Lawline CEO Shares His Entrepreneurship Journey and on Making an Impact Through Legal Education

Sigalle Barness | June 1, 2022

On this week’s episode of Lawline's Lawyers Who Lead podcast, Sigalle interviews Lawline’s very own CEO, David Schnurman. David discusses his entrepreneurship journey to creating the best and largest online education and training platform for lawyers. Listen to the full interview or read highlights of the interview below! Transcribed answers were edited for readability.

 

 

On Knowing He Wanted to Be an Entrepreneur Since Middle School 

Walking Through Office Depot Marveling at the Products and Systems That Make a Business Work

 

In middle school, I would go into Staples and Office Depot. There was one by my house. Not to buy anything. I would walk in and I'd start putting things in my cart. I would put a couple of things in my cart that are portable, like a safe. I don't know. I was always addicted to, and I still am, to buying binders so I can put all my ideas and information in them. 

I still love doing it. It's like being a kid in a candy store. Cause to me, when you look on the shelves, like these are the products and systems that make a business work. That organizes a business. That structure a business. So, I think a lot of it was about freedom and the belief that you can do whatever it is that you want. 

 

On the Winding Journey to Becoming CEO of Lawline 

Studied Law, Interviewed Entrepreneurs, and Worked in Sales and Real Estate

 

It took a long way for me to go from high school, where I was reading entrepreneurial books to becoming CEO of Lawline. I've always wanted to be an entrepreneur. But I never knew how to get there. In the process I worked in five or six different sales jobs. I was a real estate broker. I was a student in law school. I started a TV show interviewing entrepreneurs, and then I realized I had an opportunity to take that TV show, which was on public access, and interview lawyers and turn those interviews into courses for CLE credit. I was lucky enough to be set up with a great family and a great background.

My dad started Lawline in 1999. He had a site called Lawline that had about 10 courses on it. In 2007, I realized he was ahead of his time and I thought I could rebuild the company. It started with me and a high school intern, my third year of law school. And I've started working on it from then. 

 

On the Influence His Father Had on His Path

Everybody Wants a Role Model to Follow, It’s Such a Cool Thing When It’s Your Parents 

 

My dad always wanted me to go to law school because he came from nothing. He drove a taxi through law school and was on full scholarship. And so being a lawyer has allowed him to build a life. And so he wanted to give that same opportunity to us. 

My dad, who was a personal injury attorney, wasn't working for somebody else and I never thought of him as an entrepreneur, but certainly he was. And he was always happy. And lawyers, especially in personal injury, are not always happy. One of the things that he used to guide him is his vision for himself was of Robin Hood. He would take money from the rich insurance companies and give it to most of his clients who are poor and injured. And that's what drove him. 

But I knew I never wanted to be a personal injury attorney. I wanted to have a career and I saw being a lawyer as a way to have an impact and have a long-term career. So going to law school, I didn't know where I wanted to end up, I just knew, as much as my dad was a role model to me, that I didn't want to work for him. 

But I can't under, what's the word, under say, that's not the right word, but the fact that my dad had given it a go six or seven years earlier, and that he was such a help for me in the early stages [of Lawline]. That was a huge instrumental factor of getting it going. Giving me confidence to make decisions.

And it's such a cool thing because like everybody wants positive reinforcement from their parents. And now here, my dad was, and still is, my biggest cheerleader. Not only because he wants to see me do well, but because he has interest in my success. 

Everybody wants a leader to follow. Whether it's entrepreneurs that you can follow with others in the industry, whether it's your parents, somebody who can help give you that mentorship. 

 

On Founding Lawline While in Law School

Took an Established Foundation, Identified the Target Market, and Recognized the Industry’s Pain Points

 

Before I graduated, my third year of law school was when I realized I wanted to take Lawline and give it a go. And that's because I'd started a TV show interviewing entrepreneurs. And up until that point, I probably interviewed about 30 entrepreneurs and I learned a couple things from them on how to take a business and go with it.

I took what I learned from them and I put together a business plan and I shared it with my dad and his partner. I said, look, I want to build a new company. I want to use the Lawline brand and turn it into something huge. They're like, go for it. You know, what do we have to lose?

So from day one, I had a target market who needed something and I had a pain point to solve it and I was in the law. So it made sense and it worked, but certainly it's obviously bigger than that. There's a community of a million attorneys who have lots of challenges from graduating law school to the end of their career. And so from day one my focus has never been about CLE credit, even though that's the core of our business. It's about how we help them in their career and beyond that and help them support their clients.

