Life begins at the end of your comfort zone ~ Neale Donald Walsh
We’ve all been there. We are so morbidly afraid to fail. So afraid, in fact, we find ourselves paralyzed and simply can’t take the next step forward. Not one. And when it comes to starting a solo practice or taking on a legal matter one grade level above our expertise or leaving the Big Law job you hate, you name it, it can cripple us and severely limit our futures.
This fear is quite possibly the single strongest force holding people down far below their professional and personal potential. In a crazy world full of uncertainty, a roller coaster economy, the myriad of unexpected disasters that could happen to anyone at any time, isn’t it easy to see why most people will take the safest route possible, the tried and true?
But this is where the joke is on us: playing it safe has risk as well. If you never give yourself permission to fail, your success in life will have clear self-imposed limits. Most people grossly underestimate their recuperative powers if they don’t succeed. This underestimation leads them to pass on valuable opportunities that come knocking. And we’ve all read with awe and longing the stories of those who failed often, failed big and then rose to the top with incredible success. It’s part of our business folklore!
If you are reading this, chances are you want to open a solo practice. Here are a few strategies that can help you put risk and reward of opening up your own business in perspective. It may even help you to challenge the fears which have been holding you back from taking the plunge.
1. Missed opportunities don’t happen without a cost - Without taking risk, you can’t take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. While a steady paycheck may sound appealing, a pink slip can hit you upside the head without warning, too. But, even in with this possibility, your life can still be pleasing and predictable, quiet and reasonably fulfilling. However, the odds of you creating something original are very low and most likely you will not leave any lasting mark on the world. (And that’s not to say that’s a bad thing.) But the reality is today’s careers are dynamic, not static and you may not have the luxury of a pleasing and predictable life. Career planning is less about planning and more about being continuously alert to opportunities that present themselves to you spontaneously. You need to be able to respond. Therefore, the ideal career is one where there is a wide range of opportunities (some more risky, some less) that together form a relatively safe career choice with a high upside for growth. Taking some of these high risk opportunities is essential because at the end of the day, they offer the greatest upside for reward.
2. Banish Ignorance - What we don’t know is the source of most fear. Eliminate the paralyzing power of fear by learning and understanding what you are up against. Research and be aware of all the possible outcomes (both the good and the bad) so you can get both a macro and micro picture of the benefits of success and the risks of failure. This analysis will help you see beyond the fear and help you make a more reasoned and dispassionate decision. Learn what it really means to run your own business as a lawyer. Talk to lawyers who are doing it; talk to lawyers who have done it and now are doing something else. Educate yourself. It is the most powerful antidote to fear.
3. And if you fail? - Know how long it will take you to recover if you fail. Odds are it will be less time than you think and not as financially disruptive as you fear. Is the fear of a few potentially difficult months so strong it can keep you in a mediocre or miserable situation indefinitely?
4. Understand the benefits of failure - While I say there is no such thing as failure if you try (only not trying is failure) others believe you can fail and should fail and should fail often. So if you are in this category know that every failure is an experiment and an opportunity to grow. Sometimes, even if the failure impacts you financially, oftentimes the knowledge you accumulate from the experience can be worth the financial downside. It can even position you for the next opportunity which will help you not only recoup the losses but take you further in your life than you would have gone otherwise. In the corporate world, it is well known that managers prefer to hire someone who tried to start a company and failed than someone who has always been strictly corporate. It is true in the legal world, too. Many who have gone solo have been offered jobs because they showed initiative, took risks, showed they could wear multiple hats and hustle. That the solo practice wasn’t a raging success didn’t matter to the hiring lawyer. The initiative, chutzpah and self-taught education the lawyer received is what mattered.
5. Have a Plan B - Contingency plans (or a safety net) are yet another way to minimize risk. If Plan A doesn’t work out you always have Plan B. Sometimes just knowing there is a Plan B makes it easier to move forward with Plan A. I find, depending upon the situation, having contingency plans allows me to take more risks and take them with greater confidence simply because I know it’s not ‘do or die.’
6. Start Moving - Sometimes the best way to climb the mountain is not to look at the mountain peak but down at your feet and put one foot in front of the other. As soon as you take the first step you begin to gain experience and education. We’ve all been there. Everything is or seems hardest the first time we do it quite simply because we’ve never done it before. So, you just put one foot in front of the other, build up momentum and rhythm and as you get closer to your goal, the fear of not succeeding seems less overwhelming.
How have you addressed your fears?
Susan Cartier Liebel is the Founder & CEO of Solo Practice University®, the only educational and professional networking community for lawyers and law students designed for those who want to create and grow their solo or small firm practices.
A coach/consultant for solos and small firms, an attorney who started her own practice right out of law school, an Entrepreneur Advisor for Law Without Walls, an adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law for eight years teaching law students how to open their own legal practices right out of law school, a columnist for LawyersUSA Weekly, the Connecticut Law Tribune, The Complete Lawyer, and Law.com, she has contributed to numerous online publications such as Forbes.com, legal publications and books on this topic as well as the issues facing women in the workforce. She speaks frequently to law schools and professional organizations around the country on issues facing solos, offering both practical knowledge and inspiration.