I can still remember talking with my partner Davis O'Connor at our annual retreat in 1998. We were sitting on the stairs waiting for some meeting or another when I first voiced what I had been thinking for some time. "You know, Davis," I began, "this project we are doing for Albertson's raises interesting possibilities. I think we may have the makings of a business here."
As a member of our firm's management committee, Davis knew that my technical team had built an extranet-based labor case management system for Albertson's. He also knew that we were building litigation extranets for a number of other clients. I had been musing about how I saw elements coming together that might make the mythical "paperless office" real.
As usual, this sounded like some of my "pie-in-the-sky" thinking. But for the first time we were combining the power of a database (search, sort and filter) with imaging technology, work flow and, most important of all, a universal distribution mechanism-the Internet. Suddenly, we could connect hundreds of law firms together, sharing documents, data, work product and task and deadline information. Suddenly, teams could meaningfully collaborate across the ether. Clients seemed to like these capabilities, particularly because it all worked using a standard Internet browser. They were paying us money to do this.
For Davis, this was all idle chatter to fill the time. After all, who hasn't dreamed of starting a new business or going off on some wild career path? For me, this was something more. Try as I might, I couldn't get the thought out of my head: Why not something new? After 20 good years of practicing law, what was left? Another 20 years of the same? Was that enough?
Two years later, the firm spun off CaseShare Systems as a separate entity and I became its CEO. As part of the deal to satisfy our ethics mavens, I stopped practicing law. Ethics aside, I couldn't run a 20-person business and still practice law. You're either on the bus or you're not.
I have been riding this bus for almost three years now. What better time to share some of my thoughts about the change than in an issue focusing on career transitions? I made a choice for change and so can you, if that is what you truly want. If you're wondering how it works, here are my answers to some of the questions I regularly get from people thinking about doing something different.
- Do you miss the timesheets? This is an easy one. No, not for a second. But going beyond that, what I really love is doing projects for a fixed fee. There is no project too complex for a fixed-fee approach, something the construction industry knows and the legal profession should learn. Once you agree on the fee, all interests align. Both sides have agreed on value and both are working for a common objective. Your client wants the project done right and so do you. That is how you obtain more business.
- Was it scary? You bet. There were days when it was hard getting out of bed. All of us fear failure, some more than most. But getting out of bed is what you learn to do, sometimes promising only to "do my best." As Yogi Berra once said, "Ninety percent of success is showing up." Besides, you have to get comfortable with taking risks. You can't safely jump off a cliff. You just do it. But you can carry a parachute.
- How did you know when to make the move? Like exercise and dieting, there is no right time to start. You just start as soon as you can and hope for the best. The irony here is that timing is everything. Some time it right and some either start too early or too late. But you have to start or you will never succeed.
- Do you miss the practice? No, but don't get me wrong. I wasn't an unhappy lawyer; rather, I saw a chance to do some good. Fighting people in complex cases was both challenging and stimulating. So is building a business. Running toward is better than running away from something.
- What's your advice to someone thinking of a change? Remember the first rule of wingwalking: "Don't let go of nuttin' until you got a firm hold on something else!" That is solid advice for almost every endeavor. The successful ones don't just quit and start something new. They work on both the old and the new, sometimes for many years before making the change. One of my favorite writers, Scott Turow, reportedly wrote his first books at night and on his commuter trains while keeping up his practice. I ran our extranet business (and our jury consulting and graphics units) for five years before making the leap. By then, I knew something about the business and my own interests.
There is an old saying: Don't change horses in midstream. That is certainly good advice for most situations, but you can always think about asking your horse to head in a new direction. It might just be fun, and I promise it will make life interesting again.
John C. Tredennick, Jr. ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a partner at Holland & Hart and CEO of CaseShare Systems, an Internet company building paperless systems for the legal and business communities.