The Challenges (and Magic) of Beginnings

IMG_1924There is nothing like the feeling of starting something new. I’m talking about new-life-chapter kind of new, where everything familiar shifts and you feel like you’re on the edge of something. You plunge into a different world, shaking expectations and familiarity. It is simultaneously exciting and nerve-wracking and altogether energizing. Few things can compete with the sensation. You end up craving newness, missing it when it fades, then seeking it out again when things get stale. Beginnings can be addictive.

However, they also bring great challenges that we don’t often talk about – not openly at least. Whether it is moving to a new country or starting up a new business (or both), there are serious hurdles to jump and learning curves to ascend. It’s fun but it ain’t easy. The point of this post is to have a candid conversation about those hurdles and how to deal with them, with specific reference to building your own practice.

It appears (to many of a certain social bracket anyways) that the ultimate goal of modern young professional types is to create the perfect “start-up”: you have ultimate flexibility in how and where you work, with no one to answer to except yourself, and, still, the dough flies in the door. This ideal doesn’t quite apply to the legal profession, but I think some young lawyers lean in the direction of their own practice for similar reasons as the idealized perception of a start up.

But in this view of the world and the emphasis on the new, we haze over the reality that life isn’t this simple; nothing is an overnight success. Building up your own business from scratch is exciting and fresh. It does bring a lot of creativity and flexibility to the job. But it isn’t easy.

My personal and professional situation reflects this challenging excitement I’m referring to.  I’m currently based in India where my partner will be working for 18 months. I’m travelling to and from Toronto over the next couple of years, and I’ve just started my own (primarily online) law practice, while building my other new-ish business Grammatika International across borders.  You know, just a minor life shift.

All that I described above about the wondrous sensation of beginnings applies to what I’m doing right now. Every day I experience something I have never seen, done, or known before, in every aspect of my life – from the professional to the daily. It is pretty damn exciting and I am exceptionally lucky.

Yet, I am facing many challenges as well. Moving to a different country where the daily customs and modes of living are rather foreign is stimulating but not always smooth. I wrote about this learning curve a couple months ago. Trying to start new businesses in such a new place is something else altogether. But even if the locale were more familiar, the challenges I would be facing in opening my own law practice would still exist. Some days I’m not sure which is more daunting: moving to India or hanging up your own shingle!

In law school (and perhaps in life generally), we have big ideas of how the future will look. The focus throughout a JD degree is mostly on completing it and then getting licensed. Life as a lawyer is envisioned as one of success, recognition, and steady work. In law school, when you try to think about what happens when the study part is over, you see yourself as an already successful lawyer.

I don’t mean the challenge of becoming successful and experienced is lost on anyone, but simply that the emphasis is placed on earning the official title of ‘lawyer’; the rest seems like it will fall into place. What we envision as a smooth, successful career actually comes years down the road, not at the beginning.

What we didn’t really know at the time of study and many of us are figuring out now is how difficult it is to develop a new business, which is exactly what a private law practice is. Many young lawyers don’t choose to go into sole practice either; rather, it is the result of a tough job market and few alternatives, so preparation is even more minimal.

The point I’m making is that in law school, we glazed over the challenge of starting. We didn’t talk about the beginning. We weren’t trained in how to begin. What we saw as lawyer life was actually 5-10 (or more) years down the road. In law school, there were career panels that invited experienced lawyers to tell us what their professional life was like, which was helpful, but I don’t remember discussions about the nitty gritty of starting up. In a move I admire, Osgoode recently launched a seminar about the practical elements of opening a sole practice. The Law Practice Program, the alternative licensing process with the Law Society of Upper Canada, also teaches these skills in the classroom portion of the program. However, when I was studying, this wasn’t an option.

Granted, a lot of this learning happens in doing rather than passively learning, a reason why I’m a strong advocate of experiential learning. Still, there are unique challenges that arise when you have to do it all on your own. I simply wish I had spoken to more people at this stage of their careers while I was planning mine. I know many friends and colleagues hanging up their own shingle these days who may wish the same.

So, what are the challenges?

Well, first letting it sink in that success won’t happen quickly. This is a long process and few businesses boom the way we think they do. Get used to it!

This goes part and parcel with the next trial: clients! Even if you have a great product (aka you think you’re a stellar lawyer), it may take a while for people to believe it enough to pay you.  So how do you convince them? That’s a whole separate post in itself, but, in short, be creative and patient. And hustle hard.

What to do as you wait for things to take off then? Be strategic and plan accordingly. You’ve got to find some way to get an income for the initial months (or years?). Whether that’s a loan or savings or small jobs/contractual work, do it. And as you’re figuring that out, keep overhead low. The allure of starting your own thing is (to many) having a nice office and new equipment and fancy logos and slick promo materials with staff and a stocked fridge while attending all of the fancy Continuing Professional Development workshops to learn and network as much as possible. That would be ideal for many, but it may not be smart or even possible. Yes, you do have to invest some money in these things because some are just necessary; you want to look professional. Still, think hard about it all and ask yourself what you really need upfront.

There are more practical challenges that come along with starting a business, like identifying your “brand” or, as I’ve described it, what vibe you want to give people. Next there is figuring out who your key audience is and how to reach them. Then there’s marketing and deciding whether/how to use social media to do so. (Uff. I make it sound simple, but it’s not and I do want to elaborate. Yet I don’t want to write for another 1500 words and make this post unreadable, so I’ll save these topics for separate conversations).

Perhaps the greatest challenges that come with new professional beginnings are frustration and finding the patience and confidence to persevere. With that, there’s no real solution. It is helpful to have a cheerleader, someone who really supports you and believes in you, to talk about all of this with. But really, it must come from you. Acknowledge some days will be shitty and things take time to build.

Beginnings are indeed magical and there is something incredibly unique about it. I mean, you can’t start the same thing twice, so you’ll never know this again in precisely this way. So savour the feeling of the moment, acknowledge it is hard, then enjoy the benefits it does bring – like the energy, flexibility, and creativity. Soon you’ll be experiencing the satisfaction of having climbed a mountain and taking in the view.

And that is worth it.



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