Caroline “Coco” Soodek is a lawyer who finds ways to use the law to help people and projects in which she believes. She is a partner at Bryan Cave LLP in Chicago and is co-leader of its Art Law Team, which she established in 2007. She also works with entrepreneurs in a variety of fields. She has been admitted as a Fellow to the American Bar Association. In 2009 she was included on Crain’s Chicago Business’s “40 Under 40” list of young professionals to watch. She is the author of “Birth to Buyout: Law for the Life Cycle of Your Business” and she writes the blog ProfitandLaws.com. Her Profit and Laws Radio Hour is heard on stations through Lifestyle TalkRadio Network.
Your practice is interesting because you deal with both artists and business entrepreneurs. If you had to work with just one of those clients groups, which do you think you’d choose?
Do I have to choose? If so, then I’d say I’d work with entrepreneurs.
What’s the reward for you there?
It’s helping people make things. Helping people reach self-reliance. Helping people not be owned by an employer. It’s helping people do something new in the world. That’s the fun.
And it’s helping people be free. My shtick is that I can help people figure out their risk in their deals in a way that I don’t other people can because I focus on the goals and make sure my clients understand what is out there for them.
So you’re helping people succeed?
Well, I’m helping people get rich. That’s my role. But I don’t represent everybody. When I take new clients now, I only take clients who have some product or service is beneficial and real. There are a lot of con artists and as a business lawyer I’ve seen my share. Not that they’ve conned me but they come to me for help.
But you see people who aren’t real, who aren’t offering anything up or solving anything: it’s just all about operating a world of secrets. I work with people who actually want to solve a problem or make something cool. And make money. These are the people who build the world, and I want to help them in the way I can.
Do you find that people fail to succeed because of obstacles the world throws in their way or because of barriers of their own making?
Oh both. First, there’s the expectation that people ought to just go and get a job. It’s a terrible expectation. Second, people need permission. Somebody needs to give them permission or they need to give themselves permission, so that’s a personal barrier.
The hardest time I have working with clients is when they don’t know something and they can’t admit it. It’s the hardest because then I can’t help them. That’s a personal thing: a little insecurity covered up with hubris. But there are other, basic things. A lack of health insurance keeps some people from trying and succeeding. Lack of access to funding. Huge.
There’s much discussion of inadequate funding available for women entrepreneurs. Do you see that?
Yes. Absolutely. And it’s not just women. There are people who are connected and understand how to raise money and they have a hard time. There are also people who have no connections and a lot of ability and don’t know where to start and don’t know where to go. They don’t have resources that allow them to begin building a business because they need to keep working for someone else. Or they can’t use their existing resources to gain more. They don’t have receivables to collateralize a loan. Or they don’t have inventory or equipment.
There is a culture in the finance community that is maddening. There’s the idea that there’s too much money chasing too few deals and if they’re not hearing about the deals then obviously they must not be good ones. And [there’s a perception that] everybody ought to be able to find funding for decent businesses, promising businesses, because there’s so much money out there. But really the people who are in financing live in concentric circles and think that’s the world. It’s very frustrating.
With women entrepreneurs you’ve met, how often is inability to “give themselves permission” a problem?
I don’t meet many women entrepreneurs compared to men, actually. The balance is off. But I think many women don’t even give themselves permission to think [entrepreneurship is] possible. I know this because I have done this and still struggle with it myself, but the first thing about being an entrepreneur is understanding that you have the capacity to start something that is much bigger than yourself. If you don’t build something bigger than yourself, you’re just creating a job, and you can get that anywhere.
The real entrepreneur builds a real business. A real business has lots of different people. So first you have to accept that you’ll build something that’s not just you. It will feed other people and will be fed by other people. It’s hard as a woman to see beyond a few feet in front of you.
But you’re a success. Tell my why you think you are.
I just keep going. I know these issues are ought there and I experience grappling with them. I also have the experience of working with entrepreneurs for 15 years, so I’ve learned all their lessons.
I keep going. I know what I want and I know what my entitlements are. I just always know that even if I get frustrated I wake up the next day and say I’m going to find a way out of it.
When you came out of Northwestern University law school were you full steam ahead, with a clear goal?
I was on a moving walkway. I got on as a kid and never got off. I knew I wanted to be a lawyer and I let the walkway guide me. I went to law school; I got a good summer job at Jenner & Block; I got a good first-year job at Jenner, which I did not like. I followed the path.
I got to a point in my career where I made partner and I got really depressed. I made partner at Bryan Cave and I still love the firm. It’s a good firm. But I was depressed because I wanted to do more with my life. I wanted a mission beyond billings clients. I wanted something different.
I figured it out. I figured out that I really wanted to build something helpful and cool and exceptional. I pivoted my focus and began only taking clients that I truly wanted to help.
Is this when you went online with ProfitandLaws.com?
Yes and when I wrote my book, “Birth to Buyout: Law for the Life Cycle of Your Business.” I still practice law at Bryan Cave and that just is what it is. I can’t even say I built it because it was so easy since I’ve done it so long.
The Profit and Laws part is the entrepreneurial part. Practicing law is hard, but compared to being an entrepreneur it’s a breeze. There are lots of rules [with law]; you don’t break them. As an entrepreneur you have to create all your own rules. That part is so hard.
