Best Practices

Entrepreneurship may not be a part of the curriculum at professional schools, but today, doctors, lawyers and other professionals are learning to think like entrepreneurs--and build better businesses in the process.

Lawyers are famous for impenetrable jargon, but when Jeffrey Unger talks about how he practices law like an entrepreneur, his words are crystalline. "It means I am willing to make an investment of time and capital to grow this business like my clients do," says the 35-year-old Beverly Hills, California, attorney.

In any language, Unger's approach to running a law firm is decidedly entrepreneurial. While developing a specialty providing incorporation services to business owners, he's invested a six-figure sum creating technology to speed up and streamline the process using Web-based information-gathering tools. He has an annual marketing budget that he invests in advertising in trade publications serving accountants (a key referral source), circulating a free e-mail newsletter to 4,000 CPAs and others, and speaking throughout California to provide continuing education to accountants.

In six years, Unger has grown his firm to 10 employees and has a client base stretching from Chico, in Northern California, to San Diego in the south. He's also become a shining example of a professional services provider who runs his company like an entrepreneur. Attorneys, doctors, dentists, engineers and other professional service providers have reputations for being stodgy and unenterprising in the way they do business. But that's mainly a bad rap, according to Doug Hall, an Austin, Texas, business consultant who advises professionals on client retention. "A small law firm or engineering firm is run [in an entrepreneurial way] because there's no choice," says Hall.

Take Rebecca Jensen, 36, owner of The Accounting Source in Spokane, Washington. Jensen left an accounting job in Seattle to become an entrepreneur so she could spend more time with her children. With her husband, Todd, as the company's operations manager, she's crafted an innovative accounting enterprise that markets energetically, embraces new technology, and tirelessly develops new products and services for its markets. "The opportunity to practice my profession as an entrepreneur is extremely important to me," she says. Her secret? "You have to be able to put on different hats and be willing to learn and grow in different areas, as well as know when you need to outsource."

Make It Work

You can grow your professional practice like an entrepreneur if you come up with innovative solutions to your special problems. For example, professionals often find that their management skills are doubly stressed because few are trained to manage or communicate with nonprofessionals. "I don't know how to talk nondoctor," admits Dr. Adam D. Singer, co-founder, chair and CEO of IPC - The Hospitalist Company, a North Hollywood, California, company that supplies physicians trained to care for hospitalized patients. Singer's solution is to hire nonprofessional managers who have the skills he lacks. Says Singer, 44, "You really need two leaders."

Next, face and overcome the challenge of managing other professionals. "Managing other lawyers is like herding cats," Unger says. But he's got a solution: Corral the cats with technology that lets his firm grow without hiring additional professionals. Web-based collaboration allows him to use paralegals, who are less costly-and more easily managed-than the attorneys that a less automated firm would have to hire.

You can also help grow your firm by opening your mind to outside experts and ideas, says Jeffrey J. Denning, a consultant with Practice Performance Group, a La Jolla, California, firm that advises physicians on how to better manage their practices. "Reporting to a committee of doctors is not the way a professional manager wants to work," says Denning. "He wants to report to an enlightened entrepreneur who understands what he's doing."

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This article was originally published in the October 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Best Practices.

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