Can Entrepreneurial Principles Make You a Better Lawyer?: Part 1, 0120 COBJ, Vol. 49, No. 1 Pg. 18

PositionVol. 49, 1 [Page 18]

49 Colo.Law. 18

Can Entrepreneurial Principles Make You a Better Lawyer?: Part 1

Vol. 49, No. 1 [Page 18]

Colorado Lawyer

January, 2020



It's fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.[1]

The riskiest thing you can do is play it safe.[2]

This is the seventh article series by The InQuiring Lawyer addressing a topic that Colorado lawyers may discuss privately but rarely talk about publicly. The topics in this column are explored through dialogues with lawyers, judges, law professors, law students, and law school deans, as well as entrepreneurs, journalists, business leaders, politicians, economists, sociologists, mental health professionals, academics, children, gadflies, and know-it-alls (myself included). If you have an idea for a future column, I hop e you will share it with me via email at

This month's article is the first of a three-part conversation about whether entrepreneurial principles can make better lawyers. We ask: What exactly is a philosophy of entrepreneurship and what does it have to do with being a successful lawyer and finding contentment? Why have both Colorado and Denver Law been teaching entrepreneurial principles to their students? Shouldn't the students be focused on learning the law, how to write briefs, and how to draft contracts—taking their cue from Professor Kingsfield, who said, "You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer." Why did our state attorney general create a new position called "chief innovation officer?" Is this entrepreneurship stuff a fad or the future?

The discussion's second and third parts will follow in the February and March issues. You'll hear from lawyers who have employed, sometimes unwittingly, an entrepreneurial mind-set to build highly successful law practices. One lawyer commuted between Texas and Colorado for years to ensure that every employee at his soon-to-be shuttered 16-year-old Texas firm found new employment, and then founded from scratch a new and highly successful, full-service, recession-resistant Colorado firm. Another firm went from teetering on closing its 25-year insurance defense practice to obtaining, in less than 10 years, over half a billion dollars in recoveries for its clients as reborn plaintiffs' lawyers. A former social worker left the practice of law to help develop several start-ups, and then used the insights gained upon returning to the fold (or as he says, "Before I was a lawyer, I worked with juvenile delinquents for 10 years. This was good preparation for working with my entrepreneurial clients"). And, a former collegiate ski racer, described by a mentor as "a force of nature," brings to her successful practice an astute legal mind combined with an appetite for risk that law school tried its best to wring out of her.

Thanks to my friends Phil Weiser, Sue Heilbronner of MergeLane, and Dave DuPont of TeamSnap, who inspired me to put this three-part series together. And many thanks to Vincent Dimichele, a Colorado Law 2L, for his help with the dialogue and the thoughtful questions he raised during the editing process.

Introduction to Part 1

During the late summer of 2012,1 accepted an invitation to a Colorado Law alumni lunch at Boulder's Laudisio. Other than CU football games and tailgate barbecues, I had never attended an alumni event in 30 years, but I really liked Laudisio, and who doesn't enjoy a free lunch? I ended up sitting next to the incoming law dean, figuring we had nothing in common. But it turned out we were both Mets fans (me, of the '69 Miracle Mets; him, of the '86 Thank You Bill Buckner Mets). He started to bend my ear about introducing a philosophy of entrepreneurship to Colorado Law. Yeah, right, I thought, what does that have to do with being a capable Lawyer? The incoming dean then explained his mission while I half listened. Where was my lobster ravioli? Sensing his sermon was falling on deaf ears, he invited me to drinks a week later. Selfishly, I thought: Maybe I can score some Buffs tickets!

Over drinks I explained that being entrepreneurial had nothing to do with being a good lawyer, and, in any event, you were either born with an entrepreneurial mind-set or not, and it couldn't be taught. The incoming dean politely disagreed. Soon after, he invited me and my former law partner to a dinner hosted by Ann Getches, joining two principals (one a former lawyer) from the Foundry Group, a nationally known venture capital fund, and a successful local developer (also a former lawyer). They asked my partner and me to describe the history of our law firm, which had garnered some success after nearly shutting down due to unexpected changes in the legal marketplace. After finishing, they said, "See, you're entrepreneurs!" We smiled politely, dianked Ann for a great meal, and went back to practicing law.