So in my third year of law school, I went to school two days a week. I put all my classes in two days and worked full-time at Lawline. I knew I needed to have the business make enough that I could feel confident after the bar I’d be able to take it full-time. And so we hired a developer team to build the website before I graduated. If I didn't have a website, I couldn't have a company. So that was the number one thing that we did in that year.

 

On Going from Startup to a Multi-Million Dollar Business

Joining the Entrepreneurs Organization, Getting a Business Coach, and Holding on to Good Talent

 

So the first three to five years was like the David show. I was the center, the hub, and everything kind of went back to me. But really quickly that stopped because I'm not an operations person. I could fake it for a while, but not long-term. So very quickly, I put all my energy into getting myself mentally where I needed to be and that's why I joined entrepreneurs' organization. That's why I started working with coaches. 

But I think the first inflection point for the business was when we hired a coach. When we hired Mark Green seven years ago to coach the executive team that didn't even exist yet. And then you were one of the first members on, I think that's where we started organizing the way we think and the way we work as a company.

Throughout all this, these journeys, it's amazing at what is a relatively small business, how much energy and challenges and sometimes drama that exists in such a small business. But what I've learned is you can take what we've been through and talk to a billion dollar company, a public company, or a mid-size company or us: it's all exactly the same. 

Most of the time, we're educating every time we've talked to somebody in a larger business or larger industry, we're teaching them new things by how we do things at Lawline. Which is inspiring because it shows how much work we've put it in.

I think as a leader, one of the strengths that's really important to have is knowing when you found someone who has good talent, whether it's an employee or a coach or a partner, and then really honing in on that. And once you're working with them, make sure you're working with them forever in some form. We've had several team members who've left and they still contract with us to this day. 

The other thing I learned is, at the end of the day, what is this all about? 30, 50 years from now, when we're looking back, it's the relationships that we had and what we did with each other. Certainly the impact too, but the relationships and the journeys that we went through, because there's a book here, Sigalle. The journeys that you've gone through over the past nine years, that not only would we enjoy writing, but I think there's a value to be shared from some of these ups and downs.

 

On Looking to the Future

Continue Building Impact, Focusing on the Journey and Destination, and Staying Aligned with Lawline’s Purpose

 

I still want to build. I don't know if it's a multi-billion dollar business. I don't know if it's a unicorn business, I don't know what the actual term is, but certainly something that has a big impact. That's my drive and my vision for my life. Specifically it's about having a positive impact on communities throughout the world. And my focus on having a positive impact on the legal community. 

But certainly Lawline has had an amazing impact on the industry. I feel very accomplished with where we're at and also the size that we're at. And it's not over cause we're thinking of doing bigger things right now and we're like, still pushing where we want to get to.

One of the more challenging parts is that while we say it's the journey, we're still really always focused on the destination most of the time. And so if you're always focused on the destination and feeling like you're not there, there's a level of frustration you might get, which you gotta be aware of and understand how important that destination is to you and why. So if it's about giving clients access to justice and helping the justice system, that's great. Or if it's like reducing carbon emissions by 20% and your product can do that, that will push you beyond to make sure that happens. 

And that's where we came up with our why, which was empowering the attorney's pursuit of justice for their clients. And I was going to say the legal profession, but for me, I can really relate it to when I take it to a 10 foot view of the attorneys, because each attorney is rolling up his or her sleeves to support themselves and their clients. And one huge tool to do that is education and idea exchange from other attorneys who've done it. 

 

On Staying Aligned With Lawline’s “Mountain”

Ensuring Attorneys Connect With the Reason They Are Attorneys

 

One of the things that makes us special and gives us energy and where we are different from any other provider in the space, is that we start seeing things that make us stand out. We call it connectivity.

What that means is, in a general sense, it's having attorneys being fulfilled to the reason they became an attorney, so that passion that's underneath them. And so on a faculty side, we have created a turnkey way to take somebody who has an idea or a subject they want to teach, help them facilitate that, put it on our platform and give them reach to thousands of attorneys that can not only watch their class, but can actually connect with them afterwards. We have attorneys who are in court and they're recognized by somebody who's seen them on Lawline and then they're like rock stars. It's amazing. 

It's making sure that the attorneys who use our platform as a faculty and a customer are connected to the reason that they became an attorney and they feel fulfilled by that. 

