I recently had drinks with San Francisco native Casey Berman who is the founder of Leave Law Behind, a consulting practice that helps lawyers who are sick and tired of the industry break away and start their own businesses. Now how cool is that – fewer lawyers and more entrepreneurs…brilliant!
I never understood why so many people can’t stand lawyers until I had to hire one myself. Talk about getting ripped off. I think it’s fantastic that Casey found his calling away from law and is now doing so many more fulfilling and exciting things. And now on to our interview!
Sydney: What lead you decide to go to law school?
Casey: Here’s the answer I would really like to be able to give: I decided to go to law school right after college after careful deliberation and critical thought. I first delved introspectively into my interests and skill sets and came to a pretty good idea of how what I was good at could match my dreams in life. I then looked at law school (along with other graduate programs and career options) in light of my personal needs, wishes, and goals and discovered that the curriculum at law school and the career path it contemplated for me was in fairly good alignment with what made me tick, my ideas of success and my financial dreams.
Instead, I want to law school because I was a Jewish kid who did not like blood (thus ruling out medical school) and I was too lazy to check out any career fairs in college. Also, what really pissed me off was that my LSAT class was scheduled for Sundays (and I often missed my beloved 49ers games . . .)
In short, a really clear lack of critical thinking led me to law school. It’s just what I did.
Sydney: Why do you think so many people decide to go to law school without really wanting to become a lawyer? Money, prestige, boredom, peer pressure?
Casey: Based on my experience in law school, and the many discussions I’ve had with attorneys and law students since I’ve founded Leave Law Behind, I think many people do go into law school wanting to be lawyers.
This issue is going into law school, they don’t really know what it means to “be a lawyer.” Our ideas of being a lawyer are often informed by not-very-reliable sources: TV, movies, social circles, anecdotes, stories. Being a lawyer is a lot different (in good and not-so-good ways) than many of aspiring law students think.
I also feel that many people confuse “being a lawyer” with the more general aspiration of “being successful.” There are traditional occupations – lawyer, doctor, astronaut, president – that imply success. If you aspire to be a lawyer, that’s a good thing – you have your head on straight, you have success down the road waiting for you.
What people do not realize is that there are so many ways to be successful in our world, and going to law school is a focused, niche, specific path to success . . . a path that, however, is not for everyone. We need to educate prospective law students that they should go to law school if (after some critical thinking and introspection) they feel fairly certain that they want to be a successful lawyer . . . not just to be successful in general. There are many other ways to do that.
Sydney: How would you describe what law school is like?
- Difficult (much, much more so than college)
- Perfect (for those who have thought about it critically)
- Invaluable (in creating analytical thinkers)
- Outdated (in its current model)
- Well poised (to change its current model and produce better businesspeople, “do-ers” and creators, and not just lawyers)
Sydney: When did you start thinking being a lawyer wasn’t for you anymore?
Casey: I remember two times. First, at the end of my second year in school. I was extremely desperate for a job (no one would hire me at OCI, the “on-campus interviews” that are set up with law firms) and a small construction litigation firm finally agreed to interview me. I remember introducing myself to the attorney by saying “I’ve always wanted to do asbestos litigation.” I was lying.
And later, when I was in-house counsel at a software firm, and I was so envious of the sales and biz dev departments. I was always relied upon to negotiate licensing agreements, which was of course very important to closing deals, and I do love negotiating agreements, but working on these agreements in isolation of other activities, like sourcing new deals, managing customers, schmoozing new clients, planning new overall strategies, brain storming new ideas, for me was too reactive. “Hey Casey, we’ve got a big deal coming in, please make sure you get that agreement signed before March 31 so we can count that revenue for the quarter”. Law became too reactive for me. I wanted more proactivity. I wanted to create.
Sydney: How did you prepare to walk away? Did you negotiate a separation package?
Casey: I thought about it for, oh, 18 months. Yeah, took a while to gestate. This idea to leave began with some general, unidentifiable frustration or lack of satisfaction. Then it morphed into a clearer picture – that this job (and path I was on) may not be for me. This was a scary realization. I had to work through this for a while, on my own, with my fiancé (and now wife), with friends, family. I got lots of advice, all over the spectrum. Leap and the net will appear. Follow your passion. Wait a few months until after you get married. Don’t leave til you have a job lined up. You’d be stupid to leave. All types of advice.
Once I decided I needed to go, yeah, this was it, I started to plan as best I could. Budgeted my finances, saw what I could afford, worked with my fiancé on our career and family plans. Took me a month to really get the courage to tell the CEO I was leaving. And once I did gain the courage on that Monday morning, it still took me til the following Thursday to actually go into his office, close the door and tell him.
I did not negotiate a separation package. I was leaving on my own, so the company did not owe me anything. What I did do was continue working as an independent contractor for them, providing legal services. I was off to Spain with my wife and her family and then to Italy for a friend’s wedding in July of that year, so I just took my laptop and cellphone and handled the licensing contracts remotely for another 9 months. It was a real nice segue into other things, and the cash flow worked out very well. It had its issue, don’t get me wrong. Connectivity was a pain in Europe back then (and very expensive) and I was very anxious and nervous about not being in the office. Was I missing anything? Would my work product suffer? Could I really do this? But I did it. It was a great baby step. I began to understand that being nervous is great. It often means you’re doing something important, new and helpful.
Sydney: Tell us about your first company Gytha Mander and how you got started? What was your inspiration, biggest challenge, greatest reward?
Casey: I founded Gytha Mander with two friends (Michael Moskowitz, who now runs Bureau of Trade, bureauoftrade.com, and Michael Eiselman, who helps run The Apparel Source, apparelsourcewholesale.com, an east bay clothes wholesaler). I first off wanted to make nice fitting, easy to wear, cotton t shirts with sports team logos. I don’t like the polyester, ill-fitting jerseys that are sold. I also was considering whether to go back and get an executive MBA. I decided starting a company would be a better experience.
We turned my simple t shirt business into a higher end, men’s fashion line. We were really ahead of our time, with our designs, our ideas (a leather shoulder gun holster to hold your cell phone or cigarettes). I had a blast. But let me be clear. We had no idea what we were doing! It’s one thing to like clothes, it’s another thing to run a clothing company. It’s one thing to like coffee, it’s another thing to run a coffee company.
Sydney: How did selling it come about? What advice do you have for entrepreneurs looking to sell their business?
Casey: We were at a point where we knew we had taken the company as far as we could go. It needed more professional management and direction, so we sold the company to Chris Gorog of Revel Industries.
There is a lot to consider when selling your business. What I would tell business owners is to begin thinking about selling your business 3-4 years before you even think an exit could be a possibility. There is so much a business seller must have prepared (business plan, financials, customer list, etc.) that one should get these ducks in a row years prior, so there isn’t a scramble at the last minute.
And, I would advise that they make certain any business, exit or other activity is, as best they can, in alignment with their skills and interests. Just like I’d advise prospective students to really think critically about going to law school, the same goes for beginning and selling a business of any kind – is this business, or is this sale, really in line with what you want to do and what you like? If you sell your business with dollar signs in your eyes, but then lose the one thing in life you love, are interested in and want to work on, than a sale may not be the right activity now.
Untemplaters, did you ever consider going to law school? What made you attend or change your mind? Have you ever met a happy lawyer? If you have a question or comment for Casey please post it below!