Lawyer-alum advice: Should you go to law school if you’re interested in starting a business?

From lawyer-alum Adrianne Zahner (STPEC, Women’s Studies ‘99, Chicago-Kent College of Law ‘02):

Q:  Should you go to law school if you’re interested in starting a business?

A:  Maybe. 

After two federal clerkships and several years of practice in a BigLaw firm, I founded and now run, where we sell artisan jewelry and vintage engagement rings.  Although running an online jewelry retailer is pretty different from my practice of commercial real estate law, my legal background has been crucial to my understanding and management of Turtle Love.  Keep in mind though that my legal background is what I had to go on when I started  I could just as well have had a different educational and work experience, say, in business management or in retail or in marketing, that would have prepared me differently for my current pursuits. 

Representing clients as a lawyer is one way to develop experience useful for running a business, but it’s not the only way.  I think a far more instructive way of considering educational and employment options is to find out what path will put you in a position to SEE AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE.  A lawyer I once worked for described this concept as “filling the black box.”  As he envisioned his own mental processes, he addressed a client’s issue by placing it into the “black box” of his brain.  Once the issue was in the black box, it would float through and mingle with all of the legal and business problems and solutions that he’d heard of or encountered or implemented.  On the other side of the box, the client’s issue would emerge, accompanied by a bunch of ideas that were related in some way or another, and he’d work on the problem at hand from there.

Of course, as a lawyer develops more ideas and experiences, her black box is more fruitful, and she is better able to serve her clients.  The same is true for many other professionals: the more symptoms and cures a doctor sees, the better the doctor will be at treating new patients.  The more customer service calls a call center rep handles, the better he gets at handling customers’ problems and their solutions.  Psychological burnout aside, more experience in a field almost always allows a person to do a better job.

If you run a business, you usually end up having just one client - the business - and it can be difficult to develop breadth of experience working with just one client (this is especially the case where you’re as dramatically invested in a business as an entrepreneur is). 

So my advice is that before you start a business (or as you start it, and as you continue to run it), try to learn about or participate in as many relevant experiences as you possibly can.  Going to law school and practicing business law for a variety of clients can be a great way to build your “black box” of experience to help you effectively run a business.  But you can also build your “black box” in other ways.  In the end, it will be your ability to solve problems and anticipate outcomes that will contribute to your success as an entrepreneur, not the diploma that you pursue. 


Adrianne Zahner is Head Honcho at, the company she founded in 2008. is an online retailer of artisan and vintage jewelry, with a special focus on engagement rings and wedding bands.  Adrianne sees her work at as a market-based approach to social change: a real-life plan to facilitate meaningful and actionable change in our culture.

Adrianne graduated summa cum laude from UMass Amherst with a double major in STPEC and Women’s Studies, then attended law school on a full-tuition-plus-stipend scholarship.  After graduating summa cum laude from Chicago-Kent College of Law in 2002, Adrianne clerked for two federal district court judges and practiced commercial real estate law at a large firm in Chicago and in Boston.  Adrianne lives in Portland, Maine with her family.