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Ms.J.D. Interviews Lawyer-Turned-Business Owner Courtney Anderson

There is a long-standing view that it is difficult for lawyers to turn off their legal training and become entrepreneurs.  Though the two are not mutually exclusive, the argument is that lawyers think from an analytical view that makes them risk-adverse takers unlike the entrepreneur who knows that in business you must take risk.  Whether or not this is the rule is hard to say, but if it is then there is always an exception.  Take for instance, Courtney Anderson, co-owner of Vibe Ride, an indoor cycling studio in Atlanta.  Courtney was a business major in college, attended Harvard Law School and was a Real Estate attorney at the prestigious firm Sidley Austin.  After ending her tenure at Sidley, Courtney went on to receive her LL.M. from Georgetown University and is now an Assistant Professor at Georgia State University College of Law.

Notwithstanding Courtney’s successful career as a lawyer, it should come as no surprise that the lawyer would eventually become an entrepreneur.  I sat down with Courtney to learn more about the imminent incorporation of her entrepreneurial side and her legal training.  My interview with Courtney shows that there are no rules in defining your career and there is always a way to turn an interest or passion into a business.  Courtney is certainly the exception.

Did you always have an interest in law?

From an early age I knew that I had an interest in working with other people and talking and thinking through ideas.  When I was younger I went to math camp, science camp, and law camp.  I liked law camp the most and in junior high and high school I participated in mock trials and debate.  I eventually majored in business during college but knew that I wanted to go to law school.

How did your experience as an African-American woman attorney working in big-law help your business?

The legal profession does not have a sufficient number of black attorneys, especially black female attorneys, but there is still an asset to being a black female attorney.  This allows you to form a connection with clients who are looking for diversity on deals.

In terms of starting a business it helped me realize that diversity is essential, particularly when treating people a certain way.  I also wanted to build a community for my business, clients and others that showcase diversity in an entrepreneurship sphere that is creating opportunities for people who are like me.

What made you take the step into entrepreneurship?

It was a combination of a few things.  I saw an opportunity for a good product and a good service.  I also had a great support system to encourage me to keep thinking through the idea.  I balanced that with my ability to plan, and I had planned so far along that it was only logical that the next step was to start the business since I knew what to call it, where it would be located, and what equipment I needed.  Taking all the necessary steps made it a less daunting task.  I am also a full time professor so having a secured job and continuous income made it less stressful.

What was the biggest hurdle in starting your business?

Translating an idea into reality is really difficult.  Even though you have an idea, you have to make sure it is a good idea that other people will latch on to, that people will understand and will want to buy in to.  You have to take what sounds good in your mind and actually make it happen.  Another big hurdle is reaching into the community to get people excited about the idea.  You want to include others, build momentum and excitement all while staying true to your idea and it can be difficult to balance all those interests.

How did your training as a lawyer help overcome the hurdle?

My attention to detail in my work as a lawyer was helpful.  When you’re working in a law firm you’re used to dense reading and often tedious work where you have to muddle through small details and understand how important they are even though to other people those small details may seem completely trivial -- like the placement of words or even the placement of commas.  When you’re starting your own business you see that it is also important to be that detailed with your business.

In one word, characterize your life as an entrepreneur?

Dynamic because things change all the time.  You have to learn different things, be around different people, and you have to change with the market.  There is always something new.

What would you say are the five key elements for starting and running a successful business?

Creativity, teamwork, trust, hard work and money.  Definitely money, you just can’t do it without money.

What do you think is a contributing factor to your success?

Ambition -- and also having a lot of goals.

What is the biggest mistake you’ve made in starting your business?

Not taking a step back to sometimes see bigger opportunities.  You can get focused on what’s working and sticking with that even when there are other ways to define what your business is, so you have to take a different perspective to redefine clients and redefine your market.  We are learning to take that step back to see the bigger picture and it is allowing us to refine our business in a much bigger sense.

Do you think a lawyer can successfully merge practicing law and owning a business independent of their legal career?

You can do it.  It is more work than you think, but it is possible.  What you want to think about is the time frame.  Be open that your business could take longer to happen because starting your business takes a lot of time.  It also depends on your legal career.  You need to have a career that allows for some flexibility where you have control of your schedule in order to keep your business thriving.

What advice would you offer minority lawyers who want to take the leap into entrepreneurship or who want to do something besides practice law?

Think about what that business opportunity is and start planning for it now while you’re working.  You can start putting your plan together now so that the first time you talk about it you are able to comfortably answer any questions.   This will help build your confidence because at this point you’ve thought through all of the issues.

