Exiting The Legal Profession For A Startup With Karen Spencer [TFLP142]

Today, I’m sharing my conversation with Karen Spencer. Karen is a former lawyer who responded to my requests for guests who had experience in patent law. Karen has an interesting background, coming to the legal profession from engineering. First, she wanted to work in general commercial law but ended up in patent law. She soared through the legal realm, even making partner at a large law firm before exiting the legal profession for a startup.

Like all my guests, Karen realized the law wasn’t for her and decided to explore her options, eventually landing in her position at SearchFunder. Let’s get into my conversation with Karen Spencer. 

Going To Law School

Like so many, Karen fell into law school after realizing engineering wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Luckily, she had some guidance from her friend’s parents, who were both lawyers. They told her to go to law school, and she agreed to try it out.

Karen went into law school with a positive attitude. She attended Harvard, where students are often steered in the Biglaw direction. So, Karen fell into that area. 

After graduating, Karen moved from Boston to San Francisco to work in commercial litigation. There, she worked with a patent lawyer which was heaven for her. She always stayed on the litigation side, loving the editing and proofreading portion of patents. 

The Culture In The Legal Profession

Karen felt that the patent law space had much more opportunities for her than the general legal realm. Because of her engineering background, she was valued in patent law. There were also smaller patent law firms opening up, which bred more chances to thrive. 

However, life in the legal realm is not free of struggles. Women of color face particular challenges that others don’t. Karen said that you have to be great at your job to get anywhere, and a lot of her experience was a lack of institutional will in terms of supporting her needs. 

She spoke of one incident where she and another associate were assigned to an admin of one of the senior partners. While working, the admin approached Karen and told her she wouldn’t be around in a few years, and the male associate was getting priority, which meant all the work. 

Karen learned very quickly how to be a lawyer and her own admin. But, she felt a serious lack of support when she went to the firm about this issue. They made her feel like there was no other option. There was no will from the institution to support her or make any changes. 

Unfortunately, this type of culture is exactly what makes people leave the law. People spend their days and nights working for the firm, which leads to burning out. Having the institutional will to change some of the systemic things defines the culture of the organization.

But, people don’t rise to positions of power based on their keen and humane managerial instinct. The decision is typically based on their ability to bring in business, which compounds a problem that already exists in the culture of the legal realm.

Leaving The Legal Profession

Karen later became a partner at a firm in Silicon Valley and loved the experience. She also met her spouse during this time. She debated what her future looked like as a partner and whether she was happy with it.

She was approached by a recruiter who would check in periodically to offer a new opportunity to Karen. One day, Karen decided to take the recruiter up on the offer and started working at Nike. This role offered tangible results from her efforts and a much better lifestyle than the one she had. 

Karen became senior counselor of Nike Golf, which allowed her to do patent litigation and patent portfolio strategy, among other things. She reflected on her time at Nike as a great experience. 

However, after 14 years, she found herself circling back to solving the same problem, which became boring. Karen decided to take some time away from work to figure out what she wanted to do as the new version of herself. She spent some time relaxing and experimenting with different things. 

She connected with business ownership, so she talked to some advisors who warned her against it. Then, Karen met two co-founders of a startup that helps people buy businesses. She joined them and has been on that track ever since. 

Joining Search Funder

Search Funder started in the 1980s to show MBA students could look for a profitable business to buy. It’s a two-year process that mentors these students to learn how to buy a business while being funded. When someone finds a business they want to buy, investors get preferential treatment. If they want, they buy a company and the person can operate it.

SearchFunder acts as a matchmaker for businesses for sale and the people who want to buy them. And what Karen does is engage with the community and connect with the audience and potential partners.  

Advice For Leaving The Legal Profession

The biggest piece of advice for anyone leaving the law is that you don’t need a detailed exit strategy mapped out to be able to leave the law. Experimentation is nothing to be scared of, It should be supported. 

When you treat finding your best fit like an experiment, the weight and risks of it all are melted away. Experimenting enables you to really see the ins and outs of an idea, play around with it, and really decide whether this is your next venture. 

You don’t have to quit your job tomorrow. It doesn’t have to be a deep dive into something else, all you have to do is dip your toes in to see if it’s a good fit. If it’s not, try something else until you find something that you can be proud of that fits your lifestyle and needs. 

