AJS South Africa


PART 4: Starting your own firm

By now every Little Bird that has read our Starting your own law firm series must be thinking – Haven’t we covered everything by now?

I mean, we have certainly tried –

  • From all the necessary regulatory requirements (and all applicable legislation) that need to be complied with in Part One to the practical minimum business requirements that you should undertake in Part Two to the main things that all entrepreneurs overlook when starting a new business as set out in Part Three

What more could we possibly cover?

That’s the big question isn’t it?

We have tried our best to cover all the bases.

Except for one crucial thing – Mental health issues around starting your own law firm.

Look, we know we are a legal tech company and really have no place in divvying out mental health advice. We get that. And we are not going to. But we are also human beings. We have also been through our own struggles around starting up a new business. So we can relate. And we understand what all Little Birds may be going through.

So perhaps we can share some of our pearls of wisdom (purely from our own experiences).

Let’s talk about it?

The words “mental health” have been taboo for years. They have been hushed- hushed away like every human being on the face of the planet is immune to the stresses of everyday life. That lawyers (specifically) are super human because they are not affected by the woes of their clients (which is false). And more importantly that entrepreneurs are so fortunate to be starting their own businesses and being their own bosses that they simply cannot be feeling any amount of stress, anxiety or depression.

And that quite frankly is “bolloks” (excuse our English).

And this idea of “invincibility” seemingly stems from the incorrect belief that just because you have started your own business you will immediately be as successful as the Mark Zuckerbergs, Elon Musks or Jeff Bezos’s of the world.

Without anyone truly knowing the sacrifices those “successful entrepreneurs” had to make, how many sleepless nights they had, the failures they experienced. No one asked them how they really got to where they are or how they became as successful as they are.

It was simply accepted as fact and they were lauded as heroes.

But the answer to this “invincibility” perception and ultimate heroism cult status is perfectly illustrated in a 2014 article titled The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship written by Jessica Bruder (which won an award in the Magazine Personal Service category in the 2014 Annual Awards Contest) –

“Until recently, admitting such sentiments was taboo. Rather than showing vulnerability, business leaders have practiced what social psychiatrists call impression management–also known as “fake it till you make it.” Toby Thomas, CEO of EnSite Solutions (No. 188 on the Inc. 500), explains the phenomenon with his favorite analogy: a man riding a lion. “People look at him and think, This guy’s really got it together! He’s brave!” says Thomas. “And the man riding the lion is thinking, How the hell did I get on a lion, and how do I keep from getting eaten?”

And yes, we recognise that this article was written some 6 years ago. But what was said in it is still very relevant today – sometimes the people we perceive as heroes, the “success stories” are riding their own waves of disbelief and imposter syndrome, wondering around dazed and confused full of anxiety and depression.

Because it is never “that” easy

In an article published in 2019 titled There is a mental health crisis in entrepreneurship. Here’s how to tackle it, writers Marcel Muenster (Founder and Director, The Gritti Fund) and Dr. Paul Hokemeyer (Clinical and Consulting Psychotherapist, Author), state the following –

“Given the extraordinary impact entrepreneurs have on our world economy, it’s critically important they operate in a state of optimum emotional and relational health. Unfortunately, in our current zeitgeist of founder burnout as a benchmark of entrepreneurial excellence, such has not been the case.”

A recent study by the University of San Francisco researcher Michael A. Freeman focused on the mental health crisis that is raging, acknowledged but ineffectively addressed, among the men and women who comprise the entrepreneurial community.

According to this study, approximately one half (49%) of entrepreneurs suffer from at least one form of mental health condition during their lifetimes. These include ADHD, bipolar disorder and a host of addictive disorders.

Freeman’s research has shown that start-up founders are:

– Twice as likely to suffer from depression

– Six times more likely to suffer from ADHD

– Three times more likely to suffer from substance abuse

– 10 times more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder

– Twice as likely to have a psychiatric hospitalisation

– Twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts

These findings are actually conservative in the clinical experience of Dr Hokemeyer: “In my clinical practice, I see percentages in the range of 80% of entrepreneurs who struggle with a host of personality disorders such as narcissism, sudden wealth syndrome and the impostor syndrome”.

And quite honestly that is frightening.

