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Joseph Schohl is an experienced Fortune 500 general counsel who decided to start his own law practice. His company, GeneralCounselWest, PC serves as an outside general counsel to emerging and fast-growing companies.
“Our law firm serves as kind of a ‘general practitioner’ for our clients,” said Joe Schohl. “Just like someone can go see a doctor who is a general practitioner to manage overall physical health, our firm brings a broad-based knowledge of legal issues and we serve as our client’s primary resource for legal counsel.”
In keeping with the “doctor” metaphor, GeneralCounselWest, PC operates under the belief that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
“In the legal profession, prevention is often more efficient and cost-effective than ‘treating’ a problem once it arises,” said Joe Schohl. “We practice ‘preventative law’ to help our clients avoid expensive and time-consuming legal problems down the road. We help identify problems when they arise and before they grow, and we help access the right outside law firms when specialists or additional attorneys are needed.”
Joe Schohl served in the corporate world for 15 years, earning an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in addition to his law degree from Columbia University. Although he had a lot of success working for other employers, Joe wanted to start his own firm because he wanted to be able to serve a different level of client. The mission of GeneralCounselWest is to offer smaller, growing companies the same sophisticated, high-level legal services and resources that would be expected in the in-house law department of a large company.
Asked what he loves most about running his own business, Joe says: “I love being available to work with a wide variety of people across industries, use my skills as a business person and also to provide legal advice that is realistic and practical.”
Asked what advice he would offer to other entrepreneurs, Joe says, “Be prepared to work hard and wear many hats! Find great people to work with you since every employee reflects on you and your brand.”
One of the great people who work with Joe is his wife, Mary, who serves as a strategy consultant to help GeneralCounselWest’s clients create business growth. (Joe and Nellie could probably offer each other some good advice on how to succeed when working with your spouse as a business partner.)
Self-employment and running a small business bring many challenges, even to a seasoned veteran of the Fortune 500. But Joe Schohl says the rewards are well worth the effort. “My biggest surprises in running my own business have been the amount of details and processes that you need to manage if you want to do it right,” he says. “But at the same time, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how appreciative clients can be when you deliver great work – and it’s even more fulfilling when you’re building clients and gaining appreciation for your own business.”
One of the biggest risks of running a small business is “Growing too fast.” Although it sounds like a good problem to have, many businesses that grow “too fast” spin out of control and lose the ability to serve their customers. Joe Schohl says that his firm has worked carefully to balance their capacity with opportunity, and ensure that they have the right level of staff to effectively meet the demand.
“We have chosen to grow at a careful, sustainable rate, even if it means passing up some opportunities,” says Joe. “The most important thing for us is that we don’t want to compromise our service levels to existing customers. We recently hired another attorney and in the future I expect that we will be more willing to hire ahead of the demand.”
Lawyers have not been immune from the recent downturn in the economy, and Joe Schohl says that many attorneys have “hung out a shingle” as independent practitioners while they are between jobs. Joe decided to incorporate a business as a professional corporation to show that he was serious.
“Forming a professional corporation was one way to demonstrate our credibility to clients,” says Joe. “We want our clients to know that we are intentionally developing this law firm model for the long-term, and we plan to be around for a long time to come. In the legal profession, continuity helps create efficiency, and clients want to work with a firm that is stable and committed.”