Switching from law to business (Part 2) – What’s it like
In my last post, I had shared with you some of the insights I developed when transitioning from law (a technical, licensed profession) to “commercial” (a generalist, non-licensed vocation).
Or perhaps it’s just a huge psychological leap of faith.
In any event, I was by no means alone in wanting to make this leap. And that’s why I feel compelled to share with you these thoughts. I know most people who are looking to change careers at a mid-senior level would experience considerable doubt and anxiety over the decision. Perhaps my posts will help you.
Technical to general – how your frameworks are completely different
The first big adjustment is to realize that unlike the law, the general commercial and business world do not have established frameworks and bodies of knowledge that are centuries old and binding. Law and jurisprudence are ancient things – and unlike business principles - are codified. Where it isn’t codified it is perpetuated through precedents, or legal dogma. Therefore every good lawyer must know the law, what went before her, the history of the development of legal principles, the current statutory regime, and statutory interpretation by the judiciary. Understanding whether your legal view is right or wrong is often a function of testing against what has been paid down by legislature and judiciary.
Contrast this with business – where principles change in response to market dynamics. In one generation’s time business valuations have moved from being driven by revenue and profitability to “eyeballs” and user base. Being right or wrong is simply what the market, in its collective “wisdom” determines. Being right is simply doing something that works well.
This difference accounts for why boardrooms see many more polarized viewpoints than teams of lawyers do (except in litigation where the very nature of dispute resolution requires disagreeing with the premise of the case). That’s why you have management theories and legal doctrine. Even the terminology reflects that one is theory and the other is law.
That’s the first lesson I learned – you don’t have a body of knowledge to lean on and point to, something that will shut others up.
Dealing with ambiguity
Since business does not have a huge and established framework that people are bound to follow, it is inherently more flexible, and perhaps even more inventive. It’s why you can have visionary entrepreneurs “disrupt” business practice by simply choosing to do things differently. But this means being extraordinarily comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty.
In the law, because I had a framework of knowledge that I was bound to follow, I did not really have to deal with ambiguity in quite the same way. If in doubt, you research case law and textbooks. The principles are the same, within a given jurisdiction. Their application may differ but no one has fundamental disagreements on whether or not damages arise if a contract is breached.
In the commercial world however, since there isn’t a binding framework, there is a great deal more ambiguity around outcome. Or, put another way, room for difference. That explains the tomes of management theory, some based on actual empirical research, and why different approaches result in success. You can accept or reject these approaches without violating the framework. Therefore, you need to be really comfortable going against the grain, and dealing with the ambiguity of living in a world where there are no universally acceptable principles.
In law, you need to be sure of the law. In business you need to be sure of yourself.
Backing yourself – the power of reasoning
As a lawyer, I pride myself on my reasoning ability. There is no doubt that legal training helps enormously to hone analytical and reasoning skills, to package and communicate complex concepts in logically consistent ways. This is an enormous skill that is deeply valued in all endeavours. It is something I’m grateful for every single day.
But interestingly, in the commercial world I’ve discovered my discomfiture when coming up with ideas and approaches. I don’t have the safety rail of the framework of knowledge. In expressing a point of view I need to back it up 100% with my reasoning. I may borrow from stats and data, but ultimately it’s my reasoning from first principles that really counts.
That may sound unremarkable on it’s own, except that I realize that as a lawyer we often appeal to authority to support our reasoning. We cite case law, text books, legal journals. We refer to past precedent. We don’t simply stop with our reasoning, we then clinch it by appealing to someone else reasoning, which is binding or near enough. And if two lawyers disagree, there is always the judiciary which has the absolute final say. Psychologically, that is a safety rail of sorts – you know that eventually there is an institution that can settle things finally, and that makes the decision for everyone.
That is rather a large point of difference – not having that second limb (the safety rail) available to me in the commercial world has often left me feeling slightly unsure and wobbly about my view. And that is despite the fact that my view is usually quite well reasoned and logical. The problem is that it’s my view. And I don’t know if anyone else shares it. And it won’t matter too much if they do because it’s not binding. And there is no independent authority that will settle differences in opinion.
So this is what it boils down to – in law we decide things by reason of authority. In the business world we decide by the authority of our reasoning.
And that means backing yourself.
The power of relationships
All human endeavour rests on good relationships. Our fellowman is essential to our well-being. In corporate law it is possible to be technically brilliant, breathtakingly effective and yet not depend on relationships too much. Being the “authority” in the room gives you certain privileges and exempts you from having to coax people to your point of view. You’re professional expertise protects you from dissent by people outside your profession. A well regarded lawyer’s influence derives more from the authority of their qualification rather than their social skills.
But in the business world, influence is very largely an outcome of relationships and a record of solid reasoning that delivered great outcomes. That is why leaders in the business are very different from leaders in the law. Leaders in the business are about connecting emotionally and inspirationally with diverse teams of diverse capability with diverse motives, and nowadays, in diverse geographies. Business success relies greatly on stakeholder management, coalition building and charismatic influencing skills built around experience and performance.
To sum up then, in law it seems that influence and credibility is determined by your technical authority and specialist knowledge, whereas in business it’s largely determined by your effectiveness at bringing people with you for the journey that you believe is the one everyone should be on.
Execution is really about bringing people with you on the journey. People, however, can disagree with you and peel off and not follow you on your journey. The dissenters may often form a separate group with a different idea and do better, or worse. But they’re all valid options.
In law, it’s harder to approach the same issue in myriad ways. Ultimately you will always bump up against the boundaries of legal dogma or client instructions.
In my experience, that made execution on projects in corporate law more a function of knowing the boundaries, and then incredible hard work, intellectual stamina, persistence, the ability to deal with ridiculous amount of last minute stress, and sheer grit and staying power.
At various times I’m sure these are true in the commercial world too. I confess that in my brief time outside the law I have not been anywhere near as stressed as I was in the law. But I have other challenges – executing on projects is much harder. I have to use my reasoning skills, use what little influence I can muster, and use relationship-building as a means to achieve my ends much more than simply saying: “this is what the law requires”. At the risk of generalizing, lawyers tend to be “alpha” types, highly driven, competitive and motivated. That is not nearly as true , as generally, in the commercial world. There are extraordinarily talented and capable people with stunning intellectual ability. There are also those that have no desire to professionally challenge themselves and do a good job every day, and that’s it. Bringing such diverse mentalities together and concentrating them on executing something is a huge challenge.
I finally understand why leadership is such a sought-after trait, and so rare. I also understand why so many authors and management gurus keep repeating: “Every organisation has ‘leaders’. What organisations need are ‘those who lead’.”
In law, you execute by being excellent. In the commercial world you execute by inspiring excellence.
So, what's it like?
Let’s recap: law is quite prescriptive and built on tradition and binding dogma. It solves the problem of ambiguity by building on the decisions of those who came before. It has the benefit of authorities that sit in judgement and are the final say. It derives its power from the extensive, specialized training that is required to practice it. For these reasons influence matters less than technical skill. Executing projects in law require different skills than executing in business.
All in all, it simply reinforces my deepest conviction – we can do anything we put our minds too, and things are not as arcane and hard-to-do as people pretend they are. They’re just very different. And being prepared to deal with those differences positively and with agility is a much bigger indicator of success than what you’ve spent your career doing.
What’s it like? If you’ve ever dreamed that you’re flying then you know. Scary, and out of control, and incredibly EXCITING. If you’ve never dreamed of flying, start now.