The mental health issues that come with starting your own law firm

The stress that comes hand-in-hand with realising that you are no longer simply “cashing your cheque” every month but rather juggling the many roles of being not only an attorney but also a business owner can cause immense panic.

Coupled with the fear of (potentially) facing setbacks – like not being able to retain clients (or not being able to attract new clients), disputes with partners, the need to be constantly “on” for fear of losing to competition, staffing problems, the feeling of imposter syndrome, all whilst ensuring that you are not only able to pay your staff but pay yourself – are all real emotional and mental health issues.

Make no mistake about it.

You see as Dr Hokemeyer explained in the above article –  

“Entrepreneurs are trained to ignore the qualitative needs of their well-being measured in meaningful and authentic relationships, overall life satisfaction and happiness. The message they have internalised from the field’s most celebrated entrepreneurs is the outdated prescription of ‘no pain, no gain’ and a pernicious message that success is purely measured in quantitative returns, return on investment and profit.

For these highly intelligent individuals, quantitative returns trump qualitative considerations. Unfortunately, in this paradigm entrepreneurs crumble, struggling to calibrate the dissonance between their internal awareness that their physical and emotional distress compromises their performance with the industry standard of cutthroat competitiveness that has defined the field for centuries.”

And it’s absolutely clear that the long hours, sacrifices on well-being, sometimes unpredictable work flows coupled with a kind of “Keep Calm and Carry On”, “Sink or Swim’ attitude can make running your own business one of the most stressful experiences any new business owner can go through.

  • Because those worries keep you up at night. They exacerbate your stress, causing anxiety and fear leading to depression and the inability to keep your new business afloat because you simply cannot cope.

It is therefore imperative to not only recognise and appreciate the fact that these are all real and troubling issues, but to also talk about them. Openly and honestly. In fact, addressing this ongoing mental health crisis in the working world is imperative, and for the wise entrepreneur it should be a core function of how they do business.

So how do you manage your own mental health as well as lead a company?

This is certainly not a one size fits all approach. Not everything we say will ring true for you. But on the off-chance that it does, we have come up with some tips that can help you cope with the stresses of running your own business whilst not only remaining a tip-top attorney but also an individual who is fully able to cope with all the curve balls that life throws at you –  