And, if you need help finding that, watch my free masterclass, The Simple 5-Step Framework To Identify An Alternative Career (That You Actually Like!)? In this master class, you’ll learn the proven framework that I use with all my clients to help them identify an alternative career. 
You can watch the masterclass right now, just go to formerlawyer.com/masterclass, sign up, and get the link to watch. Or, if you need additional support, join the Former Lawyer Collaborative.

Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. I practiced law for 10 years and now I help unhappy lawyers ditch their soul-sucking jobs. On this show, I share advice and strategies for aspiring former lawyers, and interviews with former lawyers who have left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love.

Today I'm sharing my conversation with Karen Spencer. Karen is one of the women who responded to my requests for guests, women who had experience in patent law which was something that a listener reached out and asked if I could have on the podcast. This is just a reminder that if you are interested in hearing from someone who has a specific background or has moved into a specific area, career, or job, feel free to reach out because I am always happy to hear what types of requests you have and to see if I can make it happen. You can always email [email protected]

Also, this is a reminder that we are halfway-ish through the year at this point, and if you are someone who is thinking that you really would like to make a move out of the law sometime early to mid-next year, now would be a really good time for you to join us in The Former Lawyer Collaborative. For most people who join, it is self-paced but it typically takes most people about three to six months to work through the material and to figure out what it is that they want to do next.

If you're someone who is not happy being a lawyer, you know you want to do something else but you're not quite sure what that is, you don't know how to figure it out, you don't know how to gear your resume towards whatever job you ultimately decide that you want to do, all of those things, all of those questions are things that we help you work through in The Former Lawyer Collaborative. Go to formerlawyer.com/collab for more information and to enroll. Of course, as always, if you have any questions, you can always reach out to me at [email protected] All right, here is my conversation with Karen.

Hi, Karen. Welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.

Karen Spencer: Thank you for having me. I'm delighted to be here.

Sarah Cottrell: I am really excited to talk about your story. Let's start with you introducing yourself to the listeners.

Karen Spencer: Well, I'm Karen Spencer. I have a very long and interesting background which I will try to keep short for you. I started out as an engineer and then decided to become a lawyer. I started out wanting to practice general commercial law and really fell into patent law, became a partner at a large firm in San Francisco. At that time, it was large. Now, I think it might be considered medium sized.

I was recruited to a large company to go work for them, had a great career there focusing on both the business side and on intellectual property law. After that, I pivoted, I guess you would say, and I am now chief operating officer of Searchfunder which is a community newsletter and toolkit aimed at a specific kind of first time business buyer.

Sarah Cottrell: That is all super interesting. I have a million questions about all the things. I do want to mention that you talked about your experience in patent and we'll talk more about that because as I have mentioned on another recent episode, which listeners will know, a listener reached out to ask if I could have some women on who had experience in the patent space, both some of the problems that are present in that space as well as what it is like to transition out of it. We'll definitely get to that in the conversation, but first, I want to start with where we start basically in every episode, which is why did you decide to go to law school?

Karen Spencer: I fell into it like I think with many lawyers. I had been studying chemical engineering. I enjoyed it and I got to my senior year of college and realized that I did not want to study it anymore. I also discovered that the types of jobs I was going to have were not as exciting as they seemed. I really wanted to do things like plant design, building basically new manufacturing plants, and it turned out that most of the jobs were in the boonies. Most of them would require me to be managing folks that were my dad's age and there were likely not going to be other young professional people around and it just did not seem like a really good option for me.

I looked around, tried to figure out what I wanted to do next. Likely, I had a great friend who both of her parents were attorneys and they were like, “Go to law school.” I thought, “Well, I'll go for a year, see if I like it. If I don't like it, I can always fall back to engineering in some capacity.” I've just really enjoyed the experience of law school and the push and pull of the legal realm.

Sarah Cottrell: That's so interesting because I think a lot of people who go to law school are I guess what I'm thinking is that's actually a very healthy attitude of like, “I'm going to go and try it and see if it's not a fit, then it's not a fit.” I know a lot of people who end up in law school—and I'm also speaking from a personal experience here—are in this mindset of “I have chosen this thing and I will make it work,” and really don't give a lot of thought to whether or not it's a path that they should continue on once they're in law school. It sounds like for you, there was maybe a little bit more perspective than there is for some people who are going into that experience.