You should also look into that business’ day to day operations and know what that is like so that you’re able to see beyond the aspects that draw you to it, whether your business could be a hobby, consulting or operating your own firm.  Make that idea a reality by working towards it every single day.  You will also need to set a realistic goal to give yourself enough time to strike out on your own.

What do you know today that you wish you knew in the beginning stages of being a business owner?

The need to be involved in almost every aspect of the operation of the business.  It is not enough for me that I am the owner and founder.  I have to understand what my clients see every day.  I have to experience the business from their perspective.  I have to be present and available to speak to everyone.  Another big part of the business is keeping the instructors and staff engaged.  It isn’t a situation where the business runs itself and I don’t know what’s going.  The business is two and half years old and I am still involved.

What is the most unpopular opinion you have on entrepreneurship as a woman business owner?

Delegation is not always a good thing.  I hope to always be the least talented cycling instructor.  I want that person to be above and beyond the standard.  I won’t hire staff if I can do it myself.  I won’t hire marketing if we can do it ourselves.  Until we get the right person we don’t delegate tasks.

What 3 books would you recommend that every entrepreneur should read?

I enjoy biographies of business owners and presidents, as well as biographies of people that I admire because I get to learn about them and the steps they took in their professional life to become successful.  I would recommend The Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes, a book that is helpful in starting your own business; The Soundtrack of My Life by Clive Davis; and Dreams of My Father by Barack Obama.

What 3 books would you recommend that every lawyer should read?

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond; Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich; The Presumption of Guilt by Charles Ogletree.

How do you merge your background as a real estate attorney now community development professor to assist the community where your business is located?

I teach a class called Law and Health Equity where my students have to partner with a community group to address the health disparity in the Atlanta community.  I think it is important for law students to get out in the community and do something that helps them understand what it means to be a lawyer.

I also have that same attitude with the studio because what are we doing for the community if we are asking the community to support us especially as a minority woman-owned business.  The studio coordinates charity rides such as rides to support breast cancer and fundraisers for disasters including the recent disaster brought on by hurricane Irma.  We are also in an area that has a high population of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered individuals so we support Pride.  We recently had a Pride Ride Atlanta.  We are located in midtown, which is the center of Pride so we are fortunate to be supported by the Pride community.

We also have a corporate wellness program with subsidized ride packages, as well as a membership option where corporations can sponsor health, fitness and wellness memberships for low-income individuals.  It is a way for corporations to promote a healthy lifestyle by allowing low-income members of the community to use our fitness services since we are a boutique fitness studio that the community would not otherwise have access to.  We also coordinate rides for organizations that we are personally involved in such as the Humane Society, Salvation Army, and various other organizations.  We really appreciate being the center of a diverse community from a socioeconomic and racial standpoint.  We also recognize our stakeholder status in the community as entrepreneurs and the importance of just engaging in these conversations to do our part to keep our community thriving.

Do you believe there is a pattern or formula to becoming a successful entrepreneur?

Not one that fits every single business but I think there is something that all entrepreneurs need to do and that is being willing to change and expand your frame of reference for what you think your business is and who you think your clients will be.  That can always change over the years and you want to stay on top of trends.  The amount of work that you need to do is also really important.  In operating your own business, you will work harder if your goal is to be successful because no one is going to care about your business as much as you will and no one has as much to gain or lose as much as you.  The commitment that you have in how much you’re willing to work for your business is important.

To learn more about Courtney’s studio, visit Vibe Ride Indoor Cycling Atlanta.

This post has been brought to you by the Ms. JD Journalists.  If you have suggestions for any topics that you think should be covered on Ms. JD, feel free to email your suggestions to contentdirector@ms-jd.org and the Ms. JD Journalists will get right on it.

2 Comments

Dina Eisenberg JD

It’s always great to see lawyers using their talents in new and entrepreneurial ways. Respectfully, I have to disagree on one point.  Delegation is the key to scaling a business. Many business owners have a poor experience with delegation because they don’t approach it with the right mindset or preparation.  You get a good result when you are clear on your expectations, provide the tools for your help to succeed and stay engaged for questions (but not involved or micro-managing)  If you don’t hire help in your law practice, YOU ARE THE HELP. Is that really what you spent 3 years of hard work to do?  Focus on the work that demands you and delegate the rest.

sjachion

Thank you for your comment, Dina Eisenberg.  To your point in hiring help in law practice, Courtney runs a cycling studio (two as of the time the article was written) AND is also one of the best instructors at her cycling studio.  Her method works wells for her and I am sure it will garner her much success as her studio has been getting a lot of attention from print press and television (including major stars).

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