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Taking a chance on change with Kristen Corpion

It took courage to deviate from the pathway Kristen Corpion thought would define her success. But by being true to herself, she has emerged a stronger and happier person and created a legal business that reflects her enduring passion for small business.

Growing up the daughter of a working single parent, shaped Kristen Corpion’s view of the world. Born and raised in Florida, she spent her early formative years watching her mother juggle running her own small business while also raising a family. It cemented her determination to get an education that would provide opportunities to earn a six-figure salary. If she could achieve that, she would have made it. Or that was her thinking when she got into Berkeley Law School, the first member of her family to go to college.

Lawyers who hail from lower middle-class backgrounds in America are a rare breed (according to the Law Society in 2021, only a third are from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds) and those who are prepared to step away from the security of a big salary scarcer still. But then nothing about Corpion’s career path is usual.

“Growing up, a six-figure job sounded really good to me,” she says. “And I got one of those jobs and then discovered it wasn’t for me. I hadn’t put enough thought into the fact I wouldn’t have a deep connection with Fortune 500 companies. And that was my fault, not the company’s.”

The realization that the dream job wasn’t making her happy, led Corpion to some serious soul-searching; undergoing professional and personality tests was a revelation. “I realized a formal corporate hierarchy is not a good fit for my personality, I like a looser structure. I love things to be disorganized. Being involved in a start-up or building something from scratch is what I find meaningful.”

While getting to that place of awareness was hard, it proved to be the catalyst that led Corpion in a different direction – still in law but combining her legal prowess with her innate entrepreneurial flair, brick-by-brick Corpion built her own law firm, CORPlaw, to serve small businesses and people who inspire her.

“Given my background, I have a strong connection with small business owners, and they are who I most respect and want to serve.”

CORPlaw, the law firm she created three years ago, has its headquarters in Miami and works mainly with high-growth start-ups, small businesses, and entrepreneurs. The staff of nine have 125-150 small businesses on their books and Corpion’s role is that of fractional General Counsel.

While it can be tough to get buy-in from business owners, Corpion says the onus is on the legal profession. “Business owners often don’t respect lawyers because they don’t know crap about business. To an extent that’s on you as a lawyer. You need to get yourself up to speed, to know what it takes to run a business.”

Business owners too, are often unaware of the value to be gained in engaging the services of a legal firm, seeing lawyers as a net negative that doesn’t make the company money immediately. “We’ve positioned ourselves to work around that and have what we call an outside General Counsel plan where our clients pay an upfront activation fee that gets them an account for a year. It’s not a retainer, we don’t do them because our research and experience has shown that our clients hate them. We don’t charge any additional monthly fee because we’ve found that to have diminishing returns in terms of the overall happiness of our clients.”

For Corpion, happy clients represent success on both personal and professional levels. “I’ve worked since I was fifteen, and what I’ve learned is that it’s not your employer’s job to know what makes you happy. If you don’t know why you aren’t happy in your work, it’s because you haven’t invested time or resources or gotten help. You need to ask yourself, ‘what do I enjoy, what makes me excited to get out of bed in the morning?’”

Kristen Corpion's dos and don'ts

How much lawyer is too much?

Bedside manner is the term staff at CORPlaw use when referring to how best to interact with clients. “We have scripts, we do training on hypothetical situations,” says Corpion, adding that it’s important to pitch conversations with clients correctly. While lawyers are comfortable with a direct speaking style and getting right to the nub of a problem, it’s important to tread carefully in conversation with clients such as entrepreneurs because you’re dealing with their dreams. “They’re often figuring out their dreams as they’re building them, and they’re sharing them with you. If you pop that bubble without a certain level of empathy and sensitivity, I’d argue that’s too much lawyer.”  

How to position yourself

The way you position yourself in terms of your brand and how your colleagues perceive you, will be affected by two crucial factors: the quality of your work and the trust you engender in both colleagues and clients. “You’re only as good as your last mistake, it’s something I’ve heard said many times in a Biglaw setting - which is a dangerous and unhealthy way to live your professional life,” says Corpion.

She stresses that it’s important to consider institutional dynamics and to be able to read the room, particularly if you’re working at a large firm. “There has to be real intentionality to position yourself to get quality work, to be the trusted right hand. Go into any setting and be quiet, listen, get a feel for the dynamics that are happening around you. We call this culture – and institutions have culture. Once you understand it, whether you agree with it or not, you can navigate it more effectively.”

As Corpion says, that may mean you move towards what you like, or it could mean getting the heck out of there!

Don’t play the blame game

Taking ownership of your feelings is important when it comes to making decisions about your career. Corpion says when she was unhappy working in a formal corporate hierarchy, she initially blamed everyone but herself. “Not taking accountability was my fault. I Googled I hate the law. My enemy was the law, it was screwing up, and my thinking was that no one’s happy as a lawyer. But that’s BS. Plenty of people are happy in the law, and they are people with a good sense and intentionality of who they want to serve.”

Making a hybrid transition

If you’re working in private practice and are keen to transition into a more hybrid-type role or move to a hybrid company, Corpion says it’s a definite advantage to be already working for a big firm. “They have such powerful brands and platforms and the resources to help you invest in having certain opportunities. I suggest doing pro bono work with local organizations that specialize in working with small business creatives to start picking up that skill set in a way that’s not offensive to your current employer. It will also allow you to start appreciating what a budget-conscious, less sophisticated consumer of legal services thinks about so you can tailor your services and your expectations without necessarily making the jump across first.”

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