Karen Spencer: I certainly hear what you're saying on that, Sarah. I have a friend who was a senior person at their firm and you would think from the outside that they were going great like they had an illustrious career. After a number of beers, they confessed that they really hated the law and wish they had done something else and I was thinking, “Wow, how can you spend that much time doing something that you actually don't want to be doing?”

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. A question that so many listeners I'm sure ask themselves. I think it's interesting because there is a degree to which that experience in the law is normalized to the point that it doesn't necessarily make them think, “Oh, maybe I should do something else.”

So you loved law school, you continued on. By the time you got to the end of law school, did you have a sense of “I want to do this specific type of law”? Did you have an idea going into law school that you were going to pursue a particular type of law? Tell me about that.

Karen Spencer: Going into law school, I was pretty romantic about it. I had watched Gideon's Trumpet and all of that and I thought I was going to be a criminal lawyer of some form. I ended up going to a prison and realizing I did not like to be around places that you can't get out of, so I thought, “Okay, I need to retool this whole thing.” Going to Harvard, you certainly are steered towards more being at the large law firm in some capacity, whether it's litigation or on the commercial side. I fell into that area after I discovered that prisons and jails were not going to be for me.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. It's a very common story that people have going into law school with one idea of what they were going to do and being, in some cases, prodded onto a path a little bit, that's an experience that a lot of people have described when talking about their experiences on this podcast.

Karen Spencer: With student loans, it really makes it hard not to go a big firm in some capacity. I left with the highest student loan debt of just about anybody that I knew and so I had to find a really good paying job in order to pay off the loans. The one thing that I did choose to do was determine the location. I've decided to get out of the Northeast. I could not take another month of February or March in Boston and went to San Francisco. I was like, “I'm going to go for the weather. I'm going to have the kind of lifestyle I want.”

Sarah Cottrell: I like it. I went to law school in Chicago and loved so many things about it but I also was like, “There needs to not be nine months of winter.” Let's talk about you have this engineering background, does that mean that you had this idea of a lot of people would say, “Oh, you have an engineering background. Patent law is a natural fit”? Did you feel like that was the case for you or was it just something that you stumbled into? How did that work?

Karen Spencer: You're going to see a theme. I fall into things or stumble into them. I started out in commercial litigation looking at insurance contracts and debating words and phrases in the contract. I'd enjoyed that. My firm at the time was really foresighted and they got a patent attorney, a patent litigator and prosecutor. They got him and they discovered after they secured him that there weren't any associates who knew patent law.

I and another associate were teamed with him because we had engineering backgrounds and I got to go to trial three times at my second year out of law school. That was just incredible. I was in hog heaven at that point.

Sarah Cottrell: You say it's a theme, the falling into things, but I think it often is a theme for a lot of us who ended up in law school for a lot of different reasons. There often is this sense of “I wasn't sure what I wanted to do after undergrad so I fell into law school and then fell into a certain career path or a certain practice area.” It happens very frequently it seems for many people who have decided to take the legal path. But it also sounds for you it was a really good fit.

Karen Spencer: It was. I enjoyed every minute of it. I really enjoy the patent landscape. Innovators, I love working with them. They're always interesting folks, quirky and interesting, and just being able to help them is rewarding in itself.

Sarah Cottrell: You mentioned that the partner you were working with did patent prosecution and litigation and that you started out in litigation. For you, did you stay on the patent litigation side or did you do both?

Karen Spencer: I stayed on the patent litigation side. I liken being a patent litigator to being an editor. I should never ever try to write a book because I would spend most of my time critiquing patents that other people wrote and it's really too hard to write one after you do that because you know how you're going to snipe at somebody. So yes, I stayed on the patent litigation side.

Sarah Cottrell: As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons that you came on the podcast is to talk about some of the challenges, let's say, in specifically the area of patent. We talk on this podcast all the time and it's constantly in the news, many of the problems that larger law firms in particular, but really the legal profession as a whole, has with diversity, equity, and inclusion. I would just love to hear from you what your experience was in that particular practice area and thoughts that you have about things that could be improved, shall we say.

Karen Spencer: I find it interesting because I felt like the patent space was actually a little bit more egalitarian than the general space. I felt like I had more opportunities. This may have changed over time but I felt like the critical thing was that I had an engineering background and they really needed that. That was something that was really needed at the time. It was much more of, I would say, the wild, wild west where patent shops were really beginning to grow and so there was a lot more opportunity, not that I didn't face challenges but I felt like there was more opportunity.

