Law School Never Taught Me to Be an Entrepreneur
I am not an entrepreneur, not by my standards, or anyone else’s. I am a lawyer and lobbyist. Now I am Dean of a law school that has a reputation for innovation and training lawyers to work with startups, but I am still no entrepreneur.
I did not “risk the farm” to start a business. But, I’ve worked side-by-side with dozens of entrepreneurs, helping them deal with business regulations and legislative inequities, find legitimate and legal ways to work around outdated rules, structure their businesses to comply with myriad laws — and find opportunities in legal changes.
For example, in 1996, I had input in the Telecommunications Act that opened the door for competition in communications. In opening the door for competition, we grew the pie.
Think about it. Today, we live in a mobile, on-demand, interconnected, global world of variety unbounded by borders, imposed schedules, and distance — a world in which my students cannot conceive of waiting to see their favorite TV show or movie. Grandparents watch grandchildren grow up hour-by-hour from afar over an iPhone photos and videos. Parents call their children on campus to tell them there is a contagious disease outbreak before their kids know about it. Brooklyn Law students enroll in a business course on entrepreneurship online taught at Stanford for free. And, every toddler knows how to hold a mobile phone, or order pizza from his dad’s iPad.
The year 1996 was simply one starting point of change. My colleagues and I have been privileged to address many other legislative and regulatory issues including cyber business, healthcare, and energy — all in helping level the playing field for free and fair competition. Simply put, those of us who work as lawyer/lobbyists have been there to answer the entrepreneur’s battle cry: “There is a better way!” We worked to open competition, enable technological deployment and expand entrepreneurs’ horizons.
Still, no one taught us how to work with an entrepreneur. I, for one, had to learn it all myself along the way. But, even my on-the-job training did not result in my learning to be an entrepreneur. I do not think it can be taught. Not at least the creativity, fearlessness and drive that is innate to entrepreneurs.
So, while I admit that entrepreneurship cannot be taught, we have had the chutzpah to start a Center for Urban Entrepreneurship Program (CUBE) at Brooklyn Law School. We are embedding law students right into working with entrepreneurs in DUMBO (the hot tech startup area) in Brooklyn.
And, we are not expecting them to graduate and know how to be an entrepreneur. We are expecting them to know how to work with, and support, entrepreneurs.
In fact, we have many law graduates who are entrepreneurs who have admitted that law school did not teach them to be entrepreneurs — yet was incredibly helpful to their success.
Case in point is Larry Feldman, CEO of Subway Development Corp. Larry has helped dozens of people become Subway franchisees. He has grown his territory of restaurants to more than 1,500 locations throughout Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and South Florida.
Larry has told me that law school taught him how to be a lawyer. It has helped in structuring and reading franchise agreements and more. It helped him hire and manage lawyers. It has not helped him make a tuna sub, advertise, or learn to train other entrepreneurs.
Other lawyers-turned-entrepreneurs like Erik Dykema also say that law school did not teach them to be entrepreneurs. Erik is CEO of CaseRails, a company that helps lawyers create perfect legal documents faster. In law school, Erik learned about the process and drafting of legal documents. But he did not learn about the realities of running a business and optimizing time.
Erik, one of three co-founders of CaseRails in May of 2013, is often forced to make decisions with incomplete information. They do not have time for indecision — and must move at blinding speed. We cannot teach that at law school.
In fact, that is what I have lived in working with entrepreneurs: Each must make decisions with little information, as though flying in the dark, and devise hairpin course corrections.
Knowing how, what and when to make decisions and guess where the market is going can’t be taught. The loneliness of deciding the direction for a company can’t be replicated in school.
But, notice I said that I have lived watching these entrepreneurs make decisions. I have watched short tempers, dark days, great victories, multi-million-dollar paydays and multi-million-dollar misses.
By being alongside entrepreneurs, I, and other lawyers like me, learned how to anticipate entrepreneurs’ needs and fears, as well as help create a legal path and structure to improve the chances for success.
At law schools, we can replicate and condense career-long experience, similar to my own and that of other lawyers who have worked at the side of entrepreneurs. As educators, we are doing so by placing students with entrepreneurs. Embedded in businesses, law students learn more than basic business literacy, while earning a J.D.
Will they be entrepreneurs themselves? Some may. Most probably will not. But all will graduate with an understanding of how to work with entrepreneurs and meet and anticipate their legal needs. They will learn how to say, “why not!” or “here’s how,” and not just, “no.”
Most law students never learned such lessons in traditional law school curriculums. But, this is no time to be old fashioned.
Now, as an entrepreneur, you can change your expectations and ask — even of a recent law school grad — about their experience helping entrepreneurs. Now, they will most likely have some.