‘Don’t sweat the small stuff, do sweat the big stuff – and learn to tell the difference’

By Richard Kemp on

In the latest post in the ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series, Richard Kemp, founder of the tech and digital media law boutique Kemp Little, recalls what it was like to quit the safety of a big law firm to set up shop on his own.

At school, lawyers were generally the bookish, conservative types. Being entrepreneurial comes less easy to us. But if you get the plan right and join up all the dots, starting your own firm isn’t as big a deal as it seems.

Not that it didn’t feel that way at the time. I edged slowly towards the idea of launching a business over a fairly long period, first setting up the company and commercial group at Hopkins and Wood before moving on to Hammonds Suddards (now Squire Sanders), where I established the London office. Having turned 40, I thought to myself, “It’s now or never.”

When you start, this amazing amount of energy and positivity is unshackled. It’s a well-known phenomenon. I’ve never worked as hard in my life as during those first two years, but I’ve also never felt so engaged and dynamic.

But I now realise there’s no magic to it. Since we set up our firm in 1997 the most important lesson I’ve learned can be condensed into a single sentence: don’t sweat the small stuff, do sweat the big stuff – and learn to tell the difference.

The big stuff – what really matters – is the relationships: inside, with the people in the business, and outside with clients and friends and suppliers. The forensic, sometimes adversarial quality of legal practice can be 180 degrees away from the gradual process of relationship building that is crucial for a start-up – and it’s a whole new set of skills you have to learn.

As for the small stuff, well, more stuff turns out to be small than I thought at the time. There’s a basic early stage of getting things working and paperclips ordered. But you can get through that quite quickly, and on to the things that matter. On reflection, I probably spent too long on the administration details in the early days.

Learning to let go isn’t easy, of course. But it’s essential. Whatever you have on your desk, if something bigger comes in, you have to do that first. At the beginning, it can be a matter of juggling all sorts of things, but over time it’s important to create systems that allow you to function in the most useful way possible.

Some of the challenges of running a business are the same as I faced in the early days – like holding your nerve and backing your judgement. Right at the start we had a really busy December followed by a very quiet January. I remember thinking to myself, “Oh dear.” Fortunately, from then on we just got busier and busier.

Other challenges are different. Rather than looking for the next big idea it becomes important to concentrate on continuing to do the things that you are good at well, while making tweaks where appropriate. I remember thinking early on how great it would be great to invent the “admin free” law firm, and devoting a lot of time to this idea. But it now seems, well, dotty.

Finally, accept what can’t be changed. For lawyers in 2013, more than at any other time, that means accepting change itself. Our firm got started as the first internet boom was getting underway. That now seems light years ago, with so much change having happened in the world since then: whether it’s at the macro-economic level (the crash of 2008), in tech (mobile, cloud, big data) or the legal profession (the huge structural changes that are getting underway in the market for business legal services). All this requires, more than anything else, adaptability.

That’s good to remember when you’re tempted to sweat the small stuff.

Richard Kemp is one of the UK’s top technology and communications lawyers. He founded technology and digital media law firm Kemp Little in 1997.