 

On Creating Content for Lawyers

We Look at Lawyers as a Whole: Law Practice, Well-Being, DEIB, and Other Professional Development

 

So there's three main areas that we focus on from a content perspective. One is the traditional practice areas. There's 60 different, give or take, areas from intellectual property to estates and family law and everything in between. 

A lot of the feedback that we're getting from our customers is well-being content, professional development content, and DE&I content. So we're hearing this from them and then we're going to put it out there and see how these courses do. 

So the second area is well-being content. Well-being is anything from attorneys trying to figure out who they are and what they're trying to do or dealing with what's going on in the world today. That's also tied into diversity equity inclusion content, which you can't underestimate the importance of in the legal community, to have true diversity and there's a lot that the legal profession has done over the years, but there's still a lot more to be done. 

And if we circle back to the beginning of the conversation, that's been my goal from the first day. I personally care about what makes each person tick and we're still not fully there, but I wish I could have gotten there a lot faster. That's why we renamed the company in 2014 to FurtherEd, because it was about furthering your education beyond just CLE, but it is really important. 

And the final area that we didn't get into is professional business development, which again, fits to the non-practice areas part. But I don't want to belittle, that's the wrong word, but the practice part is really important and it's the core of what we do because the laws are always changing, attorneys are transitioning to different areas of law, and so it's where we spend the bulk of our time, because it's such an important part of the process as we build up the other content as well. 

 

On How Lawline Is a Content Provider and Platform

Focusing on Supporting Individual Lawyers Daily and Creating a Platform That Supports Large Organizations

 

We really focus a lot on building a really quality subscription product for attorneys who come back and subscribe year after year with us. I don't know if this is public, but I guess it's my company so I could share that we have about 40,000 active subscribers and we're constantly thinking about not how to sell them again, because they're ready subscribers, but what more do they need to support them in their day-to-day practice?

The bigger opportunity and challenge is we've predominantly been working with individual attorneys from all size firms and Fortune 500 companies. Now, over the past couple of years, we've been working with really large organizations and law firms to design content and a platform that supports all these needs on a firm wide level, whether it's hosting a three-day conference with a thousand attorneys or creating client access for the very specific type of content that dives into these areas, we're thinking about how we're not just a content provider, but how we're a platform for these different firms. 

 

On What Leadership in Law Means

Every Employee Is Treated Like a Person

 

It's thinking about the lawyer as a whole, not just as a lawyer, but who are they as a whole person and how do we support them? I think many times in the legal profession, that's not done for many reasons and there's a lot of work to be done. The world has changed and it's not going back. And it's really important whether you're leading a two person team or a thousand person team, that everybody feels that they're thought of as a person, as a whole person first and then, and how you support them there.

 

On Leaving a Legacy

One Million or 35: Impact on People Is What’s Important

 

It goes back to what I said earlier. When we look back at this time, it's going to be about the relationships and the experiences that we had. Sometimes I think about how I can impact millions of people. And I also then flip back and go well, I have 35 people I can have a real big impact on like today. 

And so that's what I do. I look at each person and figure out who they are, what they want, and how do we help them get there. I've learned this earlier on too, in my career, I want to support everybody in their career for the next 30 years and beyond Lawline, beyond just this conversation. 

So that's where I see the bigger legacy that's right in front of all leaders, is the people that they deal with every day, not the people that they are going to deal with 20 years from today.

 

Lawyers Who Lead is a weekly podcast that celebrates lawyers who are making powerful changes through extraordinary leadership. Each week, Lawline’s Chief Storyteller, Sigalle Barness, interviews a lawyer who is driving meaningful change in the legal industry. Guests represent a diverse and exciting range of experiences but with one common thread, the pursuit of bettering the legal profession. 

Each episode explores the guest’s journey to leadership, the underlying principles that helped them make an impact, and devises ways listeners can apply these concepts in their own lives.

Subscribe or follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Audible, or anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. You can also follow @lawyerswholead on LinkedIn, and Twitter. Let's celebrate and continue to build a community of leaders in law together.

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About the Author

Written by Sigalle Barness

Sigalle champions and grows Lawline’s brand awareness through impactful stories that are authentic, meaningful, and thought provoking. She designs communications strategies that underscore the why and how behind Lawline's work. Sigalle is an avid lover of music, video games, blogging, asking questions and all things food. She is also fluent in Hebrew and enjoys writing fiction, traveling and scuba diving.

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