospect.  Reviewing and refining the follow-up process will lead to efficiency and habit.  And, when the attorney’s follow-up plan is considered along with the potential reward (new business, new income, possible increase in stature within the firm, enhanced knowledge base, enhanced reputation, etc.), that strengthens the likelihood of completion which in turn strengthens the results.  Utilize follow-up practices to abate a fear of failure.

Entrepreneurial Best Practice:  Mentors

Partners guide new attorneys in their work as required by the ethics rules, and often those partners become the attorneys’ mentors.  Yet, a variety of mentors beyond the borders of the firm should supplement mentorship.  For example:  a law school classmate is helpful for brainstorming and comparing experiences; an older colleague can provide seasoned insights; an in-house counsel can share perspective from the corporate side of the table; and a mentor from within your business industry (e.g. construction, banking, technology) can send alerts regarding industry trends, conferences and interest groups.  Last, always be open to giving back as a mentor yourself in the future.  Rely on a mentor to combat a fear of the unknown.

Entrepreneurial Best Practice:  Self-talk

Both entrepreneurs and attorneys regularly face difficult situations, and may leave themselves open to defeat by their biggest opponents: themselves.  Instead, successful entrepreneurs practice the habit of positive self-talk as well as envisioning positive outcomes.  Anticipate not only the prospect’s or client’s likely critical questions, but also envision them asking how to move forward (engage), and your response to seal the deal.  To reinforce your projected, desired outcome, employ as many senses as possible – how the room feels, looks, smells, and so on.

Entrepreneurs often utilize visualization in this way, learned from athletes who, the night prior to an event, will envision the start, middle, and successful finish along with all requisite sensory input.  Then, as the competitor struggles to push themselves during the event, they can draw upon the visualized positive outcome to power them through to completion.  Visualization and self-talk can power attorneys toward a greater degree of success in reality and in attitude – overcoming the negative reinforcements borne of fear.

Personal example:  A partner came to me years ago, a few degrees shy of terror over an upcoming speaking engagement.  After she briefly explained the opportunity, I asked a few questions that helped re-frame her point of view on the situation.  I helped her reconsider the speech as an opportunity:  it wasn’t impromptu, she could prepare and practice; she knew the crowd (a professional group of which she was a member) and knew their interests – she could play to those interests; we could gain access to the room, so she could practice in the actual space to gauge audience size, sound, and timing.  Last, we went over visualization methods.  The partner’s comfort level rose markedly over the days leading up to the speech.  Her delivery went well and was well-received by her peers, much to the partner’s delight.

Entrepreneurial Best Practice:  Act

Lawyers, generally, are perfectionists.  Some attorneys, however, risk painting themselves into corners of inertia for the want of perfectionism.  Court filing dates and deal milestones can keep a project or matter moving along.  Where attorneys often bog down is in the creative writing side of their work:  I once had an attorney request 22 revisions to a slide deck – 75% of which were stylistic rather than necessary content edits.  Had he not needed to leave to attend a son’s soccer game, we would be revising the deck still today.  Perfectionism can become a forest-for-the-trees problem.  For example:  a firm confronting two costly improvements five years ago, postponed decisions on both for want of consensus to move forward on either one.  Today, the firm faces the required need to spend on both improvement projects inside one fiscal year, when previous approvals might have allowed for a more gradual impact on the budget. 

To move beyond inertia, entrepreneurs seek to act on some thing – thus, they channel fear into focus.  A partner who stalls on a website upgrade today because of cost might be encouraged:  “How may we approach the cost today to move forward, because we know we will need an upgrade at some point – shall we begin setting aside funds now for an implementation start date in six months?”  Or, “Would you have another vendor to recommend?”  Re-channel fear into focus to overcome inertia.

Entrepreneurial Best Practice:  Work ON Your Business

The E Myth Revisited implores entrepreneurs to spend time working ON their businesses not IN their businesses.  The distinction for attorneys would be:  successful completion of a client matter is the substance of working within your chosen business, and successful career planning and development, periodically reviewing and enriching your professional path, are the elements of working ON your business.  Working ON your legal business would involve drafting a personal business and/or marketing (business development) plan, setting benchmarks and periodically evaluating your progress.  I suggest allowing one hour per week (to start) to focus on your personal business development through planning, networking, and social media interaction…and remember to include a follow-up plan.  Hone your business development methods and you will overcome the fear of failure.

Entrepreneurial Best Practice: Hunt

As noted above, new lawyers are shepherded by partners regarding initial work at a firm.  In effect, new lawyers are fed.  In contrast, entrepreneurs must hunt from day one:  hunt for business partners and affiliates, hunt for funding sources, hunt for champions and reliable referral sources, and when everything is in place for business, hunt for prospects.  If a lawyer is merely fed, what will he do when five to eight years down the road he does not make partner or chooses to go out on his own?  You can develop hunting skills now by networking, online and in real life, with legal peers and business industry contacts.  Today’s socially-savvy world is more conducive than ever to give an attorney means to build a business network and business strategy early - for the day when he becomes more of a true business owner.  Learn to hunt and you will overcome the fear of being on your own.

The ABA article, Leaders and the Four Fatal Fears discusses how fear negatively impacts business and ways to develop new behaviour.

  • Fear of failure – can lead to a lack of action, to immobilization
  • Fear of being wrong – can kill creativity, confine your pool of resources
  • Fear of rejection – can lead to consensus seekers who invariably foil progress
  • Fear of discomfort – avoidance of difficult situations may result in a missed learning/growth opportunity

Additional articles related to the topic of fear: 

 “Entrepreneurs and designers think of failure the way most people think of learning.” ~ HBR article, The Number One Enemy of Creativity: the Fear of Failure.

“Failure is simply a process for learning and nothing more.” ~ What Do Entrepreneurs Know that No One Else Knows? 

“In order to do something big, you have to overcome something big.” ~ 4 Ways to Deal with the Fear of Failure,

“What if I succeed?” ~ Ask Yourself These 6 Fear-Killing Questions, Fast Company.

“(7-figure lawyers) can see how things can be different.  They see that change happens by choice…” ~ What Successful 7-Figure Lawyers Believe that You Don’t

Fear of Success article from Psychology Today

Please let us know if you found this information helpful and motivating!  What fear would you like to move past?  Contact us today.

Photo, Brian Bielmann via GrindTV:  The 2014 Eddie Aikau Invitational, one of the most difficult wave-riding competitions in the world.  The contest only happens when waves reach higher than 20 feet.