The two questions I am asked on a regular basis are: “How do you do it?” and “How do you do it all?”
The first question is often from people who want advice from me on how to start their own “thing”, whether it’s their own law practice, freelance law practice, or side-hustle business.
The second question, “How do you do it all?”, is often followed by “Three kids, running a business, lawyering, teaching, blogging, when you do find the time?”
Both of these questions make me uncomfortable. The fact that people are asking me these questions makes me think I am projecting this fake Instagram image that I am succeeding at all of this and it is easy for me.
So, this blog post is dedicated to these two questions and dispelling some common myths that I hear.
HOW DO YOU DO IT?
A little over a year after I started my solo freelance lawyer business, I was having coffee with an acquaintance and she said to me, “Your business is going so well. You are so lucky! It is not normally that way. What luck you have!” (For some context, this individual had started a few different businesses that never really got off the ground.) I didn’t know how to respond, so I sort of just stared at her and muttered a non-committal answer. But inside my head I was thinking, “Luck? Really was that all this was? Luck?”
That night at 3 am, lying in bed wide awake (you know, when my brain decides it’s a good time to work through some problems), I thought about her comment and why it annoyed me. Sure, okay, I concluded, there was some luck involved. I cannot deny that I certainly have the inherent advantages associated with being born into the life of an able-bodied white woman (more context, my coffee companion was also an able-bodied white woman). But I also knew that it most certainly wasn’t all luck. I worked really hard to get my business to where it was. The comment annoyed me as it diminished my efforts and placed my success out of my control. It was something that just happened to me and not something I made happen.
And this is myth number one that I want to dispel: Successful businesses or law firms don’t “just happen”. You cannot hang up a shingle and “Voila!” you have a successful law practice. I meet with lawyers all the time who want advice on how to start a freelance or solo practice. When I follow up a few months or a year later to see how things are going, some are disappointed that their practice is not as successful as they thought it would be. I ask them what they have done to grow their business. Often, they tell me they put up a website, printed business cards, and had a few coffees. That’s it!?!
You need to hustle! I went to two or three networking events a week (still do). I emailed everyone I knew. I set up as many coffees and lunches as I could. I spent hours writing and re-writing blog posts and articles for legal publications. I built my social media presence. I volunteered hours of my time with different organizations to build my profile. This was not luck. This was hard work. A website and some business cards may be “hard work” to some. Not to me. I’ve been financially independent since I turned 18. I paid for undergrad and law school by working several different summer and part time jobs. I know what it is like to have to work hard or not reach my goals.
I guess my point is, you can have great ideas and a great passion for a new business or law practice but if you don’t put in the hours of work it will likely go nowhere. You may love the idea of freelancing or being your own boss (and it is pretty awesome!) but it is not all rainbows and sunshine. I fully agree with the saying that successful businesses are 1% idea and 99% execution. And sometimes even with all of that hard work a business will still fail. But with just an idea and no execution it will fail every time. Remember this when you see those “overnight success” companies or law firms. Likely “overnight” involved years of frustration, no money, hard work, and even failure.
So how do you do it? Yes, you need a little luck, but you also need a lot of hard work.
HOW DO YOU DO IT ALL?
“Three kids? Wow, how do you do it all?”
My response: “The same way my husband does it.”
But no one ever asks my husband (who runs his own firm, sits on a board, coaches baseball, etc.) “Wow, three kids, how do you do it all?”
I have this funny belief that both parents should parent their children. I don’t believe that children “need” their mothers more than their fathers or that somehow, just because our bodies birthed these kids that we are somehow better at parenting than men.
So, to dispel myth number two – I am not doing it all because I don’t believe I should be doing it all. I have a perfectly capable partner, we have neighbours, we have grandparents, we have paid help, we have friends. I am fortunate and privileged to have a “village” and I take advantage of that.
People always assume I started my own business so I can stay home with my kids and not because I might have had a great business idea and some entrepreneurial drive. How many people think this of men who start their own businesses? Do they automatically assume men become entrepreneurs so they can care for their kids?
I understand the nature of my practice (freelance lawyering) and my business (a freelance lawyer company, Flex Legal) might suggest to some that I only work part time in my pajamas from home, but I work full time or more and have had an office since my first year in business. Some weeks I work more hours than I did when I was on Bay Street. However, as an entrepreneur, I can choose when I work those full time hours and I purposefully chose an office close to my house so I can see my kids who come home from school for lunch several days a week. But I am not the one who walks the kids to school every morning (that’s my husband) and we have a caregiver who picks them up everyday.
So, I want to dispel the myth that I am parenting my kids full time and running a business full time and doing everything else full time. I am not. I don’t know how anyone could. I have time to do everything I am doing because I have a lot of help (and coffee, lots of coffee 😉). And even with all of this help, I still screw up sometimes.
Bottom line: It is not easy. I am not doing it all . . . . I am just doing my best.
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of Flex Legal Network Inc., a network of freelance lawyers.