By Spencer Farris
I have been self-employed — or as I call it, unemployed with overhead — for a couple of decades. Unless it was one of the days I skipped, no one in law school taught us how to operate a law firm. It requires a much different skill set from being a trial lawyer; in fact, many of the skills are exactly the opposite of what a trial lawyer does.
As a business owner me, I have to solve problems, but the approach is much different than trial lawyer me uses. I can’t drag a lousy vendor to court on a motion hearing if he sells me a broken product. The threat of litigation scares most businesses onto the straight and narrow, but for those already in litigation, it is just another day at the office.
A high school student told me a couple of years ago that he wanted to get a business degree and go into business for himself.
“Great idea! What do you want to do?” I asked him.
He looked at me blankly and as if I were speaking Martian.
We don’t go start a business just to own a business; the business is the vehicle that lets us get to the work. Mine is an old Studebaker with three bald tires and a spring coming through the seat upholstery.
My oldest son recently started his own business with a friend, or as he calls it, working 60 hours to keep from working 40. He rented space next to my office, and I see him regularly, which is nice. His growing pains in the new venture bring back memories of when I started my law firm. Thankfully, those experiences are barely even memories now, far in the rearview.
Starting a new venture of any kind is a young person’s game. You can get a lot accomplished with ambition and a lot of energy. Conversely, you can maintain what you have been doing with experience and an occasional nap.
One major difference between my son and me is our upbringing. As a Gen Xer, I let myself into an empty house after school, jumped bikes over propane tanks, had bottle rocket fights, and was gone till dark without cellphones or any way to check-in. It made perfect sense for me to start my own law firm with no business background or idea of what it would entail. What was the worst that could happen? I could always fail and go to work for someone else.
My son had a parent overseeing most of his activities. His days were structured from wake to sleep. Striking out on his own seems bolder to me.
When he said he was behind invoicing customers, I asked him about getting his bookkeeping and banking set up. He complained that he was too busy doing the work. I could only laugh. When I started my firm, I was a full-time single dad half of the time. I had a decent-sized caseload and dockets to answer, and I didn’t think there were enough hours in the day, either.
“What were you doing at 3 in the morning?” I asked him. “You can sleep when you are dead. Better get your work done while you can.”
He rolled his eyes but didn’t say anything. Young people these days want to have a work-life balance. If I had mentioned that concept to my boss at his age, I would have been given the opportunity to have a life without work — or a job. I am convinced that the new way is better. Even so, my baby law firm wouldn’t have survived those early days but for the hours I spent building a business to practice law in. I remember painting walls, configuring computers and learning to do bookkeeping. Fortunately, I don’t remember the days running on two hours of sleep and three pots of coffee.
There must be a happy medium between working ourselves to death and not working at all. Until I find it, I will listen while my son complains about how much he has to do each day and try to hide my smile.
Spencer Farris is the founding partner of The S.E. Farris Law Firm in St Louis. His column is made available by Missouri Lawyers Weekly.