  1. Talk about it – one of the most important factors in combating mental health issues is to talk about them. Talking about them destigmatises how we have historically looked at mental health issues. This, in turn, helps those individuals going through a mental health crisis deal with their hardships before they become crippling. Openly communicating and showing support for those suffering with a mental health issue is also crucial. So much so, that entrepreneurs should start focusing on mental health as early as the due diligence process of their start-up phase. The best way to talk about your mental health issues is often through guidance from someone who can help you. Like a coach. Frieda Levycky of Braving Boundaries is a life coach for legal professionals. Coaching with Frieda is all about moving you forward and helping you achieve your goals – going from burnout to balance and helping you live your best life.
  2. Make mental health a priority – following on from the above, is the commitment to making mental health a real priority. Many people have discovered that investing in their own well-being makes them feel better not only on a day-to-day basis but also enables them to thrive in the long run. Feeling better daily also means performing better daily and that can only lead to improved outputs and increased client satisfaction. A feeling of overall well-being inevitably ensues, making work life happier and more productive resulting in a fulfilling and flourishing life. Making mental health a priority starts by doing just that – making it a priority. And this is often achieved though the assistance of companies like Coaching advocates, a group of lawyers who coach other lawyers (and executives). Their main aim is to modernise the way law firms and corporates work, creating a more sustainable and healthy work environment for staff without compromising on the bottom line. All while helping professionals lead fulfilling lives both inside and outside the office without having to sacrifice personal happiness, health and fulfilment.
  3. Build meaningful social connections – having a place and people to whom you can open upto is often crucial for many new business owners who aim to achieve overall fulfillment in their working lives. Networking with those around you is part of this. It will help you get out of your slump and maintain clarity on your way forward. Often having friends who are building their own businesses can be extremely beneficial. Reach out to them and to your other connections and open up about your challenges, your hardships and perhaps find ways that you can drum out solutions. Together. Building trust along the way and reassuring everyone involved that none of you are alone. This can also help to reinvigorate your focus and remind you of the bigger picture.
  4. Healthy mind and a healthy body – mental, emotional and physical well-being are all deeply linked to one another. Just as mental health issues can lead to substance abuse, deep depression and sometimes suicide, a lack of physical exercise or bad nutrition can lead to a lack of focus and energy. Perhaps considering activities such as yoga, meditation and intentional breathing (which research shows help boost mood, sharpen focus and enhance emotional resilience) will be just what the doctor ordered. If those are not your thing, find your own groove and move with it. A good exercise routine, whilst being a great way to boost your mental health, is also key for physical performance and overall good health. Additionally, it can help you be more productive, help you feel more focused and help you feel more confident. And all of these positives will result in better overall performance. And if nothing else, they will at least help you take your mind off the matter for a few moments, enabling you to come back, reenergised with guns blazing.
  5. Aim for a good work-life balance – while it’s a given that a significant amount of time and effort will be required to get a new business venture off the ground, letting your work take over your life is a no-no. “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, so instead of chastising yourself for taking an hour off to meet a friend for lunch or spend time with your kids, set yourself realistic goals and keep your work hours in check. Burning the candle at both ends will only result in excessive fatigue and burnout (exactly the opposite of what we want), so know when to stop. Learn that it is ok to disconnect and focus your attention on your personal life. Making yourself and those you love a priority is also a key to overall happiness. Your business will be there when you get back to work energised and ready to take on the world. 
  6. Make sleep a priority – most adults need between 6-9 hours of sleep every night to recharge their mind and body properly. In fact, according to the UK’s Sleep Council, even one restless sleep can affect your concentration, mood and alertness for days afterwards. So focus on a good bedtime routine – worrying about work will keep you awake, resulting in insomnia and sleeplessness. So instead, try to switch off at least an hour before you climb into bed. Read a book or unwind in a warm bath. Avoid using smartphones, tablets or other electronic devices, as the light from these negatively affects sleep. And get some rest!
  7. Have a routine – having structure in your life creates stability. It’s kind of a given. It is therefore no surprise that morning and evening routines are so popular amongst successful entrepreneurs and executives alike. The idea behind routines is to start the day the right way and end it off in a way that makes you feel ready to tackle the next day “Like a Boss”. Even Benjamin Franklin believed in routines, using his time effectively believing that “Lost time is never found again”.  While it’s a good idea to get some inspiration from others, no one is exactly the same and what works for one person may not work for you. Think of your own objectives, needs and interests and build a routine around them to best suit you.
  8. Seek help – remember, going at this alone is not necessary. If you need help because you are sinking and not swimming admit it and seek help. Do not wait for the pot to boil over before you get the help you need to ensure you are operating at your best. Organisations like The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) can be contacted on 0800 567 567 (their suicidal Emergency contact), on their 24/7 helpline on 0800 456 789 or for counselling queries you can e-mail the founder zane@sadag.org

In closing

We may not have all the answers. We are certainly not “The Oracle” in the Matrix. But we do know this – building a company is inherently hard mentally, physically and emotionally.

Therefore ensuring you succeed involves a combination of many different things – from the basic regulatory requirements, to start- up practicalities to even the things that you may have overlooked. But the importance of both your physical and most importantly your mental health cannot (and must not) be overlooked. 

Taking care of your mental health and overall well-being when building a business needs to be a priority. As stated in the article titled How to look after your mental health and combat loneliness as a startup founder –

“If the engine under the hood (i.e. your brain) is fogged up with anxiety and stress, you are not going to perform at your best”.

Remember that.

Think of it as regularly checking your engine light – and take the same time to check in with yourself. On a regular basis. 

We have honestly done our best to give you some advice (that we have personally learnt along the way) to tackle, manage and get to grips with mental health issues that you may face when starting out. But we know that not everyone is the same. That’s what makes human beings so amazing. We are all different.

Therefore as a closing tid bit, we believe that it is beneficial to identify the areas in your life that you feel are not quite up to par. Ask yourself what your life needs more of and what it needs less of. Then adopt activities and practices that improve your way of life, making it easier, happier and more stable.

You got this – we believe in you!

Written by Alicia Koch on behalf of AJS

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