What do Patrice Motsepe, Peter Thiel, Herb Kelleher and Cyril Ramaphosa have in common? They are all billionaires – and also have law degrees!
I looked into the advantage a background in law can give one as an entrepreneur, as these billionaire law graduates currently operate in various fields – from ICT and mining to the airline industry. This list of billionaires should show that a law degree isn't for people who are bad at maths.
In South Africa, the Bachelor of Laws is a four-year degree, then an additional two years is spent in articles, along with board exams to become an admitted attorney. This is a six-year road – if you do a straight LLB in the allocated time.
Therefore it is very encouraging to note that there are other options in which you can apply the skills, apart from legal practice.
Here are the five skills lawyers have that entrepreneurs need:
1. Analytical and sequential thinking
As a first-year law student, you learn how to research, and you're also taught to approach legal matters with a formulaic methodology, which is:
- consider the facts;
- consider the law;
- apply the law to the facts; and
As an entrepreneur you need to know how to research relevantly, especially in the startup phase, or a lot of time will be wasted on what can be solved with one carefully worded Google search. Clients tend to be emotional when relaying facts, and as an attorney, you should be dispassionate – to sift through the flood of feelings to find core elements in order to resolve the matter.
In both law and entrepreneurship: read before you think!
Entrepreneurship can at times feel like untangling Christmas lights – you know it's going to be pretty, but you don't know where to start. Perhaps this is why people ask how an attorney can defend a rapist, murderer or thief – you remove your prejudices and preferences to look at the letter of the law.
When researching your matter, you look at previous cases that have been decided on a matter with similar facts – but you look at the ones that support your case and also those against your case.
In entrepreneurship, if you have tunnel vision you will fail – you must look at your competitors, plus those who have different but complementary goods and services, to forge partnerships. Successful entrepreneurs read a lot and read widely, even outside their field – as do attorneys.
For example, lawyers who have matters relating to the Road Accident Fund may need to read about different body parts, and the effects of injuries to these parts on a clients' quality of life and earning abilities.
In both law and entrepreneurship: read before you think!
Although there is no specific module that teaches negotiation in law school (to my knowledge), by the time one is admitted as a practising attorney you have learned the art of negotiation – negotiating with the clerks at court to draw a file after lunch, negotiating with the lecturer for that extra mark to get out of the supplementary exam, negotiating fees with clients, or negotiating with the other side to settle a matter out of court. As an entrepreneur, you need to know how to negotiate with an investor.
Even lawyers who have a really bad case will do their best to represent their client, so just because as an entrepreneur you are the small guy, don't let that discourage you from voicing your needs.
In a negotiation, you need to come in with a list of non-negotiables. With lawyers, as creatures of instruction, the client will set that baseline – but as an entrepreneur, you are free to set that base for yourself. I heard a lawyer once say, "In a good negotiation, no one should leave with everything they want."
Real-life law practice is nothing like "Suits" or "Boston Legal", just like real-life entrepreneurship is nothing like "Billions" or as fast as "Million Dollar Listing"...
3. Articulation of points and presentation
A good lawyer, regardless of the nature of their legal practice, knows how to communicate effectively; to articulate and lay out their argument with simplicity and accuracy. In law school, we all have to do some kind of moot court presentation, and good universities will also require a thesis. These are the breeding grounds for teaching the skill of succinct communication. Regardless of your personality type – whether introverted or extroverted – is very important to know how to vocalise a concept.
As an entrepreneur, you are selling a product or service, so you need to distil your pitch using the infamous elevator pitch. As a lawyer, you need to present your case both orally and verbally before a grumpy judge or client to get to the point quickly.
Entrepreneurs must know how to make a persuasively written proposal to investors who spend hours looking through proposals, so you can get your foot in the door for a meeting to speak! Real-life law practice is nothing like "Suits" or "Boston Legal", just like real-life entrepreneurship is nothing like "Billions" or as fast as "Million Dollar Listing". But one element that is accurate, is the ability to be coherent in your speech.
Lawyers possess the right amount of confidence – without the arrogance of investment bankers or the aloofness of accountants. As a lawyer, a client's life, family, business or career rests on your ability to do an incredible job, which is a lot of pressure – but in that you also find purpose. In law school, you are taught the gravity of the profession in shaping society, and this gives great confidence – to know that you are part of a profession that gives life to the law and influences the world.
Entrepreneurs must be confident in the solution they present, and also in that they are the right person to solve this problem for their community – and even the world. People are attracted to someone with confidence, and want that person on their legal team or as a partner.
Unfortunately, too many partners in big law firms are so busy chasing their own fees and bonuses that they no longer place a premium on training.
5. Team work
I agree with Tucker Max that the legal profession is akin to a trade, because you need someone to train you and serve as an apprentice. The person who is your principle is what can tip the scale on whether or not one becomes a prolific lawyer, or disappears into the herd.
Even as a genius, you will need a mentor to give you an opportunity to shine and make a ton of mistakes. Unfortunately, too many partners in big law firms are so busy chasing their own fees and bonuses that they no longer place a premium on training.
In law, you can't be successful solo; a partner who invests in training will grow their team's ability to earn more fees in the long run, advocates need attorneys to brief them and work on certain documents, and judges need their clerks.
If you are serious about entrepreneurship, you need to know how to work with people, and you will want a team – because there is no way to do everything on your own without something slipping. As an entrepreneur, you set the culture for the rest of the team – it's not stagnant like the legal fraternity, so be inclusive, patient, tolerant, kind and make it fun!
There are a number of other qualities, like leadership – some of the most famous leaders have studied law, such as Abraham Lincoln, Barack and Michelle Obama, and Standard Bank joint CEO Sim Tshabalala.
To the law graduates currently looking for jobs in articles, or those frustrated in firms, I say there is the option of making your own way in the world – including opening a startup, because you already have the qualities to make it as a great entrepreneur!
I had a startup while I was in university, making faith-based clothing apparel. I stopped it when I started articles.
Who knows what it could have grown into, if I didn't stop – and had rather followed that path, as opposed to the well-beaten route in law?
Now I'm back in entrepreneurship using, my law degree to try to innovate in the legal-practice fraternity through Lawgistics Legal Consultants, to make the prfession more equitable for lawyers and clients.
Don't be discouraged by rejections – they may be opportunities for redirection.
For example, if you learn to code – or any other skill to couple with your law degree – it will set you apart in a class of your own!
Carpe diem,my learned colleagues!