A Personal Story About Giving
I grew up in good living conditions, in suburban Denver.
But my parents grew up in poor conditions in rural Ireland. And my grandparents grew up in very, very poor conditions in rural Ireland.
My great-grandfather was beaten to death by the British army during the Irish revolution on Christmas Eve in 1921. This left my grandfather, who was six at the time, and his five brothers and sisters, to fend for themselves in near-starving conditions.
When I was kid, my grandfather and I were very close. He passed away in 2004, but when I was growing up, he was my hero. And I have powerful memories of the stories he told me of his own childhood, when he would often have to share dinner of just a single potato with his entire family.
I recognize that this sounds like the caricature of a poor Irish family. But for him it was reality. And I always knew by the tone of his voice that this was no exaggeration, that it was no joke. He grew up in a state of constant semi-starvation, and it was critical to him to make me understand that the good fortune that I had was not to be taken as a given. It mattered for him that I never took my prosperity for granted.
That’s a lesson I try never to forget.
I turned 40 recently. It was a milestone that got me thinking about vague and fuzzy notions like meaning and purpose. Life is short, of course. We know this. What we do with this knowledge is a little trickier.
Most of us start off with lofty notions of how we’re going to make a difference and change the world. But as life unfolds, it’s easy to put off changing the world until another day. There are bills and student loans and family obligations that are always eating up our time, resources, and attention.
But at some point we have to recognize, what my life has become is what I’m doing now. If I want to change the world, I have to get about it here and now.
Have you ever had a moment in your life when you looked at someone else and said to yourself: “whatever becomes of my life, I know that I don’t want to be like that”?
I had a moment like that when I was in law school.
When I went to law school, from 2003 to 2006, law firm recruiting at the biggest and most prestigious law firms was particularly obnoxious. At Duke, where I went to school, there would often be up to 500 firms competing for 200 lawyers, and so it was a rare situation when the interviewees had most of the power. This was before the great recession, and law firms had no shame about spending ridiculous amounts of money and making sure it looked like they were spending ridiculous amounts of money when they were recruiting new lawyers.
One recruiting dinner literally started off with a law partner at a major firm saying to the waiter, “whatever your most expensive bottle of wine is, I’d like one of those for every two people at the table.”
This of course all seemed very exciting at the time. I grew up in a frugal family of Irish immigrants, and so this was totally foreign to me. But as the night wore on and the drinks flowed, the veneer wore off the shiny façade of this fancy law firm world.
Toward the end of the night, I heard the same law firm partner who ordered the wine say, “you know what, if I died tomorrow, no one would give a damn. I’m just one more corporate lawyer. One falls down, bring another one in.”
Mind you, he was saying this to us, his law firm recruits, at a recruiting dinner.
Here was someone with as much good fortune as anyone on earth. Someone with health, wealth, and a life of endless opportunity, declaring that his life up to that point had been meaningless and without purpose.
I knew then and there that I did not want to be like that man.
I did go work at one of those firms for a few years, but after making a good dent in my six-figure student loans and getting some good experience, I decided to venture out on my own. That’s when I started this firm.
I bought the domain name for Colorado Startup Lawyer more than five years ago. We’ve since had over 300 clients. I still have to pinch myself when I realize that this law firm has become a real thing.
I didn’t get into the business of helping people start businesses because it was the most lucrative area of law. I know that people starting a new business are often—if not nearly always—struggling for cash.
I wanted to work with people who had the courage to start their own businesses because I wanted to work with people at the moment they were pursuing their dreams. Most lawyers only see people when they are at their worst. And we get some of that, too. But underlying it all is the thread of entrepreneurialism—people who have had the courage to challenge the status quo and do their own thing, against all odds. Five years later, that still doesn’t get old. That still gives what I do meaning and purpose.
Nonetheless, I believe that we as a firm can do more to give what we do meaning and purpose. I believe that our firm is at the forefront of a vibrant ecosystem of entrepreneurs who are making the world a better place. But I think that to make sure we don’t lose sight of that deeper meaning and purpose, we have to regularly commit to giving back.
That’s why I want to announce a couple of programs that we have started to show our commitment to making a difference in this world.
Effective November 1st of this year, our firm is going to give the first $100 we make from every new client to charity. We’re going to give 50% of that amount to effective altruist charities and the other 50% to local charities.
At our current rate of growth, according to the data from GiveWell, our clients will contribute to saving about one life every year.
How cool is that?
In addition, I personally am committing to giving away 10% of my income from the firm to charity. I will also give 5% to effective altruism charities and 5% to local charities. My law partner, Asa Garber, is also committed to giving at least 10% of his annual income to his favorite charities. In 2017, he gave nearly a quarter of his income to charity, which I might say, is both humbling and impressive.
To the extent that our firm has success, the least fortunate among us will receive a direct benefit from that success. And organizations that serve our communities will benefit as well.
For years, our firm has said that we are different. Now, we’re making a tangible and significant public financial commitment to underscore how that’s true.
We appreciate all that you have done to make our firm a success. We give thanks for your support, and we hope to earn your trust and commitment for many years to come.