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This is not a blog about employment law.
Rather it is about running an employment law firm and leading a team, which I have done with my partner Chris Thomlinson, for ten years now. In fact, this week marks our tenth anniversary.
When Chris and I started our Toronto-based employment law firm, we were experienced employment lawyers, but we had never run a business. We knew no other “legal entrepreneurs” and so, like some of the greatest adventures in life, we plunged in, and made it up as we went along.
Ten years into the piece, there are many things I have learned along the way. However, as a blog is supposed to be short, I have limited myself to 10 things I really know now. Here’s my list:
- At the heart and soul of our business is service to our clients. This sounds simple, but staying focused on this is often not. Lawyers can easily get distracted by profits, success (whatever that means), and somehow thinking clients serve their business interests instead of the other way around. Finding out what your client needs, and how best you can help them solve their problem, should always be your guidepost.
- Business problems that at first seem insurmountable or the end of the world are, at their worst, bumps in the road that can be managed. In fact, they are at their best, blessings in disguise. If you understand this and really take it to heart, you will be very resilient as a business.
- Listen more than you talk. This is probably good life advice in general, but whether you are trying to help a client, sort out a workplace issue or a business problem, it is much better to be the receiver of information than the one who is always “putting it out there”. To be honest, I have not completely mastered this. After ten years though, I do know that leading does not mean taking up most of the air time.
- Here is a radical notion for lawyers. If you are mindful, make the right choices in your practice and in your business, and find great people to work with, it is absolutely possible to be a happy lawyer. I don’t mean not miserable. I mean happy. Here is an even more radical idea. You can practice law, run a law firm, and be your authentic self. Most radical idea of all? Being happy and being authentic will not only make practicing and running a business sustainable, it will give you a competitive edge.
- My partner Chris and I both run. She is fast and runs marathons. I am slow, and plod along the half marathon distance. Nevertheless, our shared ability to run mile after mile at our own respective pace is well suited for the long haul of practicing law and running a firm. Only you can figure out a pace that you can maintain for, say 30 years, and stick to it.
- The work we do in helping people with their workplace problems has meaning and significance. We are privileged and blessed to be able to do this work, and make a living from it.
- If one head is good, twelve heads (in our firm’s case) is better! What we have been able to come up with as a team is far superior to anything any one of us could devise on our own. Our firm is clear evidence that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. By the way, we also do not let anyone join the firm without a clearly demonstrable sense of humour.
- One of the unexpected joys of running a law firm is the ability to leverage financial success to do good in the world. Over the years, we have been able to support many worthwhile initiatives such as school lunches for kids in Africa, training initiatives for economically marginalized women, junior achievement, and literacy programs to name a few. We would not have been able to do this without creating a profitable business.
- It is deeply satisfying to support individual members of a team grow. One of our legal assistants returned to university, finished his BA, and then became a lawyer. Another assistant “grew up” to become our very first communications and marketing manager. While we have had the bittersweet experience of saying goodbye to valued and loved members of the team over the years, we do believe that they have left bigger than when they first walked through our doors.
- You will make lots of mistakes. You will make the same mistakes a few times over. There are mistakes you can’t even dream of that you will make. There are mistakes that aren’t even born yet that you will make. You will make mistakes knowingly, and you will make mistakes unknowingly. You will make mistakes only you know about it, and you will make big whopper mistakes where it feels like the whole world knows. It is a mistake to think that you will not make mistakes.
Here is the good news though. Most mistakes can be fixed. Even better news? It seems that there is a proportionate relationship between the awfulness of the mistake and what you can learn from it.
The last decade has been a journey of learning and opportunity for all of us at Rubin Thomlinson. We’ve also had bucket loads of fun along the way. The clients we serve, the colleagues Chris and I work with, and the firm we’ve built have given me the best 10 years of my life.
I’m in for 20.