The law dean later invited me to audit his IL Philosophy of Entrepreneurship class that spring which I did, if only to conclusively establish that the class had little to offer lawyers who were going on to practice law rather than start businesses. Later, the Dean asked me to co-teach the class with the extremely gifted start-up entrepreneur Sue Heilbronner of MergeLane. Hah, me teach entrepreneurship? He had to be kidding!

Five years later, in 2018, I completed my fourth year co-teaching the class, this time with another gifted start-up entrepreneur, Dave DuPont of TeamSnap. That annoyingly persistent law dean, Phil Weiser (now attorney general), dubbed me the Reluctant Entrepreneur.

This article illuminates the stories of several practicing lawyers who have put entrepreneurial principles to work to help them and their firms succeed in ways that aligned with their core values. It also discusses why DU and CU are teaching their students to think entrepreneurially, and how an entrepreneurial mind-set can apply not only to starting businesses, but also to improving government, social welfare, and nonprofit operations, and to enhancing careers of any kind.


Brad Bernthal is an associate professor at Colorado Law. He studies start-ups, entrepreneurial law, and early stage finance (such as angel investment and venture capital). He is also the founder and director of the Entrepreneurship Initiative at CU–Boulder’s Silicon Flatirons Center

Marty Katz is the University of Denver’s chief innovation officer and the former dean of its Sturm College of Law. Before that, he was a partner at Davis Graham & Stubbs with a practice emphasis in employment law.

Lisa Neal-Graves is the former chief innovation officer for the Colorado Attorney General. She previously worked for the Zayo Group, Intel Corporation, Unisys, Chase Bank, Deloitte Consulting, U.S. WEST Advanced Technologies, and AT&T Bell Labs.

Marty Katz’s Entrepreneurial Journey

InQ: Marty, you are Denver University’s chief innovation officer and former dean of its Sturm College of Law. Why is Denver Law teaching entrepreneurial principles to its students? I’m talking about those students who go on to become litigators, transactional attorneys, and wills and trust or family lawyers. The folks who read this article, who run law firms and who make hiring decisions, they want to know: What is the value added that they’re getting in hiring law students with entrepreneurial training, as opposed to those who focus solely on the nuts and bolts of the law: reading cases, writing good briefs, and learning how to draft a contract. How is this going to give those employers a leg up?

Marty: My thinking on this really started back when I was at Davis Graham and Stubbs. As many law firms do, we would conduct focus groups with our clients and potential clients and ask, “What can we do to serve you better? How can we be the lawyers you want to call rather than the lawyers you dread calling?” And the answer that we got was really ubiquitous. It wasn’t just coming from a handful of our clients; this was one of the cross-cutting themes. It was, “I really want a lawyer who understands my business and understands where my legal issues fit into the business, rather than seeing them in isolation. I want lawyers who both see themselves, and are capable of acting, as members of a bigger team.” We also heard: “I called you because the problem I was wrestling with at my company had a significant legal dimension. But I’m looking for people who can see the legal issue in the context of whatever my broader strategy is, whatever my broader set of goals are. You’ll be the expert in the law but I want you to collaborate with my finance and engineering experts.” And I continued to hear those comments years later, and they resonate for me. So to me, when I was a faculty member, when I was a dean, and through the present, the question is: How do we create students who fit that profile?

InQ: How does introducing law students to entrepreneurial principles make them into that kind of lawyer?

Marty: There are a couple different pieces to that. A law school must help its students develop a skill set that includes listening, understanding, empathizing, being able to really hear the way a client is thinking about a problem, being willing to look at the problem from a lot of different angles until you come up with the right frame for the problem, and thinking about solutions that may be further from the box.

InQ: As a prospective employer seeking to groom a competent transactional lawyer, I wonder if I might prefer someone who can just put together a solid contract for a client and not start experimenting with new ideas on the client's dime.

Marty: I would start by saying that, even if we are not talking about...

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