I think in looking back over my whole entire career, there were certainly some incidents, even when I was on the general litigation side, that I wish I had experienced differently, let's just say that. I think if you are particularly a woman of color in any space, you've got to be great at your job that you're doing. You're going to do a lot of heavy lifting on the mentoring side because if you're like me, you're trying to lift other people up as you climb, and that's a burden. Then most people, you're going to want to have a family and social life outside of work and it becomes a serious strain.

One of the things that I experienced early on in my career was the lack of, I want to call it institutional will when it came to my support and needs. I'll give you an example. This is very early on in my career. This was right before computers and laptops so I'm dating myself. Everybody did not have one in our office at the time, which is really shocking. The senior partners basically might have one but it was covered in dust. Everybody had an admin that they would give their work to.

I was assigned along with another associate who is a man to an admin who worked for a senior partner. I started to give her the work that you would normally give and she politely came into my office, explained that I was not going to be around in a few years, that the other male associate was basically her ticket once the senior partner retired. She was going to give him first priority and I could get whatever was left over if there happened to be any time left over which she did not expect that there would be.

As a really young lawyer, I ended up having to learn how to be a lawyer and also how to be my own admin. Now I did raise the issue with the firm but I got the sense that there was really no other option for me. I was just going to have to wait it out until something else became available. That ended up being somewhat of a theme throughout my career where the institution just didn't seem to have the will to support.

Looking back, I wish I'd talked to the other male associate. I never talked to him about, “Hey, this is something that's impacting me that's going on. Can you go talk to her and say, Look, you need to be fair?”

Sarah Cottrell: So many things. I think that the idea of institutional will is so important in these conversations. Because often I see people wanting to focus on “Here's how you individually can navigate these spaces or ways to advocate for yourself.” I'm not saying that those things aren't important at all, but to your point, the reality is that even though the way you were being treated in this particular circumstance was clearly wrong, it’s also like that was happening because it was so clear what the institution was like and what it valued. If there was not the institutional will to make a change or improve it, it wasn't going to happen. I think that's something that we see all the time even today.

Karen Spencer: Today, it's probably a little bit more subtle. I don't think an admin would feel comfortable walking in the office and doing that but she made that calculation and I have a feeling that that happens in the corporate environment and other places as well. They're making a calculation about “Who do I think is valuable? Who do I think is going to be around?” It actually fosters folks not sticking around. If you're basically working your day job as a lawyer, working your evening job as a paralegal and admin, you're going to get burned out and tired and go.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think people will burn out. There's been lots of conversation recently about the culture of law firms, especially large law firms, and the reality is that having the institutional will to change some of the systemic things that are so deeply embedded in these organizations, the willingness or lack of willingness to do that is really what defines the culture of the organization.

Karen Spencer: I totally agree. I think a lot of it comes down to good managerial practices which isn't really taught in law school, so we keep fostering the same thing over and over again. But if you are a good solid manager, chances are you are going to alleviate the culture by a long stretch.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes. Like you said, we're not taught that. Even I think the piece that makes it that much worse is that within law firms, people aren't being elevated to positions of power based on their keen and humane managerial instincts, it's based on their ability to bring in business and these sorts of things. It just compounds a problem that already exists.

Talk to me a little bit about what happened for you in terms of deciding like, “Okay, I'm not going to be here anymore. I want to go somewhere else.” Tell me about that piece of your story.

Karen Spencer: Do you mean from the law firm to the corporate world or from the corporate world, big company world into the smaller entrepreneurial space?

Sarah Cottrell: Let's do both. Let's start with corporate.

Karen Spencer: I was a partner at a law firm in Silicon Valley and was really loving the experience, but at the same time, I had just met the person who was going to become my spouse who's my boyfriend at the time, he is now my husband of 20 plus years. I was just thinking about, “Okay, how is this all going to work?” I think it's easier if both spouses are lawyers because then you understand the demands on each other's times. When you're working a lot of hours and you have a spouse with a normal nine to five job, it's a vastly different experience.

I was thinking about, “Okay, what does my future look like as a partner in a law firm? I've got the brass ring. Am I really happy with what I got? Is this something that I really want to do?” At that time, there was a ton of jobs outside of a law firm in IP litigation, but it just so happened that one day, a recruiter called me and she was a very tenacious, very smart recruiter. She discovered that I would talk to her when I was on my commute from San Francisco to Palo Alto. She just would periodically call me and say, “I've got this opportunity. It's really wonderful. You really should take a look at it.”