It’s like walking up a down escalator. You plod along and if you get lucky you speed up and get a little farther up. You just keep going and eventually, you hope, you’re going to reach the top.
Is there a different personal satisfaction for you in entrepreneurship than in your law practice?
Yes, although it’s odd because now that I’ve aligned all I like to do, what I do as a lawyer is exactly what I do as an entrepreneur. I’m really honest with my client; I tell them exactly what I’m thinking. I did before, but not to the same degree. So if someone complains about their taxes, I tell them to bump it. Which is exactly what I say on my blog.
I’m much more authentic now in every area. What’s really fun at Profit and Laws is that I get to find new ways to explain the law and my thoughts. I get to reach different people than I do in my practice. I get to help people who can’t afford or wouldn’t want to afford me in my practice. I get to help them do what they want to do in some way. And that is really fun.
You must hear from many young people interested in law.
Especially in the art law field. A lot.
What do you advise them to do?
I tell them to take law school very seriously and to learn the basics. It’s like learning groundstrokes in tennis. I tell people right of out of school to get a job in some area that gives them the maximum amount of training. Learn and do as much as you can for the first three years, and then sit back and reconsider everything in your career.
I don’t know that Big Law, where I’ve spent my career, is a terrific proposition. I think eventually other players will come in and swat Big Law down.
Have you seen the profession change in your time in Big Law?
Yes. It’s already changed. Well, it started changing the first day of my practice. On my first day I got a $7,000 raise for showing up. I remember saying to someone, “This is a terrible mistake. They should not do this. Because for every dollar more they pay us, that’s another second when we cannot say no. It’s another second when we have to do whatever they want us to do.”
The money followed the dot-com craze and it never came back down when the dot-coms came down. And then it followed private equity and hedge funds and kept going up, and now there’s an expectation at the top of the profession that people need to get rich as lawyers. Before we were just middle class. That changes everything.
The other thing that I feel is decimating Big Law is the “Am Law 100.” There’s a magazine, American Lawyer, that publishes a list of the top 100 law firms and they rank them. To do that, all the big firms have to give up all their financial results. American Lawyer calculates “profit per partner,” so profits divided by partners, and that number needs to be high. That means law firms are disincentivized to name new partners.
And that trickles all the way down. If you’re a first-year associate just out of school, you want to know there’s light at the end of the tunnel and that you’ll make partner. You want to have hope.
So it’s all a numbers game now?
It’s a killer. It cycles through everything. There’s less incentive to build long-term skills. There’s also greater pressure to partner to generate billable work and there’s less training.
Wouldn’t that make it hard to take only clients in whom you believe, as you have done?
Oh, if I were still trying to make partner I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing. There’s no way. I get to turn people down. I do it all the time. I had a call the other day from someone. [His group] had the money for our services; they had what sounded like a decent business. But they were just jerks. I could tell from talking to the guy that he had nothing but contempt for lawyers. I told him to take a hike.
Before I’d have had to bring him in on a red carpet. I can’t do that now because it takes too much out of me. I know financially it’s a bad bet. It’s good in the short term and bad in the long term and I’m trying to build two long-term businesses: Profit and Laws and my practice.
Do you still advise young people to pursue a law career?
I tell them to go to law school. Law school’s great. It’s just like Prof. Kingsfield said in “The Paper Chase”: You come in with a head full of mush and you leave thinking like aa lawyer. It literally divides the heuristics in your brain and reorganizes your circuits. It’s very effective.
If I could go back I would get a J.D./M.B.A. That’s a terrific degree; you get marketing and finance plus law. There’s no stopping you.
I think law is a great profession. It’s a terrible industry. There’s a huge difference. We need lawyers; we need advocates. We need people who can do the hard, boring stuff most people don’t want to do. We need that. The problem is that right now the industry is in the grip of some mania. Eventually it’s going to shake out.
Where are the remaining barriers to women and minorities in the law profession?
The biggest barrier for women and minorities is always mentoring. People choose their mentors based on who they feel comfortable with. I was lucky because I picked up a couple of mentors who forgave me for being kind of obnoxious and female. I’m kidding, but I’ve had a lot of mentors who taught me not just how to be a lawyer but about law itself. And that’s everything.
The problem is that it’s hard for a lot of people—particularly women and minorities—to get mentors who are really invested in their careers. I had somebody tell me, “You need mentors.” Just like that. I learned that lesson and got them. Some people don’t learn that lesson. And sometimes there just aren’t people who are willing to mentor because the culture is short-term rather than long-term.
What was the most valuable advice that you got from mentors?
I learned so much about the law. Scott Hodes [co-leader of Bryan Cave’s Art Law Team] used to scream at me a lot. Once when I was an associate, there was a client and another lawyer in the room and they were pushing me around. And I was taking it. Scott screamed at me, “You’re a lawyer. Stand UP.” That was amazing.
Young lawyers will get intimidated by older lawyers on the other side of a deal. A young lawyer will say to me, “Yes, but my boss told me to do it this way.” I’ll say, “I don’t care. It’s not my boss.” You’re a lawyer. Stand up. It’s great advice.