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Business Lessons for Lawyers From Techno-Futurist Elon Musk

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on August 13, 2015 12:58 PM

Here in Silicon Valley, it's not uncommon to see a tech millionaire zip by in their new electric Tesla sportscar, or to see those millionaire's secretaries sending gas money to their carpool through PayPal. Kids dream of privatized space travel; commuters long for super high speed rail.

Elon Musk, the tech mogul, has his fingers everywhere here. The former CEO of PayPal, Musk took his billions and spread them around through a variety of future-focused enterprises, from Tesla cars, to SpaceX, to hyperloop transit. He's quickly reached Steve Jobs cult-status.

We've often said small firms and solos need to think about their work as both a profession and a business. Part of business success is looking at business leaders. With that in mind, here's what lawyers can learn from Elon Musk, both in his triumphs and failures:

Being in the Right Place at the Right Time Matters

Musk was born in South Africa, educated in Canada, and came to the U.S. for a two day stint at Stanford. After he dropped out of grad school, he found himself in the midst of the Silicon Valley boom in the mid 1990s -- not a bad place to be. His first success was working for his brother's CitySearch-style online travel guide. That got bought out. He went on to work with PayPal, becoming CEO before being ousted after a few years. That too got bought out.

Much of Musk's early success was based on luck -- and many established lawyers' success came the same way. Don't neglect the element of luck in a successful business. Further, don't forget that you must seek out new opportunities, find places where possibilities for success are high, and make sure you capitalize on them.

Don't Fear Risk, Manage It

Many of Musk's projects have been risky. Private space travel? Not exactly a safe bet. But by taking calculated risks, businesses can ensure that they are able to capitalize on new opportunities, while maintaining a profitable base. Don't bet the farm on weed law, privacy class actions, or other promising legal trends -- but don't be afraid to pursue those opportunities either.

Remember, People Have Lives

Not everyone is a fan of Elon Musk. He's a self described "nano-manager" who can be controlling and demanding. Employees say he's thrown workplace tantrums. He reportedly emailed an employee, telling him to miss the birth of his child for a company meeting. "You need to figure out where your priorities are. We're changing the world and changing history, and you either commit or you don't," Musk supposedly wrote. (He denies that he sent such an email.)

Unsurprisingly, Musk has more than his share of disgruntled ex-workers. So will you if you follow his lead, at least when it comes to micromanaging and insisting that work trumps all else. Making sure colleagues and employees are appreciated and have a semblance of work-life balance is a great way to build and retain talent.

Keep Thinking of the Future

Musk's projects, from electric cars to space travel, are relentless future-focused. Your practice could benefit from thinking about the future, too. In a time where new technology could potentially reshape the legal profession, don't be afraid of being an early adopter and look for ways that technology can help small practitioners take on, and take down, the big firms.

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