One day I did. After a lot of debate and deliberation and thinking about it, I ended up working for Nike. It was such the right decision at the time. This is back in 2000. My fellow partners looked at me like I had a third horn on my head because the stock market was booming, the Valley was hot, it was chic, it was all about tech. Going to work for a sneaker company just seemed weird and I thought, “I like the idea of knowing that something's coming off the production line that you can see and feel and pick up.” It was a great decision to make.

Sarah Cottrell: It's so interesting because that's something that I hear from a lot of lawyers, especially lawyers who are in private practice who are in law firms, that they feel they really are missing feeling they are contributing to producing something tangible. I think that's something that for a lot of people it creates a lot of satisfaction and it's something that a lot of lawyers feel like they're missing out on when they're working in a law firm setting.

I have a lot of clients who have wanted to move into something where they felt like they had more contribution to producing, creating, the creation of something. That's really interesting that you mentioned that. Then I also wanted to just circle back quickly because this is something that comes up a lot with the people I work with and just with listeners of the podcast. You said that in a lot of ways, you think it's helpful if you have a partner who’s also a lawyer because then they understand what the experience of being a lawyer is like, which I definitely agree with that.

My husband and I met in law school so that has been my experience. I have seen where it can often be challenging for people to articulate to a loved one who's not a lawyer what exactly it is like to be in a high demand job as a lawyer. Could you just share a little bit more about that piece of thing?

Karen Spencer: At some points in my career, I was basically working 29, 30 days out of the month, particularly when you're going to trial. It was just insane and it's hard to tell a boyfriend or a burgeoning romance, “By the way, you're not going to see me in the next 30 days. If you do see me, I'm likely to be comatose.” It doesn't really help the relationship. I'm sure there are people who can navigate it but that seemed a little bit much. I wanted a little bit more balance.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I know many people who have had that experience. When you say being in trial and working for 30 days straight, I have an inherent sense of exactly what you're describing and I can see how for someone who doesn't have that, it can be hard to communicate.

Let's talk a little bit more about Nike. You said you went there in 2000. Talk to me about your experience there and what ultimately led you to think about moving on to something else.

Karen Spencer: I started out as the only patent attorney at Nike and we grew. Over the 14 years, it just grew phenomenally. The portfolio grew. I really enjoyed the intellectual challenge of understanding the portfolio. While I was at Nike, I had incredible opportunities. I became senior counsel of Nike Golf, a mini GC role within the Nike organization. I was able to do the IP litigation side. I was able to do patent portfolio strategy. I was able to work on product releases and product launches, labor and employment issues, and all sorts of things. It was absolutely a terrific experience.

But after 14 years, I was finding myself circling back to problems that we had thought we had solved earlier that maybe we hadn't solved or hadn't fully solved. I felt like I was getting on the same merry-go-round. Now, granted the company was twice the size that it was or maybe even two and a half times the size it was when I first started so the problems were even bigger, but the intellectual task was becoming very similar. I wanted to find something that was going to be a new challenge and a new opportunity.

With the way that I was working, I was not feeling comfortable that I could do that on the side, like try to figure out what I wanted to do as Karen 2.0 while I was still in Karen 1.0 land. So I decided to take some time away. I officially retired from Nike, what I like to say is I retired from that position. I did not retire from work or from life in general.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. That's so interesting because of a couple of things. One, I've had several conversations with clients recently about this idea that often there are these conversations about legal roles and being a lawyer and people will say, “Oh, you get to solve these really complex problems.” There is some truth to that but often not necessarily as much as people anticipate.

To the point that you are making, there can be a degree to which it starts to feel repetitive like, “Okay, yes, this is a thorny issue of some type or a complex problem that I'm dealing with but it's actually very similar to many things that I've dealt with in this role before,” and so it's common that I'll have clients express to me, essentially the work just becomes very similar.

It feels like it's just the same thing over and over even though it technically is not and technically perhaps could qualify as a solving a complex problem, but when you've done it, especially when you've done it for a number of years, it can often start to feel very similar. I got a little bit of a sense of that from what you were saying about your experience.

