Have you heard the one about the lawyer becoming an entrepreneur? It's no joke.
Even business owners may have trouble grasping the concept at first: lawyers who give up their practice to become entrepreneurs. After all, who hasn't daydreamed about standing in a courtroom and nailing a murderer, getting him to break down and confess to a horrific crime?
And yet you have people like Ramy Abu-Yousef, 31, who has happily ditched the lawyer life to go into the restaurant business--and he's not alone. The evidence may be mostly anecdotal, but there's no shortage of attorneys turned entrepreneurs, and maybe that shouldn't be a surprise. After all, what's one of the first pieces of advice an entrepreneur hears when they start a business? Get a lawyer. From the get-go, the attorney-turned-entrepreneur has an edge.
Abu-Yousef, born and raised in Iowa, became the black sheep in the family by going into law. His father was a doctor, and his brother, sister and brother-in-law were all physicians. Becoming an attorney was unthinkable, but eventually his family got used to the idea. And so when Abu-Yousef decided after six years of practicing law at some of the most prestigious firms in the country to open a restaurant, his parents in particular figured their son had lost his mind.
As it turned out, Abu-Yousef, who cooked as a hobby, nearly bought a restaurant in Manhattan Beach, California, but backed out at the last moment, realizing that he was more interested in advising restaurants than actually running one. "It's not as simple as having good food and better ideas," says Abu-Yousef. "It's about management, marketing and all sorts of little things that one wouldn't even think about."
Abu-Yousef recruited some of the top people in the restaurant industry to work for his company, Restaurant Innovations, and while it may have looked odd to outsiders at the time, he took a 50-hour-a-week job as a chef at a top restaurant in New Zealand--a corner of the world where the restaurant industry is growing rapidly.
In a little over a year, Abu-Yousef is employing 12 people and is bringing in more than $1 million in revenue.
But more importantly, Abu-Yousef observes in an e-mail, sent from New Zealand, "At my law firm, I would be looking forward to getting home around the time I walked into the office in the morning. Here, I am excited to get to work in the morning and sad to leave at the end of the day."
Rusty Shaffer is equally glad to be working on his own business, instead of as a lawyer, but he doesn't regret a minute of law school. "If I could, I'd encourage every entrepreneur, even if they don't practice, to go through that exercise of becoming a lawyer," says Shaffer, 44, who was an entrepreneur, quit to become a lawyer and then became an entrepreneur again.
In 1989, Shaffer started his company, Optek Music Systems, Inc., which used computer software to teach people how to play the guitar. But he was a little ahead of his time, and by 1998, just as the computer age was really beginning, Shaffer shut down his business.
"The first year of law school, no, I didn't know that I was going to reopen my business," says Shaffer, who nevertheless hedged his bets and kept one web page up saying that he was re-engineering the product. Over the years, he would get occasional e-mails from people asking him to restart his product--the Fretlight guitar series--and although Shaffer had become a patent attorney, by 2004, he decided the lure of his old company was too great and re-launched it. Today, he has a business that's bringing in millions of dollars annually.
Other attorneys simply take everything they were doing as an attorney and turn it into a business. Such is the case with Helene Taylor, who, from an outsider's perspective, had a glamorous life as a family attorney, licensed in California and Hawaii. Like her TV counterparts, Taylor, who is based in San Francisco, was often in the courtroom, trying to help wives navigate acrimonious divorces.
But behind the scenes it was hardly glamorous. "There was much conflict that I experienced, that I don't in my current profession," says the 38-year-old attorney-turned-entrepreneur. "It was an emotional charge every day, and I feel like I'm using my education and experience in an even more positive way."
Taylor created the Modern Woman's Divorce Guide, an online portal that "empowers women going through divorce," she explains. Taylor, who works out of her home office, projects revenues of around $250,000 next year and is working to make her site "the leading online resource for women who are separated, divorced or facing divorce anywhere in the United States."
But she takes issue with the idea that being a lawyer is cooler than being an entrepreneur. "Being a trial attorney, it's like putting together a puzzle, because a case can have so many different pieces, and you have to put them all together," she says. "But as a CEO, you have to have your hands on everything in the company and put the pieces of that puzzle together, and being a lawyer has helped tremendously in doing that. But both professions do have their own glamour associated with them."
True, but the general public will never figure that out until Hollywood does what entrepreneurs have been clamoring for, for years: create a really good one-hour drama about a crime-solving CEO who provides both good customer service and nails the bad guy in the last 10 minutes.
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.