Karen Spencer: Most certainly. For me, sometimes if you have the same problem and the context changes, then it gets really exciting because you're having to take the skills that you had and make sure that they still work in that new context. I had done that in a number of different spaces within the Nike organization. Then I just felt like “I think I'm tired of solving this particular problem.”

Sarah Cottrell: Yes, totally. Literally, I've had multiple conversations of that type in the last couple of weeks. For anyone listening, if that is how you are feeling, it is very normal and lots of lawyers have that experience.

I think you said that you felt like there was a little bit of a tension of trying to figure out what it was that you wanted to do next while still also being in the persona of who you were at the time, and so you ended up taking some time in between to have that space. That's very interesting because often people would ask me, “In order to figure out what I want to do next, do I basically need to quit my job?”

I tell them I don't think that is something that's necessary, but I will say that I have seen a number of people do that because that's something that they're able to do because it does create this space to imagine what could be different when you move yourself out of that environment. Tell me about that time of trying to figure out what it was that you wanted to do next. Karen 2.0 as you said.

Karen Spencer: I spent about I think six months just relaxing and decompressing, maybe even nine months. I just needed that after a long career. I just needed time. Then I really felt at that point that I was ready to try to tackle what was going to happen next. I just started experimenting. I did a course with Sherri Lassila. She basically works on transformation, particularly in women. I did a course with her and she really stressed the experimentation piece, just trying something out.

I looked at what were the things that I wanted to do but I just never had the opportunity to do for one reason or the other, whether a right opportunity, wrong time, or not the right moment because of financial circumstances or family circumstances. I looked at a variety of different things. I looked at writing a book. I looked at the potential of becoming a professor.

One thing that I did hit on pretty early was actually business ownership. I thought, “Wow, I don't really want to start a business but I can really see myself running one.” I've got a masters in management from Stanford. I've got the law background. I've worked in business. I've managed my husband's band done all sorts of stuff that were entrepreneurial throughout my life. I think I could do this.

I started talking with folks that were trusted advisors and they were like, “No, don't do it. You're going to lose your shirt. It's going to be terrible.” I thought, “Wait a minute,” and I try to listen to what they were saying and what the issues might be. I thought, “Well, they seem to be concerned that I'm not going to make money on this. Maybe I'll do a franchise.” Then I went back to them and they said, “No, definitely don't do a franchise. Have you seen the contracts? They're horrible. It's terrible.”

I got talked out of it, and in hindsight now, it may not have been the path for me, but I got talked out of and I was like, “Well, maybe all I can do then is a startup. I don't have the startup idea, let me find somebody who has an idea and I'll go work with them.” How they say stay in touch with your alumni association, I totally agree with that, because in a very quick amount of time, I met Mark and Luke who are co-founders of the startup that I'm in and I'm now a co-founder of Searchfunder.

Their idea was basically to help people who wanted to buy businesses. I thought, “Wow. If you guys had been around about six months ago before I started the startup thing, you would have been perfect for me.” I've been on that track ever since.

Sarah Cottrell: That's really cool. Can you tell me a little bit more about what Searchfunder does and then what role you are playing with in the startup?

Karen Spencer: I'm going to give you a little history of the search fund, just take a couple of moments to talk about that. Search fund started in the 1980s. The concept behind it was you take a student, an MBA student, and basically show them how they could look for a profitable stable business to buy. The process takes about two years and the folks who are mentoring them are also the folks who are funding them to search for the business so they get a stipend to go running around all over the country to find a business that fits particular metrics.

At the end, when they found that target that they want to buy, the investors get preferential treatment. If they want to buy into it, they buy a company, and the person can operate it, typically it's at least about five to maybe seven years, and sometimes, it's for the remainder of their career.

The most well-known search fund is probably not as known as, say, an Apple or something like that, but it is Asurion. If you bought a tech product on Amazon or a cell phone, chances are you were offered the Asurion insurance. That's the most well-known and most successful. They're a global company.

Search funds for most of its life since the 80s have been the exclusive domain of places like Stanford and Harvard. When I came on with Mark and Luke, Chicago was just opening up. Nowadays, it’s actually global. There are searchers in Australia. There are researchers in Africa. There are searches way up in the Nordics. They are all over the globe.

There's been some innovation in the space and that is that you don't have to take investor money up front, you can self-fund your search, basically go out, find a business to buy, then if you need to seek investor money or use SBA loan debt to procure the company.

What my company does is we act as a Quora, a LinkedIn, or Facebook, and a matchmaker to put the prospective searcher in touch with a network of folks that can help them do it. Nobody's born knowing how to do a search fund. Nobody's born knowing how to buy a business. You really have to be mentored, particularly if you did not take a class, say at Stanford, Harvard, or Chicago on it. People understand that, so it's a very welcoming community for folks who are interested in buying a stable, profitable small to medium-sized business. That's the history of it.

What I do is I consider myself less of a chief operating officer and more of a chief happiness officer. I'm engaged in the community. I make sure that we have the right content, that we have the ability to connect folks to who they need to be connected with, and looking at partnerships, who can we partner, and who should we be bringing in. If a searcher says, “Look, I just found this tool. I think it's really great,” I may see how we can bring that tool into the Searchfunder community.

Sarah Cottrell: That's so interesting. Here's one of the things that I think is so important for people to hear. When you started your career coming out of law school, you didn't have this long-range vision of like, “This is the specific thing that I will ultimately end up doing,” based on your story. That's true for most people who come on the podcast.

I think that's so important for listeners to hear because I think often, lawyers who are wanting to move on to something else feel like, “Well, I can't move on unless I know all 27 steps that are ahead.” If they're supposed to do something else, then that means they should have complete clarity about all of the details and where things will ultimately go.

But I think you would say, based on your experience, it sounds like from your story that it's an iterative process. You mentioned going through that program where they talked about experimentation and how experimentation is so important, which is something that is a big part of what we do inside of my program with lawyers, is essentially supporting people, supporting lawyers to feel like experimenting is good and okay and they're not doing something wrong if what they're doing feels like an experiment, that's in fact how you get the information you need. Would you agree with that?

Karen Spencer: Yeah. I totally agree with what you're saying. I think treating it as an experiment de-risks it. I looked at writing a book on intellectual property and I went down dutifully for a couple of weeks to sketch it out. I got it outlined. I was sitting there staring at the outline of the book and I realized that, “Yeah, I could write this book and I could get it done, but I really like being around people. I didn't want to be sitting in my basement office for the next six, eight, or whatever months it was going to take to get this thing written. I liked the camaraderie of being around people.”

Now, I think if you have the legal mindset, you might say, “I failed at writing a book,” and I would say I learned something very valuable about myself. I was not so engaged in the subject matter that I had to complete the book and I really wanted to be engaged with other people. My next step was to find opportunities that had other people in them.

Sarah Cottrell: I think that is such a good example and I love it so much. Not just because it's advice that I give people all the time, but also it is advice that I give lawyers all the time because like you said, it is so ingrained to think of something like that as “Oh, well, I failed at doing this thing,” as opposed to “I got information that is helping me make a good choice, a series of better choices going forward that are more aligned with who I am.” I really appreciate you sharing that, Karen.

Is there anything else, as we're getting towards the end of our conversation, that you'd like to share that we haven't talked about yet today?

Karen Spencer: I would say we get a fair number of attorneys who are interested in entrepreneurship through acquisition. If you think that is something that you're interested in, feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn, I'm happy to connect you with other attorneys, other folks.

I would say just start wading into the pool. You don't have to do a deep dive. You don't have to quit your job tomorrow and find a company to buy, you can just start wading in the pool and just seeing whether the water feels right to you.

Sarah Cottrell: For people to connect with you, you said that LinkedIn is the best place for them to find you online, is that right?

Karen Spencer: LinkedIn, or you can email me at [email protected] as well.

Sarah Cottrell: Perfect. Karen, thank you so much for sharing your story today. I really appreciate you coming on the podcast.

Karen Spencer: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate you doing this. I wish I had known about you when you've been around when I was thinking about what to do next because I'm sure it would have uplifted my spirits and made me feel like I was not the only person out there thinking these thoughts and trying to do this.

Sarah Cottrell: Thank you, Karen.

Have you watched my free masterclass, The Simple 5-Step Framework To Identify An Alternative Career (That You Actually Like!)? In this master class, you'll learn the proven framework that I use with all of my clients to help them identify an alternative career. You can watch the masterclass right now, just go to formerlawyer.com/masterclass, sign up, and get the link to watch. Once you've watched, message me or email me and let me know what your biggest takeaway was from the class. I would love to know.